October 13, 2012
Calgary Cowboys were quintessential WHA club
By RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency
CALGARY - The Calgary Cowboys probably sum up the World Hockey Association and hockey in the mid-1970s as well as any team.
Their time in Calgary was brief, two years, and they’re best remembered for a brawl out of Slap Shot.
When the WHA finally came to Calgary for the 1975-76 season, it had grown to a 14-team loop, but it wasn’t long before the wheels were starting to fall off the renegade league.
And, perhaps, no incident lives on as much as the bench-clearing brawl between the Cowboys and Quebec Nordiques in the second round of the 1976 playoffs.
Obviously, the ignition for the fisticuffs is a debate. Depending on which side of the affair you were on, Cowboys winger Rick Jodzio either crosschecked Nordiques star Marc Tardif or gave him a clean hit with horrible results.
“Rick got nailed with a bad situation,” recalled Butch Deadmarsh, the forward who was part of the Cowboys both seasons they called the Stampede Corral home. “Rick wasn’t a goon. He was a good skater and his job was to shadow Tardif, check him at every chance and hit him into the boards.”
To Deadmarsh, Jodzio came onto the ice for a line change and had to race to the far corner to get close to Tardif, thus the reason the hit happened at full speed
“Tardif had his head down when the puck came to him and Rick nailed him. He actually hit his head on the glass, and that’s why he was unconscious,” Deadmarsh said of the incident. “Tardif was a god in Quebec. They had (Curt) Brackenbury and some other tough guys on their team, too. And it was the old days, so both benches cleared.”
The brawl — which Cowboys goalie Smokey McLeod said was the “only time I was ever scared for my life” — resulted in Jodzio pleading guilty on criminal charges of assault and Calgary coach Joe Crozier being suspended.
But the Cowboys, who went on to upset the Nordiques in that series only to lose to the champion Winnipeg Jets in the league semifinal, were more than just one fight-filled night in Quebec City.
They put Calgary on the big-league hockey map, relocating after two seasons as the Vancouver Blazers when owner Jim Pattison gave up trying to compete with the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks.
The Cowboys weren’t expected to even be a playoff team their first year, but with McLeod in net and scoring stars Danny Lawson and Ron Chipperfield, posted a 41-35-4 record and went on their playoff run.
The team never captured the city as hoped — average crowds were less than 5,000 — and the hoped-for new arena or expansion to the Corral never happened.
But during those days, McLeod became a fan favourite and Crozier one of the game’s characters.
“Most of my memories involve Joe Crozier,” said defenceman Mike Ford, who came to the Cowboys prior to the 1976-77 season and was traded away at the deadline.
“I remember one night, we were down 3-2 and Joe decided he would turn his jacket inside-out — wear the lining on the outside — when he was on the bench to change our luck.
“We had a faceoff in the other team’s zone and Danny Lawson won it to me, and I just wound up and drove the puck. It hit the guy coming out to block the shot, hit him in the shinpad, and he went behind me on a breakaway and scored on Smokey McLeod.
“I looked at Joe, and he was slowly changing his jacket back to the right way.”
Even though times weren’t always great in Calgary, especially in the second season when it was obvious there wouldn’t be another crack at the playoffs and the club was in financial trouble being in such a small rink, the players had fun.
Being so close to the mountains, Ford recalls, meant an opportunity to go skiing, even though that was a no-no in their contracts.
“We used to see how fast we could get to the ski slopes after practising in the morning. One player said he did it in 50 minutes,” Ford said.
“I wasn’t going to go with him to see if that was true.
“Another time, a player hurt his ankle skiing and we knew if he was caught, his contract would be voided. So, he was on the ice early for practice next morning — somehow he got his foot in his skate — and before Joe was on the ice, he was in the corner lying down.
“We told Joe that he crashed into the boards. Sure enough, when they took an x-ray of his ankle, it was broken.”
Unfortunately, without the potential for a new arena, the Cowboys closed the books in Calgary after two seasons.
“When he moved the team to Calgary, Jim Pattison said it would be there two years and if ground isn’t broken on a new arena, he would move it or dismantle it,” Deadmarsh said.
“If he could have hung on, he probably would have owned an NHL franchise in Calgary.”