Birth of a Nation

This is Jim Harrison. In the weeks leading up to his signing, Bill Hunter announced the team’s name (Alberta Oilers) and the first two player signings (Bob Falkenberg and Jim Benzelock). More than any single event in the birth of the Oilers, the signing of Jim Harrison–away from Toronto’s Maple Leafs and under "mysterious" circumstances–marked the beginning of one of hockey’s greatest franchises.
 

In mid-June of 1972, as Jim Harrison was about to board a plane and fly to Toronto in order to sign his 72-73 player’s contract, he was intercepted by a mythical force: Bill Hunter.

Along with the addition of Al Hamilton (another young NHLer on the way up) the signing of Harrison allowed Alberta Oilers to capture the imagination of northern Alberta over the summer of 1972. The tremendous PR of Bill Hunter kept the team in the news all summer long (sometimes for unusual reasons, like a billboard unveiling!), but the club also had some entertainers. Harrison scored 39 goals that first season, Hamilton posted 50 assists from the blueline and Rusty Patenaude, Ross Perkins, Eddie Joyal and Ron Walters all posted more than 20 goals. That Falkenberg fellow was tough as nails and goalie Jack Norris (below) had a .903SP (the WHA was a stats lovers dream, miles and miles ahead of the stuffy NHL).

The WHA is a distant bell now, but those early days were a blast for hockey fans. The television broadcasts were fascinating because no one knew the teams very well and everything was brand new. The hockey early on was wildly inconsistent, but a lot of fun to watch.

 

HISTORY

  • The Oilers played in the first ever WHA game October 11, 1972. Ron Anderson (there were about 5 Ron Anderson’s at the time) scored the first goal in league history against Ottawa, with Alberta winning 7-4. Bill Hicke scored 2 in the game for the Oilers.
  • Allan Hamilton was the first captain, with Doug Barrie the alternate.
  • The Oilers played their first season in the Edmonton Gardens. Capacity: 5,200.
  • January 30, 1973: Jim Harrison scores 3 goals and adds 7 assists in an 11-3 win over the New York Raiders.

1972-73 was a fun season. I was just a kid, but remember it well for the excitement that surrounds all things new, and the now long forgotten fact that elite level pro hockey had finally arrived in Alberta. There were seasons and players and stories to come, but that first season–the Alberta Oilers–deserves some attention. It was a beauty.

Next: Jacques Plante (above, not part of the 72-73 team), Bill Hunter and his coaching decisions and the crazy, crazy stories of the WHA. And later, the tragedy that followed Jim Harrison beyond his hockey career.

  • justDOit

    Bill was a crafty one – anyone who could come so close to bringing the NHL to Saskatoon would have to be.

    Plante played for the WHA Oilers? I did not know that. Looking forward to more history lessons.

  • Muji 狗

    Love reading these stories.
    Though I was around during the Gretzky years, I’m more accurately of the Marchant-OT-goal generation. Anything before is unknown but fascinating.

    Keep it up Lowetide.

  • Zimmy

    Hey guys I got to meet Marincren Gernat and Bob Mackenzie tonight in penticton. From what I can tell Bob is easily heavier than both the slokaks combined. But all three were were super nice. The kids were kind of surprised to be recognized in street clothes in a busy arena. The jets killed and Schifflie (sp) looked like a real top ten pick. Scored a beauty short handed brakeaway goal. Tomorrows game should be one to watch considering how good the sharks team looked.

  • OilerLand

    God those jerseys are beauty.

    My Canuck friends are being sensitive and pretending like nothing ever happened and that their team isnt a huge bag of sissies so it must be September again. Ah yes, hopeful and glorious September.

    This is the year things change.

    *no I didnt read the article

  • book¡e

    Is this still the ‘What if’ game? Everyone knows the Oilers got their start when Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, and Fuhr arrived on their bus to start the Oilers and win all of the Stanley Cups.

  • Colin

    LT: I realize this is way off topic but have you heard anything regarding the new arena? It seems to have fallen below the media horizon. Is the process in danger of foundering totally? The silence is deafening.

    • Lowetide

      No. At this point I’d expect that one of two things will happen. The city will slide something through on a long weekend or the Katz group will begin shopping for an alternate site in and around Edmonton or another town.

  • justDOit

    I remember how great he was. And how depressed I was when he left. Prepared me for Coffey, Gretzky, Messier,Weight, Pronger, Smitty, and Strudwick leaving.

  • Lowetide

    My first Oilers game was at the Edmonton Garden during that first WHA season. The arena may have been smalle but it seemed huge to me at the time.

    I was just a kid and my memory of the game details is kind of hazy (I think Edmonton played Cleveland and lost 6-2), but I remember that there was a bench-clearing brawl and I asked my dad how they were going to fit everyone in the penalty boxes.

  • dcsj

    Hey, LT, great memories.

    I remember the Journal the day the Harrison signing was announced. They had him leave the press conference wheeling a shopping cart full of money. I think it was on the front page, and… that I still have it in a scrapbook… somewhere…

    I also remember him scoring 11 points in a game one time. That was a great year… except for the heartbreaking one game playoff with the Minnesota Fighting Saints. (That game was the first year, wasn’t it?)

  • Lowetide

    I am reaching back in my crusty brain so I am not sure but was it Rusty patenaude who scored 5 goals in the third period of a game and I believe thats a record?

  • Being an old Leafs fan (and watching them win their last Stanley Cup) I was very happy hearing they signed Jim Harrison.

    Bill Hunter did great going after players with roots from around these parts.

    I got to quite a few games at the Gardens. He was my hero.
    No one blocked shots like he did back then. Off then shin pad and quite often turning into a break away.

    Them was the days. You could decide on game-day to buy cheap tickets, then get a pretty good choice of where to sit in that 5,200 seat arena/barn.

    To my mind, he was the most talented Oiler at the time, plus he put in the effort that many ex-NHL’ers didn’t do.

  • thanks for the memories. I attended the first regular season game ( vs Jets) at the Gardens. Unfortunately Bobby Hull did not play. Ceremonial puck drop had Bill Hunter vs Ben Haskins and Bill first slapped Ben’s stick so that he could will the faceout…

  • Cowboy

    I believe it has been mentioned in the past but I will repeat it again. WILD BILL is a great book on Bill Hunter with interesting stories about Alberta/Edmonton Oilers. If Bill Hunter were alive today, he would have kicked KATZ and City Council in the ass and the new hockey rink would be half built by now. Keep the ol WHA stories alive LT.