whale music

The New England Whalers compiled the best regular-season record over the course of the WHA’s inaugural season, 1972-73. And on a Sunday of this date 48 years ago, the Whalers beat Bobby Hull’s Winnipeg Jets to earn the Avco World Trophy in five games — even though, sorry to say, the actual cup wasn’t on hand at Boston Garden for the occasion.

Al Smith was New England’s goaltender in that decisive game, and his preventative measures were sufficient to see the home team to a 9-6 win over the Jets. Right winger Tom Webster scored two goals for New England and added two assists; centre Larry Pleau chipped in with a pair of goals of his own. Webster, 24, had led the Whalers in scoring through the season, notching 53 goals and 103 points, which tied him for fourth on the league list— with Bobby Hull, among others — behind Andre Lacroix of the Philadelphia Blazers, who collected 50 goals and 124 points.

suitcase and his socks

Luggage On The Left Coast: Gary Smith guarded Vancouver nets from 1973 through 1976.

Born in Ottawa on a Friday of this date in 1944, goaltender Gary Smith is 77 today. The nicknames he acquired during his career don’t really need a whole lot of explication, but here goes: Suitcase referenced his travels around the NHL, WHA, and minor leagues, wherein he played for 13 teams in 16 seasons during the 1960s and ’70s; Axe underscored his propensity for swinging sticks at passing opponents. His father, Des Smith, played defence starting in the late 1930s for four NHL teams, including Boston; brother Brian was a left winger for Los Angeles and Minnesota in the latter ’60s. Gary shared a Vézina Trophy with Tony Esposito for their work in the Chicago Black Hawks’ crease in 1972, and Smith backstopped the WHA Winnipeg Jets to the 1979 Avco Cup.

The following year was Smith’s last in hockey; it happened to be Winnipeg’s first in the NHL. Defenceman Barry Melrose was a teammate that season, and it’s to him we go for this news of Smith’s in-game rituals.

“He wore 13 pairs of socks in his goalie skates,” Melrose recollected in 2009, “because he hated pucks hitting his feet. He also wore long underwear and after every period, he took off all his gar and had a cold shower. Can you imagine the laundry the trainers had to do? It was 50-some socks per game plus four sets of underwear. The Axe was a weird dude.”

portage & avco & main

We Are The Champions: At the end of May of 1976, to finish up the WHA’s fourth season on ice, the Avco World Trophy landed in Winnipeg as the Jets won the first of their three league championships, capsizing Gordie Howe’s Houston Aeros in four straight games. The deciding game was no contest, with Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Bobby Hull, and company deluging the defending champions by a score of 9-1. “Those guys could have played the Montreal Canadiens tonight and beat them,” said a dispirited Houston coach Bill Dineen. The next day, a Friday of this date, with a band of bagpipers leading the way, the Jets paraded their cup through downtown Winnipeg and a crowd estimated at 15,000 to 20,000. That’s Jets captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg here, hoisting the hardware at Portage and Main. (Image: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, PC18, A84-09)

 

 

texas toast

Kiss For A Cup: Houston’s own Aeros claimed the WHA’s championship on a Sunday of this date in 1974, downing the Chicago Cougars 6-2 at the Sam Houston Coliseum to sweep up the Avco World Trophy in four games. That’s winger Frank Hughes showing his affection here, with defenceman Mark Howe in the background. The latter was 18, while his teammate, and brother, Marty, had just turned 19. At 46, their venerable father, Gordie, led the Aeros in regular-season scoring that season, piling up 31 goals and 100 points, then adding another 17 points in 13 playoff games. Winning the WHA title 46 years ago, Howe Major declared that hockey had granted him no greater satisfaction. “When you give up the game and then you come back and play with your two sons and win the World Cup to boot,” he said, “that has to be the greatest thrill.”

whalers won, but the cup was a no-show

No Show: The New England Whalers eventually got to see the Avco World Trophy in all its Lucite and Britannia silver glory, but on the May day they won it in 1973, the winners of the first WHA championship had to make do with a stand-in.

Ted Green won a Stanley Cup in 1972, his second as an unforgiving defenceman on the Boston Bruins’ blueline, but by all accounts it was a forlorn experience for the 32 veteran of 11 seasons. “The man nobody seems to care about anymore,” a columnist called him a couple of May days before the Bruins claimed the Cup with a 3-0 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. “The only time Green ever gets on the ice is when [Bobby] Orr needs a quick ice pack on his sore knee.”

He’d slowed down, lost his edge, his grit. “The fans at Boston Garden were tolerant of him for a long time,” Dwayne Netland wrote in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “They cheered his good plays and ignored his mistakes, but finally they turned on him and now they roast him for every bad pass, every missed check.” Bruins’ coach Tom Johnson’s merciful solution: “He just doesn’t put Green on the ice unless he has to.” Game five at the Boston Garden, with Orr playing every shift, Green took none: he never left the bench. “He had not felt part of the team, part of the victory,” Fran Rosa later recalled in the local Globe. When the Bruins returned to Boston with the Cup, Green slipped away from his teammates and the crowds awaiting them at Logan Airport to hitchhike into the city on his own.

That sad story got a happy ending: a year later, almost to the day, Green was back at Boston Garden captaining his new team to a championship, the very first in WHA history. Forty-seven years ago today, on a Sunday of this date in 1973, Green’s New England Whalers beat Bobby Hull’s Winnipeg Jets to claim the inaugural Avco World Trophy in five games.

