By Jamie Bradburn, originally published January 26, 2012
Short-lived team fraught with controversies
Aging sports icons enjoying a second wind in their careers. Garishly coloured uniforms and equipment. Scantily clad cheerleaders that were a greater draw than the teams they supported. Underage players taking their first steps towards Hall-of-Fame careers. The two decades between the opening kickoff of the American Football League in 1960 and the final goal of the World Hockey Association(WHA) in 1979 were the glory days of upstart professional sports leagues, where a motley crew of investors and players added colour to the staid establishment. Toronto’s contribution to the fun was the Toros, whose three-year membership in the WHA was marked by family rivalries, local heroes, international defections, and a lot of money down the drain.
The Toros’ story began when an “Ontario” franchise was established after the initial batch of WHA franchises were granted in 1972. Initially earmarked for Hamilton, the team settled in Ottawa as the Nationals. The 1972/73 season resulted in a sub-.500 record, weak crowds, and a battle with civic officials over performance bonds for the following season. The Nationals shifted their playoff games to Maple Leaf Gardens as rumours arose around two groups interested in buying the team and shifting its operations permanently to Toronto. The frontrunner was Can Sports, a consortium of 26 investors headed by media heir John F. (Johnny) Bassett. Among the investors Bassett rounded up were McDonald’s Canada president George Cohon, Toronto Sun publisher Douglas Creighton, and future Maple Leafs owner Steve Stavro.
Bassett’s family were no strangers to pro hockey in Toronto. His father John was part of a triumvirate, along with Harold Ballard and Stafford Smythe, who ran the Maple Leafs in the 1960s. When Ballard and Smythe were charged with fraud and other financial misdeeds in 1969, the elder Bassett voted to have them removed from day-to-day management. A battle for control of the team ensued, which Ballard won. Harold’s son Bill, who watched over the family interests while Harold vacationed at Millhaven for a year, led the rival group interested in the Nationals. Local newspapers had a field day exaggerating a feud between the Bassett and Ballard families. After weeks of trading barbs, the Bassett group landed the franchise.
Bassett’s initial plan was to rent the CNE Coliseum (now the Ricoh Coliseum) for five years while a permanent new arena was developed. He proposed to pay $1.5 million for renovations that would have installed ice-making equipment and increased seating capacity by 3,000. While the CNE board of governors approved the plan, Metro Toronto politicians had other ideas. The plan’s fate was sealed when the Metro Parks Commission rejected it in a 4-3 vote in April 1973. Among the reasons the plan died were concerns about limited public ice time, tax responsibilities, the hastiness of the proposal, a feeling Metro Toronto wouldn’t receive its fair share of media rights and revenues, and warnings from trade associations that shows would move elsewhere if set-up and show times were restricted by the team’s home schedule. It was strongly suspected that Maple Leaf Gardens brass influenced the decision, as it still hoped to house the team.
The team’s name was chosen after a survey by an advertising agency. Among the names tossed on the scrap heap were Metros, Blues, Yorks, and Royals. The roster was stocked with several former Maple Leafs and Marlboros, with promises to pursue more players with Toronto links in future seasons. When the Coliseum plan failed, Bassett settled on Varsity Arena as the team’s initial home. With its low seating capacity (4,854 seats), management planned for an $800,000 loss during the Toros’ first campaign. An attempt to hold an exhibition game in Maple Leaf Gardens fizzled when the Ballards demanded 50% of the gate, so the game was moved to Kitchener.
The 1973/74 season opened at Varsity on October 7 against the Chicago Cougars. Jim Gault provided a sketch for Toronto Life:
Across the ice are musicians dressed in Mexican costumes (Toro=Bull; get it?). Toro directors and friends are easy to spot through the stands…studied casualness, Mr. Ivan hair, good tailors, good dentists. The guy behind me isn’t a director. He’s wearing a beat-old old hockey jacket and has a piercing whistle. He whistles every time a Toro is introduced. He whistles for Paul Godfrey and Dennis Flynn and a kid from Etobicoke who drops the first puck. He whistles for John Craig Eaton when he takes a bow as the chairman of the Toros’ board. Woman to my left has a cowbell she rings. Will she use it during the game? She doesn’t.
