Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Almost Had Him

With my time in Chicago wrapping up, I spent some great time with a good man in James H. last night as he treated me to a hockey game. It wasn't the NHL or the AHL or any other professional league, but I got a chance to watch his son, Quentin, play hockey at a local arena. Honestly, it was a lot of fun as I was given the task of statistician for the game while James manned the scoreboard and clock duties. All said, his son's team didn't win, but good times were had by all including yours truly. After sending Quentin off for a shower and to bed, James and I took in the Phoenix-Los Angeles game, and enjoyed the carnage caused by Dustin Brown and Dustin Penner as the Kings booked their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1993, and became the first team in NHL history to knock off the top-three seeds in the conference in the same playoff year!

There is a link, however, between last night, Chicago, and my next stop in Minneapolis. James' son played defence, and played very well. While he isn't draft eligible for a few more years, there are definite signs that Quentin could be a very good defenceman. The Blackhawks have a couple of exceptional defencemen right now, but they also have had the best defenceman, in my opinion, to have ever played the game suit up with the Blackhawks as Bobby Orr skated for them as well. And had it not been for some last minute dealings, Minneapolis could have also seen Bobby Orr skate for them before he retired from the game of hockey.

Bobby Orr was already re-writing the NHL record books when the WHA started up, but the Saints were able to sign his former Bruins teammate and free agent Wayne Connolly on the initial startup. The Saints obviously were looking at more Bruins and sought Orr's stardom in their camp, but they pledged to honour the contracts signed by NHL players and not play unethically. While Orr's knees took a beating over the next few years, the 1974-75 season saw his contract expire. His agent, Alan Eagleson, immediately began looking for the riches that Orr was deserved, and the Minnesota Fighting Saints decided to offer the defenceman a contract despite it looking like there was little to no chance of him ever suiting up in the WHA due to the Bruins nearly worshipping his being. Or so it was thought.

Orr had made the Boston Bruins into a contender alongside players like Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk, and Gerry Cheevers over the previous ten years. However, Alan Eagleson knew that his client was certainly the best player in the NHL, and he demanded a major salary increase for this client's service once his contract expired at the end of the '75-76 season. Eagleson basically offered one demand to all listeners: highest bidder will attain the services of Bobby Orr once his contract with the Bruins expired.

The Boston Bruins obviously were first in line when it came to re-signing Orr to an extension, but Eagleson called all of Boston's offers to Orr a "joke". The Bruins, in their case, were more concerned with Orr's knee and its potential failure, so they low-balled on the contract extension in order to protect their interests. Clearly, the two sides were far apart in their numbers, so Eagleson sent messages to all 30 NHL and WHA teams on June 1, 1975 that Bobby Orr would listen to offers from whomever wanted to pay what Eagleson deemed fair. All interested parties were informed to contact Alan Eagleson at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal on June 7, 1975, and a decision on which team Orr would suit up with for the 1975-76 season would be made by July 1.

With former Bruin Mike Walton already making a significant impact as Fighting Saint, Minnesota had an insider to help their case in landing Orr. Walton and Orr ran a series of hockey schools together, so Minnesota decided to take a shot at landing Orr after having secured his negotiation rights. This decision raised a number of eyebrows considering the financial difficulties that the Fighting Saints seemingly faced, but if anyone could fill seats in Minnesota, Bobby Orr could do it with ease. In realizing what Orr could bring to the franchise both on and off the ice, Fighting Saints GM Glen Sonmor stated that the club would be willing to go to "pretty fantastic lengths" to sign Orr.

We pick up the story of the Saints' pursuit of Orr with an article from The Journal out of Meriden, Connecticut on July 14, 1975. The story states that the Toronto Sun had reported that the Fighting Saints had offered a contract to Orr that included a $1 million signing bonus, and that the offer, according to Bill Watters, was three or four times what the Winnipeg Jets paid Bobby Hull for his contract. In other words, it was a boatload of money offered to Orr.

The Anchorage Daily News brings us our next update on July 22, 1975. Wayne Belisle, president of the Minnesota Fighting Saints, states that he will meet with Bobby Orr very soon for "serious contract talks". Meanwhile, Alan Eagleson lobs another stone in Boston's direction by stating that the Bruins "will have to be more realistic" if they hope to retain Bobby Orr's services after Harry Sinden submitted another low offer to Eagleson. It seems this contract extension is turning very sour very quickly.

We jump ahead to August 26, 1975 where we find out through an article from The Argus-Press in Owosso, Michigan that Bobby Orr, Alan Eagleson, and Wayne Belisle are meeting to discuss a possible contract for the following season. From the article, it seems as though this contract being offered by Minnesota will not only benefit Orr for the rest of his career, but his children and their children in terms of how lucrative it is.

