Hockey Headlines

Sunday, 22 May 2011

WHA DVD: Gretzky, Indy, And The WHA

Yesterday's chatter about interleague play between the NHL and the WHA got me thinking more about the WHA, and it was then that I realized that I had something I had not yet posted on HBIC. There are so many things that the NHL was forced to adopt thanks to the popularity of the WHA, but because the NHL is unwilling to recognize the league's history, a lot of this history goes unmentioned. But when you realize that a lot of the NHL's biggest stars either got a start in the WHA, like Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier with the Indianapolis Racers, or played a big part in the popularity of the league, like Bobby Hull or Gordie Howe, you have to expect that the league did some incredible stuff in helping the NHL get better.

Today, we get a look at a DVD all about the Indianapolis Racers, Wayne Gretzky, and the impact of the WHA on hockey as a whole. As you're probably aware, Wayne Gretzky got his start in Indianapolis, but so did Mark Messier. Those two men would go on to lead the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups as teammates before Messier would guide them to a fifth Stanley Cup and then take the New York Rangers to glory in 1994. The Racers certainly were on the right track to success had it not been for the WHA folding at the end of 1979.

I'll say this before going on: this is an excellent two-DVD set about the history of the Indianapolis Racers and some of their interactions with other teams in the WHA. Journalist Timothy Gassen does a superb job in interviewing former players and personalities that were a part of the Racers lore, and he really brings the stories that made the Racers as popular as they were to light. Mr. Gassen has lots of video and audio clips in the stories, and there are lots of pictures shown as well. If you're a fan of hockey history, this DVD set is one to have in your collection.

I'll have more details below explaining where you can get a copy of the two-DVD set, but there are some excellent stories to be told. I'm not going to tell you everything contained within the stories found on the DVDs, but I will point out some of the more interesting things seen in the five years that the Racers took the ice. I'll also have a full explanation below about what you can find on the two DVDs included in the set, and I have to say that the features found make this two-DVD set worth every penny.

Let's get this started. If you want to skip this section by, please just scroll to the bottom where you can find ordering information. Otherwise, here are some of the highlights I took away from the "Red, White & Blues" story of the Indianapolis Racers.

There are other things that are presented in this DVD that made me raise my eyebrows in disbelief. The WHA was the cutting edge that the conservative NHL never was. They introduced regular-season overtime to help break ties long before the NHL considered it. They helped to raise salaries of players as a whole - competition is great for all the players when star players can demand more money from either league in negotiations. Those two examples alone changed the face of hockey considerably in both leagues and beyond.

The Racers joined the WHA in 1974 in the third season of the WHA's operations, and moved into the brand-new Market Square Arena in downtown Indianapolis. Bob Lamey was hired as the voice of the Racers, and he held the radio calls for the early years that the Racers existed in the league. One of the first exhibition games that Mr. Lamey called was when the Indianapolis Racers battled the NHL's Detroit Red Wings in an exhibition game on October 4, 1974. The two teams would battle to a 3-3 tie in that historic game in Detroit.

As promising as that game was, the rest of the first season for the Racers didn't go so well. They finished a dismal 18-57-3 on the season, but the fans were coming out to support their hockey team. In a show of faith, team management brought in a few NHL stars to give the fans more reason to continue to show up. All in all, though, Indianapolis missed the playoffs in their expansion year after a horrible year on the ice for wins and losses.

With a dispersal draft happening in 1974-75 after the Chicago Cougars and Michigan Stags shut down operations, the Racers acquired Pat Stapleton, a high-scoring, offensive defenceman who had won the Dennis A. Murphy Trophy with the Cougars in the previous season. They also hired fiery coach Jacques Demers to lead them behind the bench. These two changes put the Racers on the right path to success, but they weren't done there.

Despite their first-season blues, the team embraced their newly-found success at the box office. With all the changes happening and the new players such as Hugh Harris and Reg Thomas performing well, the Racers would go on an improbable run. With just six weeks to play in the WHA's regular season, the Racers put the pieces together and became unbeatable. They went on a winning streak that saw them go from last-place in the Eastern Division to a 35-39-6 record, good for first-place in the Eastern Division! The team acquired Dave Keon for the playoff run that season, adding an NHL veteran to their rising squad. Goaltender Michel Dion was named as the best goaltender thanks in part to their six-week run that saw them lose only four games of the last 20.

