THE WHA INVADES NYC: BILL VERIGAN & THE RAIDERS
by Timothy Gassen
The New York Raiders were one of the founding 12 franchises to start play in the World Hockey Association’s inaugural 1972-1973 season. The WHA made the ambitious decision to challenge the NHL directly in several major markets — Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and New York City — a miscalculation that eventually ended with all of those franchises either moving locations or folding operations.
The WHA would survive this initial miscalculation and become established in cities overlooked by the NHL, but in 1972 the New York market was seen as being vital to the media acceptance for the new major league. A new arena on Long Island seemed to be the perfect fit for the WHA Raiders — a fact quickly also realized by the rival NHL, which hastily placed their expansion Islanders there. This forced the WHA into a busy Madison Square Arena, already the home of the NHL Rangers.
It seemed an impossible mission to gain a foothold in Manhattan in competition with the venerable Blueshirts, and this was quickly proven. The Raiders were almost immediately in financial trouble, and with new owners came a new name — The New York Golden Blades — for the 1973-1974 season.
The franchise limped out of New York City only six weeks into the WHA’s second season to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where they played the second half of 1973-74 on sub-standard home ice as the Jersey Knights. Amazingly, by then the franchise had accumulated good on-ice talent, and when the team relocated in 1974 as the San Diego Mariners they would become competitive and credible.
Sportswriter Bill Verigan was the only New York City beat writer who witnessed the WHA Raiders’ birth and struggles. He began his career with UPI and ended as the beat writer for the Newark Star-Ledger covering the NHL Devils. Verigan spent an amazing 28 years in between those posts with the New York Daily News covering auto racing, boxing, baseball, the NFL Jets and Giants — and the New York Raiders for the WHA’s 1972-1973 inaugural season.
Verigan spoke with Timothy Gassen in December 2010 about his introduction to major league hockey with the WHA New York Raiders.
GASSEN: Would you talk about your perception of the Raiders and the WHA as this assignment was handed to you at the very beginning of the league in 1972?
VERIGAN: I treated every beat as if it was the most important beat on the paper. But I was not an NHL fan. And, so, when I got the Raiders as a beat, I sort of had empathy for it. And I liked the underdog attitude and everything that came with it.
And I sort of developed that, too, in covering them, and became sort of an advocate for the league. And, of course, the NHL had expanded and had brought in the Islanders at that point. And the Islanders in those very formative years, they were just a bad expansion team.
And I can remember the Raiders comparing themselves to the Islanders a great deal, and they would make fun of the Islanders by comparison, of course. But it didn't take long for the Islanders to become a dominant team and the Raiders to disappear from the scene.
GASSEN: Do you think if the Raiders could have been on Long Island instead of competing directly against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden that that franchise would've had a better chance in New York?
VERGIAN: Oh, I think it definitely would have. I think that the Raiders would have drawn much better and gotten a lot more attention out there. There would've been more excitement about the franchise if they had been able to move into the Long Island arena there.
GASSEN: Now, do you believe that's the only reason why the Islanders were put in that building at that time, to keep the WHA out of the brand new building on Long Island?
VERIGAN: I would think that they were trying to take as much existing talent away from the WHA as possible. And I really would say that there was a bit of that in that decision, quite frankly. It makes sense, doesn't it? That they would want to shut the Raiders out of that New York market.
GASSEN: Yes! Now, when I started following the league in its third year through the end of the WHA, year by year, the quality of the play really, really improved. By the mid-1970s — and I followed both leagues — I thought the leagues were extremely similar in talent. And I actually preferred the style of play in the WHA. But what were your impressions for this very first year of the WHA as the league's trying to find its footing, not only commercially, but on the ice? Can you talk about the style of play and some of your favorite players on that Raiders team?
VERIGAN: Well, the Raiders’ style was pretty wide open. Camille Henry was the coach, and with the Raider players it pretty much was a free-for-all. With the Raiders you saw pretty much helter-skelter out there on the ice. Which was fun, and they had a very loosey-goosey attitude towards life and hockey.
The star of the team was unquestionably Bobby Sheehan, who had played for Oakland and California — for the Golden Seals.
VERIGAN: And he came to New York and he really had nothing except a gaudy, plastic, green suitcase that (Seals owner) Charlie Finley had given all the players. And those were pretty much his possessions at that point. And he moved in with me, and it was one of the most memorable events of my life.
There was another NHL player of some consequence named Billy Speer, who was a defenseman. But Billy Speer was a very free spirit, also. And quite overweight by the time he hit the Raiders. And his second occupation was being a hairdresser. And it was rather interesting, because when we would go on a road trip, he would always visit the hair salons, picking up tips. And, quite frankly, picking up (female) hairdressers in every town we hit, which added to the whole scene of the Raiders on the road.
But I would say that those were the two players that were the most memorable. The rest of the team, it was not a good team. And that was a tragedy for the league. If they were going to come to New York, they needed to come with a franchise that was going to be very competitive and play great hockey.
