An Anecdotal History of the WHA Michigan Stags
Hockey fans with long memories remember the World Hockey Association as an upstart enterprise strong on ambition and innovation but light on cash and principle. Overall play may not have approached the talent level of the National Hockey League, but individually the WHA boasted some of the sport’s greatest names during its seven seasons of existence, ranging from established stars like Gordie Howe to promising youngsters like Wayne Gretzky.
Viewed at from different angles, the WHA either was a much-needed force for change in the game–or a circus run by carpetbaggers. Winnipeg’s shocking signing of Chicago Blackhawks superstar Bobby Hull to a $2.75-million contract in 1972 had the effect of boosting artificially low salaries across the board. But with the big bucks came player agents (practically unheard of in the NHL before then) and franchise-hopping on an unprecedented scale. Between 1972 and 1979, the WHA fielded 32 teams in 24 different cities. Only four would ultimately survive.
Curiously, although Detroit has always been recognized as a hockey hotbed, the city had a WHA franchise for just a few months. In the summer of 1974, Chuck Nolton and Pete Shogun, a couple of local entrepreneurs with interests in the chemical business, bought the moribund Los Angeles Sharks. They moved the franchise to Detroit and renamed it the Michigan Stags.
The Stags, coached by ex-Wings player and coach Johnny Wilson, held its training camp at the University of Michigan’s Yost Arena. The team got little respect. A circus kept them out of their home, Cobo Arena, until the seventh game of the season. The play-by-play announcer for their inaugural game, a veteran broadcaster, was so underwhelmed by the assignment that he didn’t even bother to study the roster before going on the air. “Number 14 passes to number 8,” he told his audience. “He takes it into the corner and passes to number 16….”
The Michigan Stags quickly proved to be a disaster, financially and competitively. Attendance fell far short of what was needed for the club to break even. “I’d say they’d draw a couple of thousand a game,” recalled Jack Berry, then the hockey writer for The Detroit News. “You never had to worry about finding a parking space, I remember that.”
Defenseman Larry Johnston played three seasons with the Red Wings before signing with the Stags. “I got a little more money,” he recalled. “I thought they’d stay around for awhile. Instead it was a disaster.”
According to Johnston, the new owners didn’t realize how much money it took to operate a professional hockey team. They were strapped for cash straight out of the gate. “Hotels wouldn’t let us check in on credit, so we had to sit around in the lobby until somebody came up with the money to pay for the rooms in cash,” he said. “We’d get off an airplane and the bus driver wouldn’t take off until he was paid in advance. All of our sticks were neutrals; they’d gotten them wholesale from some place. It was all pretty sad.”
The Stags’ offense featured Marc Tardif, an accomplished scorer who had jumped from the Montreal Canadiens to Los Angeles the previous season. The 25-year-old left winger started the 1974-75 campaign with the Stags and finished it with Quebec, bagging 50 goal between the two teams. He went on to capture a couple of scoring titles in a Quebec uniform, including a WHA record 154 points in 1977-78. His point totals predictably went down when he returned to the NHL, but he was still good for 25 to 30 goals a season playing in the senior circuit. All told, he popped 510 pucks into NHL and WHA nets during his 14-year, two-league career.
Another Stag worth mentioning was a husky forward from Royal Oak named Bill Evo. The former Peterboro Pete had been selected by the Red Wings in the third round of the 1974 draft, but he opted to sign with the Stags. After five WHA seasons, including stints with Cleveland and Edmonton, he quit hockey to pursue law career. In 1995, Evo was named the Wings’ president, partially because of the experience he had gained in the WHA. Part of that experience was being informed in the middle of a road trip that the Stags’ owners had defaulted. This occurred in early 1975, when creditors caught up to the Stags in Cleveland.
“That last game they weren’t even the Stags,” Jack Berry recalled. “That night when the players trooped into Richfield Arena, they had their jerseys taken away from them.” The Stags’ red, green, and brown uniforms were replaced with generic, logo-less outfits. Afterwards, the players were free to strike their own deal. Many wound up in Baltimore, where the franchise was resuscitated as the Blades.
The Michigan-Baltimore club, which scored fewer goals and surrendered more than any other team in the league, finished with a 21-53-4 record for 46 points. Only the expansion Indianapolis Racers had a worse record. The Racers, at least, quickly turned things around and won a division title the next season. The Baltimore franchise folded.
The Stags’ owners need not have felt bad. More franchise shifts and failures followed. In four years the WHA shrank from an ambitious three-division, 14-team league to a barely breathing circuit of six clubs, four of which (Winnipeg, New England, Quebec, and Edmonton) were absorbed into the NHL for the 1979-80 season.
