The Complete World Hockey Association

Marco Polo Had It Easy • by Bob Mellor • The Hockey Spectator • January 19, 1973

The travel agent who coined the slogan "getting there is half the fun" had better not cross paths with the Ottawa Nationals.

The Nats' adventures In travelling between playing engagements in the WHA's Eastern Diviston have made Marco Polo's epic voyages look like a Sunday afternoon drive. For one thing, old Marco didn't have to struggle through the ravages of a Canadian winter on a rigid timetable.

There's no way out for a pro hockey club trying to meet its schedule, especially in a league's Inaugural year where "the show must go on" is the supreme law.

There was, for instance, that pre-Christmas engagement in New York, As any game against the Raiders must be when they're two notches ahead of you in the league standings, it was a big one for the Nats.

But during the night before they were supposed to fly out of Ottawa to New York, a typical Canadian blizzard started moving in. General Manager Buck Houle was on the phone at the crack of dawn to make sure the club could get out, and was assured that they would just make it. Their flight would be the last one to get out of the Ottawa airport before it shut down.

Houle breathed a sigh of relief and went to the office for business as usual. He'd barely reached It when he got the bad news.

A service vehicle had collided with the aircraft while it was stationary on the ground, and it wasn't fit to fly. Worse, there wasn't another aircraft available. Even worse than that, every airport within several hundred miles was quickly closing down, too. There was only one alternative left.

On snow-clogged highways, the Nats slogged through by bus all the way to New York, 10 hours' worth. They were late starting the game but they were there. After the wearying bus ride, their 7-5 loss to the Raiders hardly came as a surprise.

But if that one seemed like a nightmare, it was nothing compared to what the weatherman had up his sleeve to help them celebrate New Year's Eve.

Nats were scheduled for an engagement that night against the Quebec Nordiques, the team they must catch and pass to nail down the Eastern Section's last playoff spot. That made the game a four-pointer ... a really big one.

They were going to Quebec from Chicago and the first stage of that voyage — taking off at 6:30 A.M — was a snap. But that was the last thing that went smoothly.

Bad weather had moved in suddenly to sock-in the Toronto airport, where they were to change planes. After close to an hour circling, the plane was able to land.

Then they had an interminable wait before their second aircraft was able to take off. They touched down at Montreal, which was normal for the flight, but it was more than a touch. The plane waited an hour on the runway for permission to take off. The weather, a combination of sleet and freezing rain, never let up and permission wasn't forthcoming.

Houle called his friend at the bus company, and after difficulty, was able to get a bus into Montreal. With all highways closed because of the storm though, that was as far as any bus was going that day. The only transportation still running to Quebec was a railway dayliner.

So that's what they took, Dayliners may have their merits, but they lack certain amenities — like food. To add to all the other woes, the Nats' pre-game meal turned out to be the dayliner's stock of chocolate bare and potato chips.

They got into Quebec at 6:30 P.M., — a full 12 hours after leaving Chicago — with just time to dress for an eight o'clock start, and an 8-4 pasting at the hands of the Nordiques in a game the Nats needed badly to win.

And getting out? By air, not a chance. So, rather than spend a lonely New Year's Day in Quebec City, it was back to a bus — another six hours' worth to get home to Ottawa.

"I thought," sald one disgruntled Nat, "we left this behind in the minors."

"I've spent better New Year's Eves in the Army," moaned the usually genial Houle.

By comparison to the adventures of the Nationals, Marco Polo had it easy. When things got too tough, all he had to do was park his camel and take the day off.



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