The Complete World Hockey Association

Hockey's Strange Love Affair — The San Diego Mariners • by Norm MacLean • Hockey Pictorial-World • February 1977

This is the story of a love affair. A love affair between a hockey team and the city in which they play. It's the story of the vagabonds of hockey, the nomadic San Diego Mariners, formerly the New Jersey Knights, formerly the New York Golden Blades, formerly the New York Raiders.

"That should read 'payless San Diego Mariners'," injects Ron Ingram, the Mariners general manager and coach for the last two seasons. "When one reads about million-dollar contracts for hockey players today, it is hard to believe that our guys went six weeks without pay, from mid-March, through two tough playoff series last year, and never complained. They never threatened to fold the franchise and insisted on continuing when the WHA might have dropped the whole thing."

The Mariners were so dead that the World Hockey Association even made up a 1976-77 schedule without them and had it distributed to league members. It figured a quiet summer death for one of the fledgling loop's original charter members, the New York Raiders, who played one season in Madison Square Garden and were charged $22,000 per game by the Garden management.

Norm Ferguson, the San Diego captain, is a Raider original, along with Wayne Rivers. Both are forwards, as is Andre Lacroix — "Mr. Hockey" in the greater San Diego area — who came to the nomads in year-two of their existence. Gene Peacosh, an original Raider, lasted until this season and is now with Indianapolis.

Ferguson, out of work and without pay, still refused offers from other teams all summer, calling the Mariners front office once a week for progress reports. Don Buchanan, a public relations aide who used to work with the New York Rangers of the Muzz Patrick era, would answer the calls.

"No news, Fergy," Buchanan would answer. "There was a rumor that Peter Graham, who owns the lease on the San Diego Sports Arena, would buy the team, but that fell through. It looks bad right now. Hang tough and get back to me but don't call collect. I'm not being paid either."

Ferguson, 31 from Sydney, Nova Scotia, knew that jobs were going to be tough to land this season. After all, there were 150 free agents unsigned in the NHL and more than 200 in the WHA. They were free because the clubs no longer could afford the price. And Ferguson had suffered a broken leg a couple of years back. While still serviceable, he was slower than in his halcyon days with the California Seals of the NHL.

"That franchise ran out of money too," mused Norm. "It must be me." Fergy had also suffered a knee problem and missed half of the 1976 playoffs.

Lacroix had a couple of offers but wanted to stay in San Diego where he was a big favorite and his family loved the weather.

"The weather in Southern California was a big factor in hanging tough," said Lacroix. "The same goes for the guys on the Phoenix Roadrunners. They wanted to stay in the warm climate. San Diego is beautiful, winter or summer."

Still, Ferguson and Lacroix had suffered. When the second-year owners of the Raiders rechristened the team the Golden Blades, everything seemed set for a renewed challenge to the Rangers in Madison Square Garden. It was 1973-74 and the Rangers had become Emile Francis's Fat Cats. They were destined to become the first-ever establishment team to lose to an expansion team, the Philadelphia Flyers, in the seven game 1974 semifinals. But the Golden Blades ran out of money in November and were playing in a small 4,500-seat former Eastern Hockey League rink, the Cherry Hill Arena, by December.

Harry Howell was the coach, and he remembers. "We had all rented apartments in New Jersey just West of New York. The team played every game in Cherry Hill. We practiced in New Jersey still, and also sometimes in Cherry Hill. It was tough, but we kept going and almost made the playoffs."

"The league picked up our salaries for part of the first season in New York and for almost all of the next year. Then Joseph Schwartz bought the team and I remember getting the news we got an owner," recollected another original Raider and Knight, Bobby Sheehan, now with Detroit. "As soon as they had an owner they traded me to Edmonton. I never got to San Diego with the other guys from the first-year Raiders."

Schwartz, along with the WHA, moved his team to the modern San Diego arena for 1974-75 after bitter negotiations and legal battles with Bob Breitbard, who owned the minor Western Hockey League franchise. At first, the transplanted Mariners were greeted by hostile audiences, but gradually the fans swung over to them.

