toros, toros, toros

The Toronto Toros began their brief life in the World Hockey Association as the Ottawa Nationals, and they ended it as Birmingham, Alabama’s own Bulls. The Toros played just three seasons, starting in the fall of 1973. They were gone by 1976. Their best year was that first one, when they played in the division finals, before losing to the Chicago Cougars.

This weekend, the drove of elder Toro alumni that gathered for a private reunion at the Toronto home of historian and collector Mike Wilson included Frank Mahovlich, Paul Henderson, Vaclav Nedomansky, Wayne Carleton, Gilles Gratton, and Rick Vaive. Herewith, a look back at some Toro luminaries and some of their selected milestones.

June, 1973

A group of businessman headed by John F. Bassett had bought the Nationals for $1.8-million. The players they inherited included rising talents like Tom Simpson and Gavin Kirk as well as veterans like Les Binkley. It wasn’t long before the team was introducing itself to the city it was now calling home.

While Toros doesn’t have the euphemistic ring to it Bassett Hounds had, it was market-tested from a hatful of 80 different names, including Twinkies and Tweedies.

The color combination was the survivor of 23 combinations, but it put the Toros in direct competition with league rivals Winnipeg Jets. However, there will be no conflict in color schemes, because road uniforms are a strong contrast to home uniforms.

There had been anticipation that Bassett was about to reveal the signing of Darryl Sittler, or Paulin Bordeleau, or Syl Apps — or even announce the site of their home games — but he could reveal nothing new on these subjects.

• Gord Walker, The Globe and Mail, June 12, 1973

July, 1973

The Toros did find a home: Varsity Arena (or as The Globe and Mail had it in an early summer story, “Variety Arena”). A month into the team’s history, Bassett announced that they’d sold approximately 2,400 season’s tickets for a rink with a capacity of 4,800.

“That’s pretty encouraging.”

The Toros have been unable to tempt any player into abandoning the National Hockey League, although they had Darryl Sittler wavering for a while. Perhaps they were consoled in that they helped make him a rich man. He signed with Toronto Maple Leafs, supposedly for $750,000.

There were rumors that the Toros might try to sign Alex Delvecchio, 42-year-old centre of Detroit Red Wings.

“We’re not interested in Delvecchio,” said Bassett. “I’m not denigrating him as a player but we did very well in the draft and we think we’re all right.”

In the same article, Bassett shared his vision of the future, which turned out to be more or less on the money, give or take four years:

He assumes it is evitable that the WHA will merge with the NHL. He figures this will happen within two years, “at the very outside.”

• The Globe and Mail, July 26, 1973

October, 1973

The Toros played their first game, in Toronto, at Varsity Arena, a 4-4 tie with the Chicago Cougars.

After four years of looking at a pillar in Maple Leaf Gardens, Michael Lynch “decided to pack it in and come down here.”

“Here” was little Varsity Arena, all spruced up with shiny red paint last night to welcome 4,753 hockey fans and The Toronto Toros, the World Hockey Association’s alternative to the Leafs.

It was the Toros’ first night in Toronto, an event quite unlike Hockey Night in Canada, which for people like Michael Lynch was just fine.

Bob Garbutt, 26, was there “because I think the Leafs have ripped off the citizens of Toronto long enough. They’re getting too big for Toronto. The city is going to win this team [sic].”

“The Leafs have become too sophisticated,” added Bill McQuaid, 25. “I think this league’s got a good chance of going places — and I like to back an underdog.”

• Elaine Carey, The Toronto Star, October 8, 1973

June 1974

All-Canadian hero Paul Henderson, 31, signed on for a five-year term with the team. That same month, 36-year-old Frank Mahovlich signed a four-year deal. His terms were said to amount to $1-million of the course of the contract. Henderson wasn’t talking about his:

He refused to disclose the financial terms of his contract, but said, “I’m not making a million dollars.”

• Associated Press, June 11, 1974

July, 1974

When the Toros added another player that summer, The Toronto Star made room on its front page for the news, with a story headlined “Czechs’ Gordie Howe defects to the Toros.”

His name is Vaclav Nedomansky and he’s known in international hockey as Big Ned.

He’s 30 years old, he’s a centre and he has been an amateur star for 12 years, the latter years as captain of the Czech national team.

Ron Bull, information officer with Manpower and Immigration in Toronto, said today that Nedomansky is in Canada as a legitimate landed immigrant, not as one seeking political asylum.

“He was on holiday in Switzerland and while there applied to Swiss authorities for asylum,” Bull explained. “During this period he also applied to the Canadian immigration office for landed immigrant status.

