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.
- 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.