Ron Ingram, who had been the personnel director of the Golden Blades and Knights, became the coach, with Howell reduced in capacity his second season. Under Ingram, Rivers scored 54 goals and added 53 assists for 107 points and Lacroix added 147 points with 41 of them being goals.

"We averaged 6,080 fans per game, including several groups from Mexico," informed Ingram. "But things were tight and not all the bills were paid on time. In the playoffs, we beat the high-priced Toronto Toros in the first round, then lost to Houston in the semifinals. We scored 29 goals against the Toros in six games. Against Houston, who were the best team in the WHA and won the Avco Cup, we were beaten in overtime in the fourth game by Jim Sherrit, who was playing with Gordie and Mark Howe."

Last season, Ingram shored up his defense with people like Brent Hughes, Mike McMahon, Jim Hargreaves, Bob Wall and Bob Falkenburg. Along with Kevin Morrison, a rushing defenseman who had learned his trade with the Jersey Knights alongside Howell in 1973-74, the Mariners were set on the blue line. In goal they went with Russ Gillow and Ernie Wakely, original Gary Kurt having become an original Phoenix Roadrunner circa 1973-74. Fill-in Joe Junkin was sent to the minors.

Up front, Ingram brought in center Ray Adduono, who had been one of one of his stars with the championship Syracuse Blazers of the final season of the Eastern League in 1972-73. Lacroix finished with 101 points, Adduono 90, Ferguson 74, Peacosh 70 and an American-born center-defenseman Joe Noris notched 67. Morrison, rushing as usual in crowd-thrilling individual efforts, accumulated 65 with Rivers falling off to 44.

"Wayne held out after his great season in 1974-75 and it hurt his conditioning," said Ingram. "He scored only 19 goals. But we got good service out of Kevin Devine (49 points) and John French, who went both ways and got 65 points."

Ingram who quips "I scout by reading The Hockey News", had no budget but he knew where the bodies were buried and made good moves. French came from the New England Whalers and Devine from Syracuse of the North American Hockey League. Don Burgess from the Vancouver Blazers, also helped.

The Mariners, as a team, were developing character. They posed in front of the Star of India by their oceanfront arena and sailed through the reefs and shoals of the WHA pretty smoothly, as far as the won-lost column was concerned. Off ice, it was something different.

"Schwartz missed a payroll in March and the team was forfeited back to the league," recalls Lacroix. "We weren't sure the WHA wanted us. They had no money in the treasury to carry another team. Minnesota had just folded and Denver had moved to Ottawa and then folded. The WHA was in turmoil and it looked like we were through. The guys voted to to play out the schedule and see what happened, if that could be done. Minnesota had done something like that for two months but finally threw in the sponge. People like Dave Keon, John McKenzie and Mike Walton were looking for jobs. In the second year of the WHA, my bonus for leading the league in scoring, had disappeared. The WHA paid it a second time but now they were out of money but we wanted to play and we did."

They finished the regular season, winding up third with a 36-38-6 record, and deposed their archrivals, the Phoenix Roadrunners in a five-game opening set. The Roadrunners had money problems, but the players were being paid, and there was a heavy campaign on to sell season tickets and save hockey in Arizona. It looked like curtains for the abandoned Mariners with both Schwartz back home in Baltimore and the league not interested.

"It was the time to roll over play dead, get it over with in three games, and hit the beaches," said Ingram, "but not my guys."

San Diego played its heart out, and when the series was over, the Roadrunners were dead, beaten three games to two. But it was a hard-earned victory. Ferguson suffered knee ligament damage in the final game, and was out for the season. It happened at Phoenix where the Mariners buried the Roadrunners 2-1. Fergy and Alec Tidey scored the San Diego goals, but Fergy paid the price.

Against the defending Avco champions, the two-straight-winning Houston Aeros, the gallant Mariners were up against a tough but aging team which suddenly had to depend on its younger players. Gordie Howe did his thing, but Ted Taylor, Gordie Labossiere and Murray Hall weren't the effective third line they had been. Taylor didn't even play, being out with mononucleosis.

Houston coach Bill Dineen went heavily with Mark Howe, the young son of Gordie, and such others as Rich Preston, Don Larway, Terry Ruskowski and John Tonelli. Preston and Larway both scored hat tricks while Larway, Mark Howe, Ruskowski and Tonelli all had four-point games.