Reportedly, 11 of the 14 WHA teams agreed to the deal - reportedly $7.5 million for 10 years - with only the Quebec Nordiques, Calgary Cowboys, and Indianapolis Racers not agreeing. Not surprisingly, both the Cowboys and Racers were knee-deep in red ink at this time, so getting them to cough up some money to help finance this deal was literally like trying to squeeze blood from a stone. However, it appears that Minnesota and Belisle were going full-steam ahead as this picture shows Eagleson, Orr, and Belisle meeting at Eagleson's house with what appears to be papers for Orr and Eagleson to read. If you were a fan of the Bruins, this had to make you sweat a little when seeing this image.

And if you thought things were bad when Orr and Eagleson met with Belisle, the August 28, 1975 report from The Gazette in Montreal should have made you irate. Orr and Eagleson rejected the final offer from the Bruins, and Eagleson stated that the only way that Orr wouldn't sign with the Saints was if the Bruins were sold to a new owner. Storer Broadcasting Corporation was in negotiations to sell the club to Sportsystems, a group of buyers headed up by Max and Jeremy Jacobs. If the sale went through and received the NHL's blessing, Eagleson would be open to hearing what the new owners could offer his client.

What made matters worse in the Bruins' case was that NHL President Clarence Campbell made it very clear that no NHL franchise would assist the Bruins in retaining Orr. Essentially, if Orr was staying in Boston, his salary would be be paid by the Bruins and only the Bruins for whatever amount it took to keep Orr. Not one dollar would be paid to keep Orr from either the league itself or any of its teams other than the Bruins.

On September 8, 1975, however, it appeared that the landscape had changed dramatically. According to a report from The Citizen in Ottawa, Wayne Belisle stated that he was "99 per cent sure" that Bobby Orr would remain a Bruin after the Bruins countered the Minnesota offer with a 10-year offer of their own. The key is that the condition of the agreement was based on the sale of the franchise to Sportsystem. Belisle also stated that the offer made by the Saints was a $4 million, five-year contract.

Everyone thought it was over. However, a report in the Lawrence Journal-World on September 29, 1975 showed that Orr was still talking to the Saints despite his insistence that he wanted to sign with the Bruins. With the contract talks on hold as the NHL season was starting and no guarantee for the next season, Orr was still in play, and he continued to have open lines of communication with the Fighting Saints.

With Orr suffering yet another knee surgery, it appeared his value would plummet based on the reconstructive surgery being done yet again. But after his seventh surgery, Minnesota Fighting Saints president Wayne Belisle was still interested in bring Orr to the Land of 10,000 Lakes. From the December 5, 1975 edition of the Lewiston Evening Journal, the Saints' offer to the defenceman still stood through it all, and the chatter about the Saints and Bobby Orr could continue.

However, things came to a grinding halt just sixteen days later when a report was published in the St. Joseph, Missouri News-Press about the financial woes that the Fighting Saints faced. Th Saints had lost $4.9 million in just three years, and had borrowed $200,000 to meet payroll in the 1975-76 season. Furthermore, the Securities Division of the Minnesota Commerce Department gave the Saints 90 days to raise $500,000 or face bankruptcy. Suddenly, that $4 million deal for Orr didn't seem like a smart investment, especially considering that the Saints were barely making payroll for their current roster.

It's pretty common knowledge that the Chicago Blackhawks would sign Bobby Orr after his long recovery from that seventh surgery. The Fighting Saints wouldn't make it out of the season due to their financial woes, but the Cleveland Crusaders, suffering the same problem in Cleveland, decided to head west and take up the name and logo of the Minnesota Fighting Saints for the 1976-77 season. The WHA was on extremely shaky ground in the majority of their cities, and the league would cease to exist in two years. Bobby Orr, ironically, would retire just six games into the 1978-79 season as a Chicago Blackhawk, the same year that the WHA would fold.

In bringing this whole article full circle, James' son played very well, and looks like he is developing into a very serviceable defenceman for his age. While I'm not going to compare Quentin to Bobby Orr in any way, there are certainly things he did on the ice that stood out in terms of his talents. James' son looks to be a on a solid path as a defenceman if he so chooses that position going forward.

It's pretty amazing to think that Bobby Orr could have been a Minnesota Fighting Saint had the Saints not ran into critical financial problems. Perhaps had they not run into those issues, the WHA might have featured the four of the best hockey players from any generation at once: Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky.

I'll be in Minneapolis/St. Paul tomorrow. I had a great time in Chicago, and it's a great city. Thank you to James and Quentin for the awesome time at the game, and I hope that Quentin will one day be representing Team USA at the World Junior Championships! And maybe the "kid from Chicago" will end up as a Minnesota Wild or even a Winnipeg Jet!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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