And they didn't. It was a bad team. Not mediocre, but bad. And Sheehan was a complete free spirit, and his pattern sort of followed the pattern of his career with the Raiders. He would burn himself out completely by the second half of a season. And he could be the leading scorer in the league for the first half of a season, which he was, on occasions, right up among those guys, both in the NHL and in the WHA. But by the end of the season, he'd be down in the middle of the pack. And it was not always in terms of the season. It was in terms of a game.
He would come out and he had long, blondish hair., and he was an American, and he was, at that point, I felt that he was the quickest and fastest player on the ice in hockey. And I had seen the NHL guys, too, and I felt that he was exemplary.
And once his career with the WHA ended, the (NHL) Rangers, years later, made the playoffs and needed somebody to provide a spark. And, lo and behold, they somehow dug up the name of Bobby Sheehan. And he came in and provided several goals and was just spectacular in those brief playoff appearances.
Probably, that's what his whole career should have been — it should've been 12 games, 12 playoff games instead of a full season. But he was just a loveable, likeable guy. He was at the bars every night in Manhattan. And I mean every night. And would be hung-over for many games. But he was the image of the Raiders in that first year. Camille Henry, the coach, was just at wits end. Of course, Camille had played for great (NHL) teams, and he had been a great player.
GASSEN: As the only NY beat writer following the WHA, you must have gotten a unique look at the league while following the Raiders on the road.
VERIGAN: And I will relate one road trip that we went on, which was typical. (Verigan had written previously, with tongue in cheek, that “Those road trips never made it into the newspaper. My editor said he didn't want to kill the league or print pornography.” – Editor)
We started out — I guess it must have been about six games. And we started out in Minnesota. And I was the only writer who traveled with the team.
I was young, and they were young, some of them. And we were sort of kindred spirits out there on the road. And I remember walking to my room in the Minnesota hotel and I had the distinct scent of marijuana smoke billowing out from under a door where I knew one of the players — I didn't know which one. But one of the players was in that room. And I didn't think that would be a good idea in Minnesota in those days to have it be so evident that you could get a contact high just walking down the hotel corridor.
GASSEN: (laughing) Yes!
VERIGAN: So, I knocked on the door and low and behold, there was a party inside. I would say there were probably crammed into this room, oh, 30 people, including players and hairdressers and assorted others. And the lights were out, so it was hard to see who was there. And I joined the party for a little while, and they put towels down in front of the door so the fumes would not permeate the entire hotel.
But that was the first night of the trip, I guess. They went to Winnipeg next on that trip and they actually won. They had two games in three nights. I believe it was two games over a three-night period there, because it was a long haul. And they actually won the first game, which was a major accomplishment.
And Camille Henry made a very unwise decision of presenting the team with a keg of beer. And all of the players, they put the keg in the hall, and they all sat in the hall and drank beer. And, as chance would have it, there was a hairdressers' convention in the hotel. And Speer was in his element, and —
anyone who came down that hall was — I mean, it was like a — they were sort of taking their virginity or whatever in their hands. And Camille realized he had made a serious mistake and comes up on the floor. And he was told that he was unwelcome. And he wanted them to calm down, and they did not exactly want to calm down at that point.
And they told him, quite frankly, that if he came on their floor again, they would throw him out of the window at the end of the hall. And they were on the third floor. So, he left.
The next morning, when I got up to go down to breakfast, I pushed the elevator button, and when it came up to my floor, I was greeted by Bobby Sheehan asleep on the elevator floor.
That night I don't think they got a shot on net for — it was more than well over a period.
Oh, and I might add, there were also some of the Winnipeg cheerleaders, they were pretty young women. I don't know if they would qualify as cheerleaders or exactly what their role was. But they were joining the beer party, too, that night.
And this made the Winnipeg management extremely angry because at least one of them was the daughter of one the owners of the Winnipeg team, and I don't think he appreciated having his daughter associate with these ruffians from New York who were really not on their best behavior.
GASSEN: (laughing) Oh boy…
VERIGAN: So, there may have been a pep talk in the Winnipeg locker room about the Raiders, too, before that second game. (laughter)
Then, the trip wound up in Los Angeles. And I have been with a lot of pro teams, and I have never seen a pro team, even since 9/11, where it looked like there was almost going to be a strip search of ever member of the Raiders hockey team.
I don't know if they had heard about Minnesota or what at that point, but it took hours to go through customs. And the players got to the hotel about 1:00 in the morning. And we stayed at the hotel where Bobby Kennedy had been killed.
I wasn't particularly sleepy, so, I decided to walk around and see if I could look around the area — in the kitchen, for instance, where the attack had occurred. And I was just wandering around the hotel. I walked outside for a few minutes, and I hear a rustling in a hedge. And so, I — I mean, I probably should have run, but I walked over to see what was causing it, and it was Camille Henry hiding in the hedge, trying to catch players leaving the hotel.
And I said, "Camille…" — and I was basically a kid, in comparison to Camille. But I said, "Camille, you know, that's not good. You can't hide in the hedge," I said, "Go to bed." And he took my advice.
