by Art Dunphy
In 1984, or sometime thereafter, when someone calls “Ask The Globe” and inquires: When was the first Whalers (league) hockey game played in Boston?, the reply will be, Oct. 12, 1972. And you were there!!!
To some sports fans, the significance of this event might blend in with “first nights in sports”, such as the Boston Bruins first game at Boston Arena in November of 1924 or the Celtics first game, also at the Arena, on Nov. 5, 1946.
However, neither the Bruins nor the Celtics had to face the odds that the Whalers faced when Howard L. Baldwin, and John Coburn Jr., first had the brainstorm last October that Boston should have a second major league hockey team.
Even the most optimistic fan had to be taken back by the first announcement that New England had been awarded one of the 12 franchises in “a dream” . . . the World Hockey Association.
As some observers at Kitty Hawk, I'm sure, replied . . . “it will never get off the ground.”
But Baldwin and Coburn - both of whom were under 30 and armed with a good deal more than optimism - managed to accomplish what few if any believed possible.
Tonight's game here at Eddie Power's “House of Magic” is the fulfillment of Baldwin's and Coburn's dream. What's more, the capacity crowd of some 15,000 hockey fans that are on hand here tonight is in itself proof that they were correct in their assumption that Boston would support more than one major league hockey team.
The obstacles that the two faced trying to start this club staggers the imagination. To mention but a few . . . financing, staff, players, a place to play, credibility and acceptability.
In retrospect, it almost looks easy. But don't make the mistake of telling either Baldwin or Coburn it was a snap. The financing they accomplished through personal resources and the addition of several other persons to the inner circle of investors, including one Robert J. Schmertz, Godfrey Wood and Bill Barnes.
The staff grew by association and reputation, beginning with the acquisition of Jack Kelley, the highly successful coach of Boston University, in January of this year.
Kelley's “jump to the WHA” lent the first degree of credibility in the press to the new venture. His reputation as an outstanding coach and a prudent man did much for the Whalers . . . and was one of the first indications to the public that Baldwin et. al. meant business.
Kelley took care of the “tactical” side of the organization chart, while Baldwin handled the “administrative” appointments.
Together they built a staff and a team that has earned the respect of most people in hockey, both within and without of the WHA.
In the process they also gained a degree of credibility with the press and acceptability with the public that is in itself a sports phenomenon. What other new professional team - in the AFL or ABA for instance - ever sold 90% of their season playing capacity before the first game was played? And what other new sports team ever enjoyed the press respectability in Boston that the Whalers have been afforded during their infant months?
This is still pretty much of a “show me” town when it comes to the representatives of the Fourth Estate, whether they are members of the keyboard fraternity or the electronic media. But still, the Dick Stockton's, Don Gillis', Dick Dew's, Kevin Walsh's, Bob Gamere's, Larry Claflin's, Tim Horgan's, and Bud Collins', etc., have been extremely generous in their reporting of Whalers' news.
Their support to a great extent was responsible for the subsequent demand for Whalers' tickets. Or was it the demand for tickets that led to the support in the papers?
But now is the moment of truth. The night that many said would never happen . . . couldn't happen. The WHA begins play and a full house is on hand to witness this memorable event in “God Bless Orr Country.”
Tonight's pairings certainly wasn't an accident either. No sooner had Jim Cooper gained Pie McKenzie's signature in Philadelphia when Howard Baldwin was on the phone to Ed Fitkin at the WHA's headquarters in California saying that he wanted to open the Whalers' home season against the Blazers. The subsequent signing of Derek Sanderson by the Blazers helped to fan Baldwin's enthusiasm even more. The league agreed and here we are tonight . . . tomorrow night it's a return match (for obvious reasons) in the City of Brotherly Love.
It will be interesting to see in the months ahead whether you fans still greet McKenzie's aggressive style with the same degree of enthusiasm that was so apparent here at the Garden in years gone by. Will Derek still be the idol of the teeney bopper set? Will Jim Dorey still be regarded as a bad guy?
The one thing that will probably remain constant is the love and admiration that has characterized Ted Green's professional career here in Boston.
The numbers for the most part remain the same. The color of the jersies have changed, and certainly the loyalties are different. It's a whole new ball game starting tonight. The skeptics said it would never happen. Clarence Campbell said it couldn't happen. But you are here, and we know differently. The WHA is a reality. Dreams do come true.