The Complete World Hockey Association

A Sudden Surge of Nationalism • by Bob Mellor • The Hockey Spectator • April 6, 1973

Billy Harris maintains the Ottawa Nationals haven't changed their styte — but if you were to talk to the Winnipeg Jets, or more recently the New England Whalers, you might be into an argument.

The Winnipeg Jets brought a 10-game winning streak in to the Ottawa Civic Center and floundered before Ottawa's first sellout crowd of the year. Then, with more than 8,000 in the rink, the Whalers rode an eight-game win streak into the same arena for the Nats' next home appearance, and got knocked right out of the saddle.

Between those home dates, the Nats went west and won three of four on the road, including two in the Jets' home diggings. So lately, it's been a case of the bigger they are, the harder they fall in Ottawa's gung-ho drive to a playoff spot which saw them win nine of 10 games between February 25 and March 22.

What happened?

Back in January, the Nats appeared to be headed nowhere, and the franchise was reportedly being moved everywhere from Kalamazoo to Timbuktu. Lately Nats are playing top-notch hockey that also happens to be winning hockey, and they're making new fans every time out. An average attendance that was lowest in the league at just under 3,000 has climbed to sellout proportions almost every night.

The town's now talking about a Miracle on Bank Street — which is the North-South main artery of the national capital on which the Arena is located, and if the Nats keep going as they have been recently, it may not be a miracle, but it'll be some kind of gilt-edged phenomenon.

Despite Harris' insistence there's been no attempt to change the club's style, in the schedule stretch Nats do appear to be playing differently, and perhaps it's just that they're finally doing what Harris has tried to get them doing all along.

The most obvious difference is in the aggressiveness of Nats' forechecking. As Harris put it the night after Nats had dumped the Eastern Diviston leading Whalers 4-2, "When you play most of the game in the other guy's end of the ice, you're not going to lose. They're bound to make mistakes."

What the Nats are doing isn't any new wrinkle in hockey, it's in fact a very old one, but it's been used most effectively recently by the Russians who were able to use the technique to keep Team Canada off balance for much of last Fall's epic series. The Nats simply send three forwards into the opposing team's defensive zone to check plays before they get started. The defense hangs back at the blueline points to keep the puck in.

"It may not always be the most crowd-pleasing hockey," allows Brian Conacher, "but it's good basic fundamental hockey and it works if you don't let up. Guys in this league don't like being checked. They're not used to it, They've been playing a free-wheeling style, and when they're being checked they get confused."

Confused appeared to be the word for the New England Whalers on the night of which Conacher spoke, because Nats captalized on three errors in the Whaler end to go up 3-0 by the time the first period was over, and the outcome never really seemed in doubt after that.

There have, of course, been other factors in the Nats' rise to becoming the hottest club in the playoff stretch.

"It appears to me," said Billy Harris — which is an opening phrase quickly becoming something of a Harris trademark — that we've had more competent refereeing since February 22nd."

That date was the one on which cool Billy blew his top and blasted the WHA's refereeing after a sertes of one-goal losses (14 since January) where decisions by the men in stripes affected the outcome in many of them. Harris' blast cost him a $500 fine from the WHA office for what league officials termed "ridiculous remarks."

"if we make the playoffs," says Billy, "it will have been worth a thousand that I'd glady have paid."

It seems more than coincidental that the Nationals caught fire the next time out, and except for a stumble in Los Angeles, didn't lose another game for a month. From that point on, the team appeared to have jelled.

A new maturity appeared back on the blueline, where the heretofore green defense began playing like pros, and both Les Binkley and Gilles Gratton were able to deliver big-league goaltending.

And with a shakeup or two in the front ranks to utilize three of the best checking centermen in the league in Gavin Kirk, Bob Leduc and Brian Conacher, it's all come together.



HomeCredits & Legal Stuff


Reviews, Podcasts and Media

Article: Color of Hockey: Alton White (The Hockey News), by William Douglas — March 8, 2020
Review: US Sports History, by Rick Macales — Feb 6, 2021
Podcast: Good Seats Still Available, by Tim Hanlon — Feb 28, 2021
Podcast: Digital to Dice (Youtube), by Dave Gardner — July 3, 2022


WHA Fact Book, 2nd ed

Book Details

Complete WHA, 11th ed

Book Details


(c) Scott Surgent