“I can’t say I was thinking about last year,” Green said in the aftermath. “When they gave me the cup and told me to skate around with it, I might have thought a little about Johnny Bucyk skating around with the Stanley Cup last year.”

In The Moment: Ted Green and (not the Avco) cup on the ice at Boston Garden on May 6, 1973.

Green’s joyful teammates that day included Larry Pleau, Tom Webster, Rick Ley, and goaltender Al Smith. Together they paraded their cup and kissed it, filled it with Gold Seal champagne, which they drank and also dumped on one another.

But if the feeling was right, the cup was (as Fran Rosa put it) wrong: instead of the Avco World Trophy, the silverware that WHA president Gary Davidson handed to Green was a stand-in. The next day’s Boston Globe identified it as “the Division Cup” — i.e. the Whalers’ reward for topping the WHA’s Eastern bracket.

Whalers’ owner Harold Baldwin told Ed Willes a different tale for the latter’s 2004 history, The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association. While the league had sold naming rights for the cup to Avco Financial Services before the season started, it occurred to Baldwin ahead of game five that he had yet to see an actual trophy.

“Everyone’s going, ‘Where’s the Cup? We don’t have a Cup,’” he told Willes. “I sent my PR guy out, and he came back with this huge trophy he bought from a sporting-goods store. I think it cost $1.99, but it looked good on television. It kind of looked like the U.S. Open tennis trophy.”

With Steve Milton assisting on the writing, Baldwin published his own memoir in 2014, and in Slim To None: My Wild Ride From The WHA To The NHL All The Way to Hollywood, he refines the story a little. “Right before the game I had this vague feeling I’d never seen the league championship trophy,” he writes. This time it’s his co-owner, Bill Barnes, who dispatches an unnamed PR guy to a local sporting goods store. “He comes back with this large trophy that cost 20 bucks. It was cheap but big, and it was shiny, so it looked good on 1973 television.”

No word on what became of that temporary trophy after its brief fling with the limelight. Let me know if you have it, or know where it ended up.

The real thing was designed in Toronto by Donald Murphy, creative director of the ad firm Vickers and Benson, and rendered, in all its Lucite and Britannia-silver’d glory, by Birks jewelers at a cost of $8,000 (about $50,500 in 2020 money).

The first public sighting Boston seems to have had of the Avco World Trophy, as far as I can discern, came in September of ’73, at an event at a new restaurant on the city’s waterfront. I don’t know if there was a formal presentation. Accounts of the Whalers’ 1973-74 home opener that October don’t mention it.

Back in May, while Ted Green still had the faux Avco in his clutches back at the Boston Garden, Howard Baldwin was quick to issue a Stanley Cup challenge. The Montreal Canadiens were still a few days away from beating the Chicago Black Hawks for their 18th Cup as Baldwin offered to play the winner in a one-game, neutral-site playoff for all the toys.

He meant no disrespect, he said, “to either of those two fine teams or the National Hockey League.”

“This is a challenge intended only to restore to the people to see a true champion decided in this, the world’s fastest sport.”

The Boston Globe duly reported all this, amid the coverage of Ted Green’s redemption, while also noting this: “No reply was expected from the National Hockey League.”

Whaler King: “Kind of looked like the U.S. Open tennis trophy,” Harold Baldwin said of the trophy that Ted Green held close on May 6, 1973.

jets propellant

Winnipeg beat the Nashville Predators last night to advance to the Western Conference finals where they’ll meet the Vegas Golden Knights to see which of them of them will play for the Stanley Cup. That seems reason enough to visit with a former (WHA) Jet, Anders Hedberg, seen here in February of 1977. He had reason to revel: having just scored three goals in Winnipeg’s 6-4 win over the long-lost Calgary Cowboys, Hedberg now had 50 in the 49 games his team had played that season. (He’d missed two games, injured). That put him into the annals of hockey history, ahead of Maurice Richard, whose first, famous 50-in-50 came in 1945, as well as own linemate, Bobby Hull, who’d repeated that feat over the course of the 1974-75 WHA season.

There doesn’t seem to have been much disputing Hedberg’s achievement at the time, though it can’t exactly have pleased the rivalrous governors of the NHL. Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders would notch 50 of his own in 50 games in 1980-81, and the very next year after that, Wayne Gretzky would, playful as ever, score 50 in 39. With the demise of the WHA, Hedberg’s feat has been shuffled, along with Bobby Hull’s, into the footnotes: in hockey’s NHL-dominated universe, those goals you scored in that other league only count as a novelty next to an asterisk. The way the NHL sees it, you have to score 50 in your team’s first 50 games. Five different players have done that, including Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull, twice. Gretzky did it three times in his career.

“I can’t explain how it feels,” Hedberg told reporters after the game in ’77. The Swedish Express, they were calling him back then, noting that he did his scoring with one of hockey’s hardest wrist shots and what had to be the best backhand in the business. “I don’t think Anders has taken a slapshot this year,” said his other linemate, Ulf Nilsson.

It wasn’t all good news for Hedberg that night: playing Calgary that record-setting night also strained some of his ligaments, which put him out of the line-up for ten days. He made up for lost time when he got back, finishing the year with 70 goals. As for the Jets, they were the defending Avco Cup champions that year, and did indeed make it to the finals again, only to fall to the Quebec Nordiques. They did roar back to win two further championships in 1978 and 1979, in the WHA’s last two seasons.

(Image: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, PC 18, A 84-49, Box 5)