Asked to summarize the brief history of the World Hockey Association, Jack Berry responded: “The players weren’t as skilled as those in the NHL, but they were entertaining. It was certainly minor-league hockey. But you know what? Today, with expansion, all of those guys would be playing in the NHL.”
The Formation Of The World Hockey Association
In 1972 the only real threat ever to the NHL's dominance of the hockey world began when Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson formed the World Hockey Association. No strangers to starting rebel sports leagues, they were also behind the defunct by now American Basketball Association, and would later start up the United States Football League. Officially announced on June 10, 1971 in New York, the WHA's philosophy was relatively simple - establish themselves in cities shunned by the NHL (many Canadian), as well as set up base in North America's media centres, competing head-on with the competition.
On Nov 1, 1971, Murphy and Davidson announced the 10 charter cities would be Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Dayton Ohio, Long Island NY, and St Paul Minnesota, with themselves owning a club in San Fransisco. Three weeks later, two more franchises were added to the roster, with the New England Whalers anchoring themselves in Boston and a team to travel the highway between Ottawa and Toronto. But before the first puck was dropped however, several shufflings occurred after the NHL announced it's own expansion to Long Island and Atlanta.
Disgruntled after learning they'd be sharing Nassau County Coliseum with the Islanders, the upstart Raiders moved upriver to Manhattan. Fearing the Southern United states couldn't support two teams in a new sport for the region, the Screaming Eagles were also on the fly, nesting in Philadelphia as the Blazers. Though they weren't in fear of competing with the NHL in that market, the owners of the Dayton Aeros weren't pleased with initial interest and they moved to Texas, another hockey-virgin state, making Houston their home. But feeling a presence in Ohio was integral to the survival of the league, the league herded up the Calgary Broncos and moved them to Cleveland, where they became the Crusaders. This forced Edmonton to share the Oilers (basically the evolution of the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings) with Calgary under the monikor 'the Alberta Oilers'. And when the owners of the team proposed for Ontario couldn't come to an agreement with Harold Ballard to share Maple Leaf Gardens, the club was moved to Ottawa full time and named The Nationals. The obvious conflict of interest Davidson and Murphy were faced with by owning a club as well as the league prompted prompted them to sell the San Fransisco Seahawks to a group in Quebec. A deal with Le Colisee in Quebec City was reached and Les Nordiques (the Northerners) were born.
The league knew that in order to survive, they'd have to raid the NHL of some marquee players and held their initial draft in 1972. Each team was allowed to protect four players. Although a few young minor leaguers and Olympians who the owners were hoping to build the future around were on the list, mostly major stars from the NHL had their WHA rights reserved. Most aggressive in trying to lure NHL'ers over to the other side were the Chicago and Quebec camps. Their general philosophy was to get names already known and loved by Les Canadiens and Black Hawks fans. Jerry Korab, Stan Mikita and goalie Gary Smith were originally courted, but none jumped ship. Other names to initially be approached by the WHA included goalies Gerry Desjardins (also of the Hawks), Ken Dryden, Phil Myre, Doug Favell, Gilles Villemeure and Eddie Johnston, as well as Gilbert Perrault, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lapointe, Brad Park, Peter Mahovlich, Steve Shutt and Bobby Clarke. Although most of those courted remained in the NHL, The Maple Leafs' Bernie Parent was first to cross the line, signing with Miami. But it was Bobby Hull's inking a deal what at the time was the most ever paid to a hockey player with Winnipeg that got the attention. Eager to have arguably the top player in the game in the new league, the $1 million signing bonus was chipped in by all teams as well as league officials. This opened the doors for several other 'names' jumping ship, including the Blazers who signed the Bruins' Derek Sanderson and the Flyers' Andre Lacroix & Bernie Parent. Cleveland signed Gerry Cheevers, Chicago came to terms with ex-Hawks Pat Stapleton and Ralph Backstrom, then with the New York Rangers. Quebec meanwhile employed the same tactic, signing several players in the Montreal lineup including Jean Claude Tremblay and Rejean Houle, as well as many in Les Canadiens' farm system.
Another key to presenting the new league as an 'alternative' was to use red and blue pucks. Naturally this added to the 'curiosity factor' the media was already feeding on. Although they'd lost a few key players, the NHL wasn't taking the new kids on the block too seriously ... in public. But placing teams in Long Isand and Atlanta to rival the WHA's plans in those markets told a different story. The key would be media coverage - and for the most part television coverage during the first year was rather indifferent. But as the league's inaugural season drew closer, areas too small by NHL standards such as Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg embraced the new league whole heartedly.