Ingram used Ernie Wakely in goal, as he did in all eleven playoff games. Houston had Ron Grahame, who was to add three straight playoff wins to his previous total of 10, before the Mariners finally beat him. Graham's new mark of 13 set a new Major League record.

The Aeros won the first three games, the first two being played in The Summit in Texas. The Aeros almost blew the Mariners out in the first period of the first game. They took a 6-2 lead on a pair of goals by Gordon Labossiere, including one on a penalty shot, and two short-handed goals by Preston. Ruskowski added two more in the last minute of play, and then picked up the hat trick in the second period. The Mariners rallied and made it close, 8-6, at the end.

Game two saw Houston win 3-1 with two in the second period and one in the final. Only a Lacroix goal at 17:21 of the final period got the Mariners on the board. Game three back in San Diego saw Houston take a commanding three-game lead in the best-of-seven series. The Aeros won, 8-4, with four goals in the second period. Larway had a hat trick and an assist. Tonelli two goals and two assists and Ruskowski 4 assists.

"Then it was again time to hit the beaches," recalls coach Ingram. "But the guys held a meeting and decided to tighten up. Any team can do it if they really want to. My guys wanted to."

It was 3-2, San Diego, as the Mariners won one for the home folks. Wakely was outstanding in San Diego, got two goals early in the third to win. Devine got the winner.

Back to The Summit in Houston, where surely the Aeros would put the nomads, still payless, away for good.

But at the end, with Devine guidance from Kevin, the Aeros were beaten again 3-2, as Devine once more scored the winner and Wakely stopped 26 shots.

Now the Mariners had a shot-back home in Southern California where visitors often go on vacation and forget to play their normal game.

"In the regular season, we set up golf dates for visiting players," winks Ingram. "Everybody looks forward to a couple days in San Diego. We almost always win at home but Dineen was too smart for that. Houston came in loaded for bear and beat us 3-2. Then we started to worry about the 1976-77 season."

When negotiations between the league and Graham broke down in early August, it looked again like the Mariners were done. It had been a long road and one could almost imagine the battered Viking of the original Raiders logo crying. Despite the struggle and the long journey, all hope seemed gone. Graham, who owned the leasing rights to the San Diego Arena, wanted hockey to survive and had paid Ingram's expenses on junior scouting expeditions.

Then it happened. Ray Kroc, the owner of the San Diego Padres of the (Major League Baseball) National League, had been watching the going-on of the Mariners. Kroc stepped in at the 11th hour and purchased the Mariners from the WHA. That really meant picking up the outstanding bad debts.

"It meant paying us. The WHA had paid us for the playoffs, but all of us had considerable amounts that were due," said Ferguson. "It meant life, hope and the survival of the team."

With Kroc's millions earned as the hamburger king, the Mariners now have more backing than any other WHA team. Ingram moved rapidly, signing WHA All Star defenseman Paul Shmyr, who along with Bobby Hull, had been the only WHA representatives invited to Team Canada.

Ingram, still using his contacts instead of a highly paid scouting staff, signed discontented Vancouver Canucks goalie Ken Lockett, who wasn't playing behind Curt Ridley, then number-one with the Canucks. "Lockett is better than Ridley," said Ingram. Events this season may bear this out although Wakely is still number one in San Diego.

Another addition was Gary Veneruzzo from the Roadrunners. Gary was leading the Mariners in goal scoring in early December. Other new faces were defenseman Greg Boddy of Vancouver, who was later traded away, and winger Gerry Pinder, late of Cleveland and before that, the Chicago Blackhawks. The guts of the team is Wakely in goal, Lacroix up front and Shmyr on the blue line. With moves and money, the Mariners were right up with Winnipeg and Houston, the big teams in the WHA West.

With money came changes. Ingram lost some of his business-manager duties and concentrated on being the coach and personnel man. There was the possibility that corporate policy might rob the Mariners of some of their down to earth nomadic charm.

Ferguson was willing to take that chance. "We got owners and money now. We played to survive before. Now playing will be fun. Don't count us out," said the Mariners captain.



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