The WHA Denver Spurs
Before the first brick was set, the people who ended up deciding the fate of the Denver Spurs were readying their doom and gloom prophecies to write on the wall, spelling a quick end to the franchise.
The failure of the team wasn't from a lack of trying. On the contrary, gimmicks and giveaways were used to stimulate any kind of excitement for the team but all failed.
The story of the Spurs goes back to 1968 and the teams inclusion in the Western Hockey League (WHL). The name, Spurs, was chosen from thousands of entries in a "pick the name of the team" style contest. A panel of sportswriters and broadcasters chose the name and gave the person with the winning entry $500 and two season tickets.
After six years in the WHL and one year in the CHL, the owner of the team, Ike Mullenix, opted to accept a franchise in the WHA in the spring of 1975 in what was termed by local papers as an "11th hour move". Season ticket holders for the Spurs who were banking on an NHL franchise were very disappointed.
Certainly there were reasons for the people who wanted to see the NHL in Denver to be optimistic before Mullenix accepted the WHA franchise offer. McNichols Sports Arena was a "plush" and brand new facility and the WHL and CHL teams had a respectable minor league following. However, after hearing the WHA announcement, the hockey faithful became pessimistic and non-supportive to say the least.
"I hate to see minor-league hockey back," a Denver lawyer said in a Denver Post article on the Spurs expansion. "They (the Spurs) advertised the NHL for three years and I bought season tickets. I was one of the victims," the article went on to state.
Other comments such as, "... I think the deal stinks" and "I feel it was a waste of money to build the new arena," illustrated how unhappy people were with the acceptance of a WHA franchise by Mullenix.
Nevertheless, the team moved forward.
First thing Mullenix did was drop ticket prices from the $5-$9 range that was proposed when he was courting the NHL to $4-$8.
Coach Jean Guy Talbot then went about assembling the team. Barry Legge, J.P. LeBlanc and Gary Bredin were added to the team from the defunct Baltimore Blades and Brian Gibbons was added in the intraleague draft from the Toronto Toros to round out the roster of 19.
With a team dressed, the Spurs began their three-month fouray into the WHA with an exhibition game against the Houston Aeros at McNichols Arena in the fall of 1975. Before the opening faceoff, the problems for the franchise began to mount.
No beer was served at the game because the team couldn't secure a liquor license, the National Anthem was performed but there was no flag to face during the song and the clocks weren't working at Big Mac that night, which was perfectly symbolic of the fact that time had already run out on the team's stay in Denver.
Even with these inconveniences, the 5,003 sober fans in the 16,800 seat arena saw old-time hockey at its finest. There were five fighting majors and 85 PIM assessed in the 4-3 game won by the Aeros.
Gary MacGregor scored the first goal on the first shot for the Denver Spurs as he snuck one by Aeros' goalie Ron Grahame. Fans also saw legend Gordie Howe, who described himself as "poetry in slow motion" in a pregame ceremony, get an assist on the game winning goal by his son Mark Howe for the Aeros. Spur goalie Bob Johnson took the loss.
A dismal exhibition season led to the opening of a bad season. But there was hope that the Spurs would start out with a win. Their first regular season game was against the Indianapolis Racers, the worst team in the league for the 74/75 season.
At 7:24 of the first period, Spur forward Frank Rochon scored the first regular season goal for the team on a pass from Mark Lomenda, which put the Spurs up 1-0. Like all home games for the Spurs, the crowd's roar after the goal was more on par with that of a ticked off cat then a mighty lion. The announced attendance was 5,016.
The brief ray of hope quickly disappeared as the Racers answered with seven goals of their own to win the game 7-1.
The Spurs had their share of interesting stories as well. Violence in hockey was really starting to pick up. Players such as Jim Clackson (Racers), Curt Brackenbury (Fighting Saints), Jack Carlson (Fighting Saints) and Gord Gallant (Nordiques) were all notorious goons in the WHA. To protest the escalating violence in the WHA, Bobby Hull, Winnipeg Jets superstar, chose
a game against the Spurs to sitout as a form of protest.