“The office in Berne is not a busy one and because of this his application was processed quickly,” Bull said.

“He had a job offer to play professional hockey. Because he is a good hockey player with a high degree of skill he was given high points for this. Good hockey players are in high demand in Canada.”

• The Toronto Star, July 18, 1974

October, 1974

The Toros eventually moved from Varsity Arena over to a Carleton Street address, where they rented Leaf ice from Leaf owner Harold Ballard.

A crowd of 14,141 turned out at Maple Leaf Gardens to see Hull and his Jets go against the Toros who emerged with a 3-1 victory.

“It really felt like a hockey game with all those people here,” said Toros winger Paul Henderson who has been accustomed to crowds of more than 16,000 when he played for the National League Toronto Maple Leafs until last year.

The Toros averaged a little more than 4,000 fans for their games last season at Varsity Arena and averaged about 8,000 in their first four games this season at the Gardens.

• Canadian Press, Ottawa Citizen, October 25, 1974

March, 1975

The heart of a young Toros’ goaltender goes out to 50something former Leaf great Johnny Bower, who’s taking a turn in the practice nets for Toronto NHL team one day on Gardens ice.

If Bower looked behind him, back of the protective glass, he would see a young man with somewhat the air of a street punk passing by. He is Gilles Gratton, 22, who plays goal for Toronto’s WHA entry, the Toros, and is on the first year of a five-year contract that will pay him $645,000. The Toros practised earlier, and Gratton is on his way to the parking lot; in his pocket, fingers play against the keys of a canary yellow Porsche 911-S Targa — value: $16,670 — which was provided by the Toros free of charge. Every two years he gets a new one; it’s in his contract. When Maple Leaf practice is over Johnny Bower will change into gray flannel slacks and a blue Maple Leaf blazer. The blazer is provided.

“Just look at him, Gratton says, obviously impressed with Bower’s ancient abilities. “I’ll never be half the goaltender he was. But I’ll make more in the next five years than he made in his life. All he ever he had was hockey — it was his work, man, and that’s why he couldn’t walk away from it. I see somebody like Bower playing and it makes me sad. For him there was nothing else.”

• Roy MacGregor, Ottawa Citizen, March 27, 1975

December, 1975

Nedomansky made an impression in his first North American season, though perhaps not quite the one that he and everyone else had hoped for.

“We were somewhat disappointed,” says former Toros general manager Buck Houle, fired at the start of this season in a front-office shuffle. We thought he’d get at least 50 goals, probably more. We thought he’d show more leadership than he did. Mind you, there were adjustments for him. It was all new. Still, we thought he could have been more aggressive than he was.

“He’s the greatest centre in hockey,” says Toro owner Johnny F. Bassett, “but if he used the body more, he’d have been even better.”

“Vaclav was better in Czechoslovakia,” says Zoltan Sausik, a Toronto businessman and Czech Canadian who knew Big Ned back home. “Here he seemed lost sometimes. He must play the Canadian way more. He must hit more, he must shoot more.”

Big Ned smiles, shakes his head. “You must understand, it is much different for me,” he says in his fast-improving English. “The ice is much smaller. I turn around and — boom — there are the boards. Everybody thinks I must be a big star, I must score many goals. Why? Hockey is for six players, not one player. Here it is one player all the time. Always he wants to keep the puck and score the goal because the scoring championship is a big, big thing. It is too big. It is not important what one player does. For me, it is better to do what is good for the team, not for me. You understand? Hitting is the same. I can be rough too but hockey is hitting puck with the stick — not hitting the player.”

• Earl McRae, Montreal Gazette, December 5, 1975

 April, 1976

Talk of the Toros’ demise — or at least, their departure — circulated for months.

“I just don’t know,” Bassett said when asked if the Toros would be back at Maple Leaf Gardens next season. There had been talk that the team might move to Hollywood, Fla., if attendance at home games did not pick up. The Toros played to much larger crowds after the rumors of the move were reported.

• Associated Press, April 5, 1976

May, 1976

The end came quickly. Way to go, Blue Jays.

The Toronto Toros are leaving town.

The team’s last-ditch attempt to gain a foothold on the local hockey market was abandoned yesterday, three seasons and about $4 million in losses after the World Hockey Association club burst onto the Toronto scene as the alternative to the Maple Leafs.

Heavy financial losses — $1.5 million on last season’s operations alone — plus failure of a recent season ticket drive, were principal factors in team president Johnny Bassett’s decision to move the franchise.

Bassett listed the arrival of major league baseball in Toronto and the World Cup hockey tournament to be played next fall as factors in his decision to move.

• Jim Kernaghan, The Toronto Star, May 5, 1976