Good crowd, nearly capacity. Enthusiastic. Been hyped with all the advance promo…YOU WILL HAVE A GOOD TIME…YOU WILL HAVE A GOOD TIME. Toros currying the lumpenproleteriat. Circus atmosphere contrived, doesn’t last. First period against Cougars dreadful. Looks like industrial league game. Game gets better…no worse on whole that some Leaf games last year. Ends tied 4-4. Good beginning in Toronto.
Under the guidance of coach Billy Harris, the Toros finished second in the WHA’s Eastern Division with a 41-33-4 record. The team moved into Maple Leaf Gardens for the playoffs and had a longer postseason run than the Maple Leafs, reaching the Avco Cup semi-finals before falling to the Cleveland Crusaders in seven games.
Confidence was high as the Toros headed into the 1974/75 season. June saw two long-awaited signings of former Maple Leafs. One was Frank Mahovlich, a star in Toronto during the 1960s until disagreements with coach/general manager Punch Imlach saw him shipped off to Detroit in 1968. Among the players the Maple Leafs received for “the Big M” was the Toros’ other major signing, 1972 Summit Series icon Paul Henderson. Foreign intrigue dominated the team’s headlines in July when Czech defectors Vaclav Nedomansky and Richard Farda were signed while they hid in Switzerland. Nedomansky was tempted by an offer from the NHL’s Atlanta Flames but chose the Toros partly because Toronto had a larger Czech émigré community than Atlanta.
The Toros finished their second season with a near-identical record to their first (43-33-2, second in the new Canadian division). The team moved into Maple Leafs Gardens, despite unfavourable lease conditions imposed by Harold Ballard that deepened the team’s growing financial problems. Ballard, one of the loudest opponents of recurrent proposals to merge the NHL and WHA, charged the Toros $15,000 rent per game, with an additional $3,500 charge for televised games. He also forced the Toros to build their own dressing room, charged extra to raise the lighting levels, and removed the cushions from the home bench. Turmoil in Toros management was apparent when Harris refused to resign as coach towards the end of the season, choosing to take a “leave of absence” that never ended. Interim coach Bob Leduc guided the team to a first round loss to the San Diego Mariners.
With the effects of Ballard’s lease terms, low season ticket sales, and overspending on player contracts taking a toll on team finances, Bassett refinanced the team before the 1975/76 season and dropped hints that the Toros might abandon Toronto for Hamilton. Controversy erupted when Marlboros right winger Mark Napier was signed to a contract for the 1975/76 season-Napier was 18, two years younger than an unwritten agreement the WHA had with junior leagues not to sign any players under the age of 20. The off-season also saw promising players Wayne Dillon and Pat Hickey bolt to the NHL and flakey goalie Gilles Gratton (who often claimed his injuries were suffered during wars fought in previous lives and admitted he didn’t like hockey) depart the team.
Former Maple Leaf Bob Baun was hired to coach but clashed with players over their work ethic. The low point of the season was an 8-2 lead over Cleveland that turned into a 10-9 loss, resulting in $500 fines for every player (later rescinded). Baun was fired in February 1976 after having been given a leave of absence in December to “ponder his future.” GM Gilles Leger coached the rest of the season, which saw the Toros post the worst record in the league (24-52-5). Despite their ineptitude, two players received league awards: Napier (Rookie of the Year) and Nedomansky (Paul Deneau Trophy for most gentlemanly player).
After the Toros’ final game (a 5-4 loss in overtime to the Quebec Nordiques), it became a matter of where, not if, the team would move for the 1976/77 season. A last-ditch telephone blitz failed to bring in any new season ticket holders (the arrival of the Blue Jays was blamed as a factor), so Bassett entertained offers from several American cities. After flirting with Miami and St. Paul, the team moved to the hockey hotbed of Birmingham, Alabama and operated as the Bulls until the demise of the WHA in 1979.
When asked how he felt about the adventures of the Toros, Bassett said he felt “disappointed because I know there is a market here and we couldn’t crack it. We gave it our best shot. We made a lot of fans and friends and if we had done a better job on and off the ice we could have made it.”
Additional material from the November 1973 issue of Toronto Life and the May 5, 1976 edition of The Toronto Sun.” Portions of this article were originally published on Torontoist.” (http://torontoist.com/2008/10/historicist_good_hockey_good_fun/)