Forgotten sports memories: The Buffalo Norsemen
The Buffalo Norsemen — Now there’s the name of a local professional sports franchise that rouses fond memories. The franchise probably brings you back to 1975. What a time to be a Buffalo sports fan! Undoubtedly, a much happier time than today, given the current state of the Sabres and mediocrity of the Bills.
Ah, 1975. When the Sabres were the feel-good darling of the NHL who appeared to be on the verge of capturing their first Stanley Cup in just their fifth NHL season.
The Buffalo sports scene was quite different back then. The Buffalo Braves of the NBA shared the Aud with the Sabres. The baseball Bisons were in the middle of their eight-year hiatus. And O.J. Simpson, roughly 20 years before his infamous joyride on the 405 Freeway on national TV, was creating amazing running plays for the Bills in the fresh digs of Rich Stadium while winning the NFL rushing title.
Back to the Norsemen. Wait – you have no idea what I’m talking about? You never heard of the Buffalo Norsemen? I trust you read this publication since you’re a die-hard Buffalo sports fan. Perhaps you believe there is probably nothing that can be added to your database of Buffalo sports knowledge. Allow me to attempt to do so. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, the Buffalo Norsemen of the now defunct North American Hockey League. Welcome to minor league hockey, 1970’s style.
Like the local sports scene in 1975, Western New York was a very different place. The Sabres were just completing their fifth season in the NHL, and the city had hockey fever. Despite the woeful economic conditions across the Niagara Frontier and a national recession that began in 1973, hockey was an antidote for the local Buffalo sports fan from all the economic doom and gloom. There was such optimism about the potential success of a minor hockey pro franchise in Western New York that one local sportswriter posed this analogy: “The Norsemen, as the team has come to be called, stands about as much a chance for failure as a Rhodes scholar taking an Army aptitude test”.
Although, in hindsight, the wisdom of placing a minor league professional sports franchise in a region where the local unemployment rate had increased to 14.7% from 8% the previous year might seem reckless, on the surface this appeared to be a brilliant idea. A group of local men, led by Dr. Dudley Turecki and Dr. Syde Taheri, decided to place the professional minor league franchise in North Tonawanda. The team would compete in the North American Hockey League, a low level minor league about to launch its third season of play. The players had talent equivalent to the level of today’s ECHL, though the league was much more violent. In fact, several on-ice events would occur during the NAHL’s 1975-1976 season which would serve as the inspiration for the movie “Slap Shot”. What could possibly go wrong?
The North American Hockey League
The Buffalo Norsemen would be the tenth NAHL franchise for the fledgling league. Commissioner Bob Dextraze described the NAHL at the time of Buffalo’s entry as “tomorrow’s hockey product attracting a new type of hockey fan – the fan interested more in technique than fighting”.
The league’s franchises were mostly affiliated with WHA teams, and many had a dual WHA affiliation. However, like many minor pro sports leagues of the day, the NAHL experienced unstable moments due to the economy. In addition, the NAHL found itself in a war with the AHL to capture the patronage of Syracuse fans, as that city had a franchise in both leagues.
In June, Leo Gerald Lamoureux, who resigned as league treasurer a few months earlier, was arrested for embezzling $130,000 from the league. To complicate matters, he was also general manager of the league’s Long Island Cougars at the time of his resignation. On a positive note for Western New York, the NAHL announced their plan to move league headquarters from Albany to Buffalo. The league would end up placing their headquarters in Williamsville.
Despite internal growing pains and the dreadful recession, the league continued to add teams. For the 1975-1976 season, the league grew from eight franchises to ten, with the addition of Erie (PA) and Buffalo.
The Buffalo Norsemen Are Born During The Spring Of 1975
On May 5, 1975, the Buffalo Norsemen were officially announced as an expansion franchise to begin play at the Tonawanda Sports Center in North Tonawanda beginning in September. The franchise was awarded by the league along with Erie as the ninth and tenth franchises on April 2, although the announcement was not made official until the following month.
Dextraze described placing a franchise in Buffalo as “a feather in our cap”. Former AHL great Willie Marshall, who scored 523 goals during a 20-year minor league career that lasted over 1,200 games, was named the General Manager. Marshall also saw action in the NHL for parts of four seasons during the 1950’s, compiling one goal in 33 games with Toronto. Marshall had such an immense impact on the AHL that beginning in 2004, a trophy in his namesake began to be awarded to the top goal scorer during the regular season. In 2006, Marshall was selected into the AHL Hall of Fame.
At the time of the NAHL’s Buffalo expansion announcement, the NHL’s two primary developmental leagues where the AHL and the near bankrupt Central Hockey League. In addition, the Southern Hockey League, which served as a secondary affiliate for many NHL teams, was rumored to be in trouble. Since its inception, the NAHL had been the primary developmental league for the WHA. With rumors circulating of the CHL’s and SHL’s demise, the NAHL appeared the be the logical choice for NHL clubs to place their top prospects during the summer of 1975.