The New England Whalers and Indianapolis Racers would battle in the first-round of the WHA playoffs. The Racers and Whalers battled through six hard-fought games before Game Seven of their opening round series was played in Indianapolis. New England came out and absolutely dominated the game, but not one fan left Market Square Arena, and the Racers were cheered throughout the game. The Whalers would eliminate the Racers with a 6-0 score in Game Seven, but the fans continued to cheer for their hometown boys. Hockey fever had gripped Indianapolis!

By the way, check out that photo again. Did you see the stripe on Bolduc's helmet? What's up with that? It appears that only Bolduc had it because his teammate facing the camera doesn't have one. Un-uniform uniforms in 1976!

Captain Hugh Harris began his own campaign for the 1976-77 season to continue the positive success that the team had started. Harris began trumpeting a campaign called "Positive Waves" for the fans and to attract other star players to Indianapolis. They even hired a mascot named Moriarity who pushed the "Positive Waves" message. Moriarity was a character from the movie Kelly's Heroes, and both the team and the fans took to this "Positive Waves" campaign in a big way. Players would do all they could for fans, and the fans responded by filling Market Square Arena.

The expansion franchise just 100 miles down the road turned into one of the hottest hockey rivalries the world has seen. The Indianapolis Racers and Cincinnati Stingers had some of the roughest and toughest games in the history of the WHA, and part of that was due to Cincinnati's mascot, Slapshot. The intimidating bee would challenge players on the ice as well as riling up the crowd, and the Stingers immediately became the hated rivals of the Racers thanks to proximity of the cities and the swagger the Stingers carried as an expansion team.

Andy Brown, the last goaltender in the NHL to play without a mask, was one of the signings this season. He continued his non-masked ways with the Racers. Brown was involved in an incident in Cincinnati where Slapshot was skating on the ice and happened to cut in front of Brown during the warm-ups. Brown, being not fond of the bee mascot, gave a tap on the mascot's shins, and Slapshot dropped to the ice like he had been shot. For the rest of the evening, the Racers were the team "that killed Slapshot" which only served to heighten the animosity between these two clubs.

The fans loved the hockey action as much as they did the team, and the team finished in third-place in the Eastern Division with a 36-37-8 record, good enough for a playoff spot. They knocked off their high-flying arch rivals in the Cincinnati Stingers in the quarterfinals in a sweep for their first playoff series win in franchise history, but fell to the Quebec Nordiques in the semi-final by a 4-1 series count. The positive vibes felt throughout the city of Indianapolis was evident at the end of this season, though, as the team experienced its best season in the history of the franchise in 1976-77. The proof of that is in the attendance as the Racers led the league in total attendance over that season.

On an interesting note, Game One of the series between the Stingers and Racers saw the game go to three overtime periods. Gene Peacosh was the hero that night in Cincinnati as the Racers forward scored at 8:30 of triple-overtime, but that game was the longest game played in WHA history! Two intense rivals created a little history in their first playoff meeting! In a secondary note, after defeating Indianapolis, Quebec went on to win the Avco Cup, so they were definitely the best team in the WHA in 1976-77.

The summer of 1977 saw a major change in the direction for the Pacers as the team found itself on the brink of bankruptcy. Millionaire Nelson Skalbania purchased the club, but Racer fans saw a mass exodus of their heroes leave for Cincinnati: Pat Stapleton and Reg Thomas were the most notable players that made the 100-mile trip to the Stingers.

Needless to say, Racer fans were not happy, and the players that replaced their stars were not at the same level of play. Because of this, the Racers stumbled after their best season to a 24-51-5 record in 1977-78, and there was a sense that the Racers were back in "expansion mode" after seeing the exodus of players suit up in yellow and black of the Stingers. The Racers missed the playoffs, and, as a result, the fans were not a happy bunch.

The 1978-79 season was all about one name: Gretzky. Wayne Gretzky debuted as a 17 year-old with the Racers in this season, and he actually wore a few different numbers. He eventually landed on his famous 99, but he also wore #20 and #17 in an intrasquad game. October 22, 1978 was the day where Wayne Gretzky scored his first professional goal, and he did it against the Edmonton Oilers on a backhander past goaltender Dave Dryden. Four seconds later, he had his second professional goal.

