Forty years ago tomorrow, the visiting Alberta Oilers won the first regular-season game in WHA history — 7-4 over the Ottawa Nationals — with a lineup that truly reflected general manager Bill Hunter’s vision of “homegrown hockey.”
The original Oilers had 11 Alberta-born players on the roster: defencemen Doug Barrie (Edmonton), Bob Falkenberg (Stettler), Steve Carlyle (Lacombe) and Derek Harker (Edmonton), along with forwards Jim Harrison (Glendon), Ron Walters (Castor), Eddie Joyal (Edmonton), Val Fonteyne (Wetaskiwin), Brian Carlin (Calgary), Ron Anderson (Red Deer) and Dennis Kassian (Vegreville).
Barrie, Falkenberg, Harker, Walters, Joyal, Anderson and Kassian were all graduates of the junior Oil Kings, as were Al Hamilton, Ross Perkins and Bob McAneeley.
“I knew we could build a decent pro team with guys who had either played junior in Edmonton or played elsewhere in the province,” Hunter recalled in an interview for Big Bucks & Blue Pucks, an anecdotal history of the WHA.
“The Alberta Oilers reflected that. And even though we didn’t have a very successful year, we gave the league two of its first superstars in Harrison and Hamilton.”
Harrison, who jumped to the WHA from the Toronto Maple Leafs, was the Oilers’ top scorer in 1972-73, sniping 39 goals and 87 points, despite missing 14 games with a shattered kneecap.
On Jan. 13, 1973, he became the first major league player in the modern era to score 10 points in a single game, firing three goals and seven assists in Alberta’s 11-3 romp over the New York Raiders at the old Edmonton Gardens. The following year the Oilers traded him to the Cleveland Crusaders for Ron Buchanan.
Hamilton, who broke into the NHL with a four-game stint with the New York Rangers in 1965 before helping the Oil Kings win the Memorial Cup in ’66, was the first captain of the Oilers and led the team in assists (50) and penalty minutes (124).
One of the very few WHAers to remain with the same team for the league’s entire seven-year lifetime, Hamilton is the Oilers all-time leader in WHA assists (258) and points (311).
He was still with the team when it joined the NHL in 1979-80, and was deservedly honored as the first player in Oilers history to have his number (3) retired.
• At the original WHA Draft in Los Angeles on Feb. 12-13, 1972, each team selected four NHL players as ‘priority picks.’ Drafting for the Oilers, Bill Hunter named Norm Ullman (Toronto), Bobby Clarke (Philadelphia), Bruce MacGregor (New York Rangers) and goaltender Phil Myre (Montreal).
• Red Deer’s Ron Anderson scored the first goal in WHA history, giving Alberta a 1-0 lead against the Ottawa Nationals on Oct. 11, 1972. The Oilers went on to notch a 7-4 victory.
• Bill Hicke, who played right wing on Alberta’s ‘Geritol Line’ with Val Fonteyne and Eddie Joyal, scored twice in the inaugural game against Ottawa, including the WHA’s first penalty shot, against goaltender Les Binkley.
• Jim Harrison led the team in scoring (39 goals, 86 points), while Al Hamilton was the PIM leader (124) and Jack Norris was the top goaltender (28 wins, 3.06 GAA).
• Alberta’s first coach was Ray Kinasawich, who guided the Oilers to a fifth-place finish in the WHA’s Western Division in 1972-73. Their home record was 26-13-2, but just 12-24-1 and on the road.
• After Alberta and the Minnesota Fighting Saints finished the 1972-73 season with identical records (38-37-3), they met in a one-game showdown to determine who would advance to the fourth and final Western Division playoff spot. The Saints moved on after a 4-2 win on neutral ice (Calgary).