Wanna be a Cowboy

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 12:45 PM ET

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the WHA Calgary Cowboys' arrival in our city. In 1975, the NHL Flames were still in Atlanta but Calgarians still got their hockey fix cheering on Cowboys stars such as Smokey McLeod and Danny Lawson.

Today, Sun sports writer Randy Sportak looks back at the Cowboys and five other defunct local hockey squads. In tomorrow's Sun, Sportak wanders the full graveyard of dead Calgary franchises.

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Generations of hockey players have come and gone yet the legend of the brawl lives.

It's always brought up with Smokey McLeod wherever the former Calgary Cowboys netminder goes.

"That was just unbelievable," said McLeod, recalling the dustup with the Nordiques at Le Colisee in the 1976 WHA playoffs. "The only time I was ever scared for my life was on the ice in Quebec City. Fans were trying to get on the ice, the police were on the ice, it went on for well over an hour."

Though the Cowboys lived in the Stampede City only two seasons, they put Calgary on the map as a pro hockey city.

Decades later, the mark is always punctuated by the famed clash with Quebec in the Avco Cup playoffs.

Depending on who you talk to, the fisticuffs began because Rick Jodzio either attacked Nordiques star Marc Tardif or clobbered him with a clean hit.

"I remember Peter Driscoll and their guy, Pierre Roy, met at centre ice after the brawl was all over but before the ref and linesmen returned to the ice," McLeod recalled. "They squared off, there was nobody else on the ice and Peter Driscoll just decked him and they went back to the benches.

"Pierre Roy came back out again and Driscoll went out and decked him again. That settled it down again. I think both teams lost seven or eight guys. We were down to seven or eight guys."

The Cowboys would eventually win the series and the city known for its rodeo finally had a winning pro hockey team to celebrate.

Calgary was supposed to be part of the original franchises when the World Hockey Association was formed in 1971. The Calgary Broncos were to be part of the inaugural 10, which included the Edmonton Oil Kings -- meaning the Battle of Alberta at the pro level would have arrived long before the Flames entered the picture.

The Broncos never got off the ground and became the Cleveland Crusaders.

The WHA's arrival to the Corral came in the summer of 1975. The Miami Screaming Eagles were another Original 10 team that failed to get off the ground, played its first game in Philadelphia as the Blazers (who lured Derek Sanderson from the Boston Bruins with a $2-million deal) then moved to Vancouver.

Blazers owner Jim Pattison, with a team in his hometown that couldn't compete with the Canucks, moved the franchise to Calgary and thus began the brief life of the Cowboys.

That's when McLeod joined the fold.

Having won the WHA crown with the Aeros, McLeod left Houston after a salary dispute in which he demanded a six-figure contract.

"They offered me $99,999.99 and I decided to leave," McLeod said. "I was with Team Canada at training camp and Joe Crozier came up there and signed me to a contract."

A fan favourite thanks to his trademark mask and ability to shoot the puck -- he pioneered the use of the curved goalie stick, using it as far back as the mid-'60s in junior -- McLeod says the fans left such an impression on him he had to stay after his playing days were done.

"The fans were great," he said. "We used to pack the Corral, a great building to play in, with the fans so close to the surface. It would have been better if we had a better team."

Still, for two years, hockey fans had the chance to watch the likes of Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Norm Ullman, Frank Mahovlich and Dave Keon.

Yet, the Cowboys aren't completely gone, living on through the handful of former players who still call Calgary home.

Butch Deadmarsh -- who hailed from Trail, B.C., like McLeod -- also came to Calgary when the Blazers relocated and decided to make it home.

"It was great to come here," said Deadmarsh, who's now co-owner of a printing company. "Even when I left, I kept my house in Calgary, knowing I was going to come back."

Before that time, though, were the two seasons with varying degrees of successes and failures.

Year 1 saw the Cowboys surprise the skeptics with a winning record thanks to the likes of Danny Lawson and Ron Chipperfield before bowing out to Winnipeg in the second round of the playoffs.

In Year 2, attendance fell to match the record (31-43-7) and interest waned. Plus, Deadmarsh recalls, Pattison said he'd fold the team if a new arena wasn't built.

"True to his word, there was no ground broken and in the summer he sold us all," said Deadmarsh. "If the Saddledome would have been built, the Cowboys probably would have survived and been our NHL team."

Deadmarsh remembers when the team chartered a plane for a road trip that went through Houston, San Diego and Phoenix.

"We had to land twice on the way home because it was leaking oil," he laughs. "It had enough gas, but we were running out of oil.

"You know how when you fly in the rain, there's the water running down the windows? Well, we had oil running down the windows. What a trip."

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R.I.P.

COWBOYS

1975-77

HOME -- Corral.

FAMOUS ALUMNI -- Ron Chipperfield, star for Calgary, Edmonton, Quebec; Harry Howell, Norris Trophy winner in 1967, Hockey Hall of Fame; Don (Smokey) McLeod, won Avco Cup with Houston in 1974.

SUCCESSES -- Won first-ever playoff series in Calgary.


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