72 Days Until the Regular Season
By Zach Laing1 month ago
Throughout the summer and into the fall, we’ll be counting down the days until the Edmonton Oilers begin their 2023-24 season with a daily trip down memory lane.
With 72 days until the start of the season, let’s take a look at the Alberta Oilers joining the World Hockey Association in 1972.
An Edmonton Journal article from Sept. 25, 1971 details Edmonton being awarded a World Hockey Association franchise.
The start of the World Hockey Association couldn’t have been done without the presence of hockey already in Alberta. While the association was officially started in 1971 by American’s Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, it wasn’t until Bill Hunter, president of the Western Canada Hockey League — now known as simply the WHL.
Word had first crept out in Sept. 1971 that the association was on the precipice of being formed, and that Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg were all being eyed as possible franchises. Running the Edmonton Oil Kings as the majority shareholder, Hunter had begun helping Murphy and Davidson and joined the pair in Los Angeles early in the month. Eyes had even been set early on a possible Europe expansion, but it never came to fruition.
And weeks before the Oilers were officially awarded a club, in an Edmonton Journal column, Hunter begun banging the drum for improved hockey facilities. At the time his Oil Kings had been playing out of the old Edmonton Gardens arena, which didn’t last much longer as a hockey venue in the city.
“You’re dead wrong if you think Edmonton Eskimos are the biggest sports problem in this town,” Hunter’s column led with. “If sports fans in Edmonton really want to panic about something, panic about our spectator sports facilities. Now you’ve got a real disaster area.”
While Hunter opined about the struggles the Eskimos football club had been facing with questions about it’s coaching, management or players similar to how fans of the Elks do the same today, he turned his ire back to the need for a new arena
“There is only one answer. Edmonton must have a larger stadium.”
He knew what was coming.
And in the Sept. 25th edition of the Edmonton Journal, the front page rang the news: “Edmonton awarded pro hockey franchise.”
Along with Edmonton being awarded a team, so was Calgary, Winnipeg, New York, Miami, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, Los Angeles, San Francisco as well as Dayton, Ohio, and “one other franchise awarded to either Atlanta or the Washington-Baltimore area.” Some of these clubs would never make it. Calgary’s club, for example, would fold before the season started, and others like the Dayton club just didn’t quite work out. In Calgary’s case, illness would force owner Bob Brownridge out of the equation.
Nonetheless, the Alberta Oilers would kick off their inaugural season on Oct. 11th, 1972 knocking off the Ottawa Nationals 7-4. Billy Hicke and Ron Anderson would score twice, but early on low attendance numbers and a loose poll suggest the majority of fans watched the NHL’s Leafs and Canadiens tie at 2 instead of catching the Oilers and Nationals.
The Oilers would embark on a four-game road trip to start the year heading facing the Quebec Nordiques, Cleveland Crusaders and Winnipeg Jets before returning for their home opener. 6-0 and 3-2 losses to Quebec and Cleveland, as well as a 5-2 win over Winnipeg, would leave the Oilers sitting at 2-2.
An Edmonton Journal article from Oct. 18, 1972 details the Alberta Oilers inaugural home opener from the night prior.
The puck would drop at 9 p.m. in front of 3,285 partisians at the Edmonton Gardens and go into sudden death overtime. There, it was Ron Walters who played the hero for the Oilers.
While Edmonton Journal advertisements welcomed fans to see “Bobby Hull with his Winnipeg Jets,” the new million dollar man was kept out of the lineup — and coaches box — due to a court injunction fired by the bitter Chicago Black Hawks.
Bill Hunter, meanwhile, was not discouraged.
“If Bobby Hull had played we would have turned away 2,500 fans,” said Hunter. “We’ll have every fan back — and more — for Philadelphia Friday because we proved this is a good team and exciting league.
“Now that we’ve put the team together, I’m concentrating on the next stager of our development, season ticket and group sales. But first we had to make sure we got the best possible team.”
That team was solid, yet unspectacular. It featured the likes of Jim Harrison, Ross Perkins, Rusty Pasenaude and Ron Walters up front, and defencemen like the legendary Al Hamilton, Bob Wall and Doug Barrie on the backend.
The Oilers would sputter to a 38-37-3 record in their first year and miss the playoffs in a play-in game against the Minnesota Fighting Saints falling 4-2 on April 4th, 1973. But yet still, the season was deemed a success.
An Edmonton Journal article from April 5, 1973, detailing a loss that eliminated the WHA’s Alberta Oilers from playoff contention.
“Although his mood was as blead as the cold rainy night here after losing to Minnesota, Oilers leader Bill Hunter should be in a much better frame of mind when he wakes up this morning,” an Edmonton Journal column opined by Wayne Overland read the next morning. “Because Hunter has just enjoyed a tremendously succesful hockey season. In the past 12 months he has had more success than most men enjoy in a lifetime.
“True, because Oilers missed the playoffs. BUt the good news is that there is a team called the Oilers. And a league called the World Hockey Association. Something that did not exist 12 months ago.
“Hunter was a king pin in piecing both the WHA and Oilers together. As a result major league hockey made its first appearance in Edmononton.”
The same Journal from that day had talked about how that season — with the playoffs still to go — saw “the upstart WHA (force) the NHL tot he barganing table, although merger is still far away.” That merger could come years later when the NHL absorbed the WHA ahead of its 1979-80 season.
Left behind was a perfectly imperfect organization. It was a club that begun to learn how to play hockey, and most importantly, how to become an organization.
The work Hunter put in laid the ground floor for what was to come. He would eventually sell the club in 1976 to Nelson Skalbania, who brought Peter Pocklington into the fray, and said off into the sunset.
And when the likes of Glen Sather got his hands into the mix, everything changed. He started as a player-coach in 1976-77 taking on the latter role solely years later, and was arguably the biggest reason why the Oilers were able to win the way they did in the decade that followed.
How many days are left until the Edmonton Oilers start the 2023-24 season? 72!
Can you guess who will be featured in tomorrow’s countdown?
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