Perhaps the most ambitious speculation surrounding Western New York was the possibility of the Norsemen being a prime candidate to become the top developmental affiliate for the Sabres. The Sabres were expected to bail out of Charlotte of the unstable Southern Hockey League, and possibly abandon Hershey of the AHL, in order to place their top professional prospects in North Tonawanda.
The Growing Pains Begin Almost Immediately
The 43-year-old Marshall began his search immediately to hire a coach. Throughout the spring and summer, two primary names made headlines as potential coaches: Larry Mickey, a current Sabre, and former Sabre Steve Atkinson. Mickey, considered a student of the game, had suffered several leg fractures that limited him to 23 games with the Sabres during the 1974-75 season.
The preference of the NAHL was for teams to hire player-coaches. If Mickey were hired as a player-coach by the Norsemen, this could affect disability payouts for injuries he suffered while in the NHL. However, Marshall believed that with Mickey at the helm, an affiliation agreement with Buffalo was more likely to occur. Atkinson, on the other hand, had just completed an 11-goal season with the woeful expansion Washington Capitals. For Atkinson, his ability to play in the NAHL was not in question, but the salary he required to coach would prove to be too steep. On August 27th, to the surprise of all, the coaching position went to someone not rumored during the summer, former Bison Guy Trottier. As a player-coach, Trottier would enjoy a prolific season offensively.
Ticket sales were disappointing during the summer of 1975. The can’t miss franchise in Western New York had sold barely 200 season tickets by 4th of July weekend after a brisk start in May. Advertising in local papers was minimal, and the team had not secured any corporate sponsorships and lacked a radio contract. By late August, just weeks before the September 1st opening of training camp and experiencing lower than expected ticket sales, the Norsemen parted ways with their vice-president of marketing. Tickets for 37 regular season home games were competitively priced at $166.50 and $148.00 per seat, which converts to $785.46 and $698.19 in 2018 dollars, per the U.S. Department of Labor’s CPI inflation calculator.
Another concern during the summer of 1975 was the Norsemen’s home rink, the Tonawanda Sports Center. Envisioned to be a top-notch facility for minor league hockey that would seat 6,000 fans, it faced liens totaling over $3 million by contractors not paid for services rendered. The Tonawanda Sports Center was originally envisioned as one building housing two ice rinks to be built at a cost of $2.4 million. However, design changes during 1974 to accommodate the facility for increased seating capacity caused the construction cost to surge over $6 million, a cost that Steve Austin could appreciate. In the end, the facility ended up seating only 2,800.
There was also uncertainty regarding who the Norsemen would have a player affiliate agreement with. During the June 1975 NHL draft held in Montreal attended by Marshall, there was speculation that talks were being held between the Norsemen and the Maple Leafs. To complicate matters, the New York Islanders came out of nowhere, and offered to send 10 players to the Norsemen. However, this would also mean the Islanders would have influence over who would coach the team. The Islanders eventually decided to move in a different direction and signed a player affiliation agreement with Buffalo’s expansion partner, Erie.
Later during the summer, the Norsemen would be in discussions with the Houston Aeros of the WHA. The Norsemen’s marketing effort for selling tickets was certainly crippled by not having an NHL or WHA player affiliation agreement secured shortly after being awarded a franchise. When the dust finally settled in early September, the Toronto Toros of the WHA ended up being the team that would supply the bulk of players to the Norsemen. Looking back, if the rumor regarding a player affiliate agreement with the Sabres had come to fruition, ticket sales may have met expectations despite the region’s struggling economy.
Was placing a minor league professional hockey franchise in North Tonawanda a prudent move by Dr. Turecki and Dr. Taheri during the Spring of 1975? It could be argued at the time that the Sabres had become more popular than the Bills and Braves, and riding the coattails of the fans who possessed a passion for hockey in Western New York as the Sabres played Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup Finals was sound timing. It would be hard to fault the NAHL’s enthusiasm for the Buffalo market given the Sabres’ success.
Alternatively, the economic uncertainty that plagued the area most likely affected ticket sales. During July 1975, as the area began preparation for Bicentennial celebrations, there was concern with the announcement of Wurlitzer ending production in North Tonawanda, after 70 years and the loss of several hundred jobs, along with the potential demise of Bell Aerospace production in Wheatfield and Lockport, and the loss of 2,400 jobs, amongst other bad economic news and plant closings.
In the second installment of the series, a look at training camp and early season games and moments will be revealed. Specific moments in the NAHL that helped create the reputation that minor league hockey earned in the 1970’s will also be brought forward. I hope you’ll join me for this adventure!