But he was at wit's end by the time we had hit that stop on the trip. And I felt very bad for him. He was a very kind, nice, gentle man. And he was overrun by these barbarians on the team, who were just there to have fun.
GASSEN: It was a time of great change in how major league athletes and coaches dealt with each other. Coaches soon wouldn’t get away with the iron hand like before.
VERIGAN: I remember a trip we made to Quebec, oh, three-quarters of the way through the season. And Herb Elk was the (assistant) general manager, and my room happened to be next to his room. I can remember hearing right through the wall of the hotel him saying, "Well, what am I supposed to do if we don't have any money to pay them?" It was payday, and the Raiders had run out of money. This was another tragedy for the WHA in New York.
If we wanted to look in retrospect, perhaps the Raiders set the entire WHA back a year or so, you know? As far as getting the recognition they wanted. I called him and I said, "I heard that the checks have all bounced for the team." I said, "What are you going to do?"
He says, "Well, I'm going to have to talk to them. And I really don't want to do that." He says, "I'm really a wreck." I said, "Well, you have to talk to them." I said, "You have to let them know that they aren't getting paid tonight."
And he says, "Yeah. What do you think I should do?" "Well," I said, "why don't you just call the captains up and talk to them and see what they suggest."
And he did. And the Raiders played that night. Played poorly. But those were, perhaps, my most vivid memories of the Raiders. Those were wild days for a franchise that was, without question, the most colorful, strange collection of players I ever encountered in my life.
GASSEN: Now, do you remember a defenseman on that Raiders team, Ken Block?
VERIGAN: Yeah. And there was also — there was a black player, one of the very few black players in hockey at the time.
GASSEN: Alton White was his name, wasn't it?
VERIGAN: Yes, it was. There were quite a few racial slurs and remarks, and he never — he was a very, very, very classy guy. I mean a super guy. And he never really was permitted to fit in with the Raiders in any way. They did not accept him, which was sad, because I thought he was a very gentle guy. But I felt that he had a potential that most of the Raiders did not have. But maybe he didn't have enough fire for that role that he had, either on or off the ice.
GASSEN: And The Raiders didn’t have the time to develop their talent.
VERIGAN: Within a year they decided to change the name to the Golden Blades. And they really had run out of money. Madison Square Garden was a huge nut to cover.
VERIGAN: And they certainly could not do it with the — I wouldn't call them crowds. I would say with the “audiences” that they attracted, which were very, very meager. The dates that they were given to play in the Garden were horrible. Matinees on weekends! The Raiders were definitely a negative for the league.
GASSEN: Now, Bill, were you covering the team when they turned into the Golden Blades the following season, and then, later, into the Jersey Knights?
VERIGAN: No, I disappeared from the scene by that point. I really covered them for only that first year.
GASSEN: Did you have the opportunity to see the league later on, even though they didn't have a presence in New York? Did you ever see how the league had progressed?
VERIGAN: Yeah, I did. I saw it quite a bit. And, of course, when they eventually merged, they were on the par with the NHL, very competitive.
GASSEN: I believe so, too, yes.
VERIGAN: Yeah, they were exciting — they became an exciting league.
GASSEN: Did you go to Hartford when you were covering other events and you were in a town, would you go see a team? How were you able to see them?
VERIGAN: I did go to Hartford, and I did see them on TV a few times. As soon as they moved out of Madison Square Garden, the New York Daily News lost complete interest in them. So, we went from having them covered as a beat to being not covered at all. I doubt if the rest of their time in existence, if there were more than three or four stories on them.
The Rangers were the show, and even when the Rangers were not successful, they were still the show. They had extremely loyal fans, they sold out every game. They had a following that was rabid, and it's almost like even now, there's probably two Ranger fans for every Devils and Islander fan combined in the New York area.
GASSEN: Well, I think this was a vital mistake the WHA made in trying to put teams right up in direct competition in NHL cities. They didn't win one of those fights. It's amazing the WHA survived after making such a mistake. And I think they were surprised, actually, that they were most popular when they weren't competing against the NHL and places like Edmonton and Winnipeg and Indianapolis embraced it as its own major league.
VERIGAN: And Quebec.
GASSEN: Yes, the Nordiques!
VERIGAN: All of these places that were hockey hungry and had no NHL franchises — they were dying for teams, you know? And they supported them. And probably — in retrospect, as I said, the decision to have a team in New York may have set the WHA back a year or so. The NHL was a very small, very, very small league without many franchises. So I kind of think if they (the WHA) had completely ignored New York, they would've been better off.
GASSEN: Talking about media opportunity, wasn't John Sterling, the longtime Yankees baseball announcer, the first-year radio play-by-play guy for the Raiders?
VERIGAN: That's right. Sterling may have been the most obvious vestige of credibility that the team had in that year. He was a big-time guy, you know? And a very nice man. And he was a very positive factor for the team.
The Raiders had just simply did not have very much good, young talent. And they really were cheap. They did not cost them much to get. But they were not really good players, either.
But it was a fascinating period, and it was a great deal of fun to cover the league. And it was a good introduction to hockey for me.
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