Ironically, he scored his last goal as a Racer on October 28, 1978 against the New England Whalers on a backhander as well. Wayne Gretzky's legacy, however, was only eight games long as absentee owner Nelson Skalbania's Racers slipped into last-place and the fans stopped showing up. Skalbania liquified his assets by selling off his most marketable stars - Gretzky, goaltender Ed Mio, and forward Peter Driscoll - to former business partner Peter Pocklington of the Edmonton Oilers. The Gretzky era in Indianapolis was over well before The Great One had made his impact on the game of hockey. And the Racers franchise would be over just 17 games later. The Racers lost their final game to the New England Whalers by a 7-4 score, and folded on December 15, 1978.

Gretzky's sale to the Oilers opened the door for another future superstar who wore #18 in Indianapolis: Mark Messier. Messier spent just five games as a Racer on a professional tryout before the Racers folded. Messier then went on to the hated Cincinnati Stingers where he wore #27. Gretzky and Messier were two pretty good building blocks to build a franchise around, especially when you consider what Peter Pocklington got out of having those two on his team.

Wow. That's quite a history in just five years. And, honestly, the stories told by the players, broadcasters, and personalities in "Red, White & Blues" is amazingly detailed despite it being only one of the features of the 50-minute exposé on this team. Timothy Gassen deserves some real congratulations for his work in this journalism, and his DVD set deserves some recognition for the hard work that went into it and the excellent production value that came out of it.

I especially liked the "Teammates" section of the "Red, White & Blues", and there's a special clip of Admiral Dewey, defenceman Darryl Maggs' dog that would routinely be at practice. In the picture above of Admiral Dewey, you can see that he has a puck in his mouth. Admiral Dewey would fetch loose pucks on the ice after practice, and there's a great clip of him chasing down a puck that Darryl Maggs lightly shoots across the ice. Those kinds of clips are what makes these DVDs so special!

Let's run down the features on Disc One. There is, of course, "Red, White & Blues" which is the history of the Indianapolis Racers, and runs approximately 50 minutes. "Racers All-Stars" shows 1977 highlights and player interviews from the Racers, and runs approximately 15 minutes. "Racers Fight Reel" is three minutes of the best fisticuffs from the Racers' point of view. There is also a 155-page Racers book and three hours of restored WHA radio broadcasts! Those highlights alone would be worth the price of admission, but there's still another disc in the DVD case!

Disc Two has the Racers' final victory in franchise history on it. The visiting Edmonton Oilers and Wayne Gretzky visit Market Square Arena, and the game is shown in its entirety! This features runs approximately 81 minutes, and, according to the DVD case, "is the most complete restored game footage that exists of the Indianapolis Racers". Disc Two also has the third period of the April 4, 1978 game between the Racers and Stingers from Market Square Arena as well. It runs 26 minutes, and contains some excellent footage of both teams! Again, these are excellent additions, and they really show you how the game was played in the WHA.

If you'd like to order a copy of this two-DVD set, please check out While there, you can get over to the ordering page where you can pick yourself up a copy of this excellent examination of the Racers. You get all the features of the two discs above, and you can even get an autograph from Timothy Gassen inside the DVD case!

If you prefer the old-fashioned way of ordering, you can do that via snail mail. There are some rules, though, so please read the following:

"Money orders in U.S. funds and cashier's checks in U.S. funds are also welcome; sorry, we cannot accept personal checks or Canadian currency. Make money orders and cashier's checks payable to PCMP LLC

"You can also send well-concealed U.S. cash in a letter, but do so at your own risk. U.S. FUNDS ONLY!"
If yuo still want to go through the Postal Service, send your funds to:

PO Box 121
Tucson, Arizona
85702 USA

Lastly, if you have any questions about anything, feel free to send an email. Tomorrow, I'll preview the second two-DVD set of this WHA series as we look at all three DVDs in the series over the next couple of days. Honestly, this look at the Racers has me excited for the next DVDs, so stay tuned for more WHA action!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Uh, yeah - no doubt the WHA has played a huge part in the development in hockey in North Amerca. I find it rather remarkable that in doing some research on goalies masks, however, to see Indy listed as an NHL franchise. Not so - not even close. Please don't play so fast and loose with the facts, or just pay more close attention to your rags, I don't know. Was very curious to see a pic with they scartion... "Andy Brown, the last goaltender in the NHL to play without a mask..." It just isn't true, and those NHL pioneers who busted they rasses deserve the credit for what they did at the highest levels of the game... Take it easy, Chuck.