BREAKAWAY!! A Familiar Site to Spurs' Goalies
The Spurs also had on their roster a man named Bill Goldthorpe. Goldthorpe was probably the most famous goon in the history of the league for one reason: He was the hockey player that inspired the infamous character "Ogie Oglethorpe" in the movie Slapshot. Goldthorpe got no points and amassed 31 pim in 12 Spur/Civics games.
From The Complete Historical and Statistical Reference to the WHA
Picture of Bill Goldthorpe
Goldthorpe in Action as a San Diego Mariner
The season dragged on for the Spurs. The losses mounted and the start of the regular season did nothing to help the dismal attendance. To help stem certain financial failure, owner Ike Mullenix decided to rely on gimmicks to boost fan support.
However, promotions such as the "Ice Quake" did little to help the financial solvency of the club.
Mullenix dropped ticket prices to $4.40 for every seat in McNichols for a game against the 1974/75 Eastern Division Champion New England Whalers. Despite the move, only 4,399 attended the game.
Frank Rochon, Ralph Backstrom, Darry Maggs, and Don Borgeson (two goals) scored for the Spurs in the 5-1 Spur victory.
Ron Delorme Celebrates Spur Goal in "Ice Quake" Game
Lowering ticket prices didn't help attendance so Mullenix went one step further, he practically gave tickets away. Still, there were few takers.
B.Y.O.B (Bring Your Own Buddy) night against Phoenix Roadrunners later in the season was a failure. It was a "two-for-one" plan where if you bought a ticket you could bring a friend for free. The offer only netted a total of 4,681 fans. Then Mullenix broke the cardinal rule of hockey, he guaranteed a win and backed it up with money.
The one thing you don't do if you are an expansion club owner is to give free tickets away to all those in attendance if the team loses on a particular night.
A picture from "Guarantee Win" night
"Guarantee Win" night was dubbed "Guaranteed Futility" by Denver paper the Rocky Mountain News.
The Calgary Cowboys won the game 6-2. The outcome wasn't anything new to the Spurs and neither was the night's attendance. Only 3,957 showed for the game. (I couldn't find how many showed up with their free tickets for the next home game. I'm sure it would have been a very telling number.)
Failing to win on the ice did its part in failing to win fans. All the promotions in the world won't make up for a losing team.
The franchise closed up shop and left Denver in the middle of the night on Friday Jan 2, 1976 and moved to Ottawa where they folded about two weeks later despite better attendance numbers.
The death blow came when owner Mullenix couldn't meet the payroll. The Spurs (in Ottawa, the Civics) began selling players. Darryl Maggs, Bryon Baltimore, Frank Rochon and Mark Lomenda ended up with the Indianapolis Racers. Captain Ralph Backstrom was taken by the New England Whalers, one of the more profitable clubs in the league. Barry Legge and Gary MacGregor were sold outright to Cleveland.
The problems didn't end there for the franchise. Mullenix still owed back taxes in Denver. The final humiliation was the auction at McNichols Arena. Everything had to go. In a scene reminiscent of the general manager trying to sell all the Charleston Chiefs equipment, including the bus, in the movie Slapshot, Denver city officials sold everything from office equipment to hockey sticks, which were sold in bundles of 12 for about $25, to recover the back taxes.
The front page of the Rocky Mountain News on Jan 29, 1976 showed a picture of an auction official holding up a bundle of used sticks in front of about 500 people. It was a clear indication that the end of the Spurs was official.
NHL hockey would come and go with the Colorado Rockies. Minor league teams such as the Denver Rangers and the Denver Grizzlies of the IHL and the Colorado Flames would also call Colorado home for a season or two in two different later decades.
College hockey always had a good following with power houses Colorado College and Denver University, but it wasn't until the Avalanche managed to sustain a fan base here that professional hockey finally took root.
Photocopies taken from the Rocky Mountain News
Color photo of Goldthorpe taken from Video (no name)