Reusse blog: North Battleford, Albers and 'Wild Bill'
- Blog Post by: Patrick Reusse
- August 16, 2013 - 1:17 PM
North Battleford, Saskatchewan.
I took note that was the hometown of Andrew Albers, the Twins' starter with the 0.00 ERA after 17 1/3 innings, and thought: "North Battleford ... I've written that in a column previously. When, and why?''
Found it, and it offered quite a smile to be reminded of the character involved: Bill Hunter, a pioneer of the World Hockey Association, crafter of an attempted move of the St. Louis Blues to Saskatoon, and mastermind of the ill-fated Continental Hockey Association.
He was known throughout Saskatchewan and, later, the hockey world as "Wild Bill.'' And I used North Battleford in a Star Tribune column published on Aug. 13, 1991, after sharing breakfast with Hunter and potential hockey club owner Pat O'Halloran in St. Paul.
I was asking Wild Bill to share details of his life and he said: "I owned a sporting goods store in North Battleford. It is still called Hunter's Sporting Goods. I sould out years ago, like a fool. It is now the top-selling sporting goods and recreational vehicle operation in Canada.''
On Friday, I did an Internet search for Hunter's Sporting Goods in North Battleford and could find no evidence that there's still an operation under that name. There was another column, though ... an tribute published on Dec. 19, 2002, following Wild Bill's death at 82, after a three-year battle with bone cancer.
The breakfast with Hunter and O'Halloran was to pass along the information that St. Paul was being awarded a franchise in the new Continental league. A couple of months earlier, there had been newswire articles on the plan of Dennis Murphy -- one of the WHA's founders -- to start the Global Hockey League.
So, when Wild Bill started talking about the Continental league, I said: "I thought it was the Global.''
Wild Bill said: "Murphy couldn't put his league together. I took over. The Global League is dead. We're the Continential League.''
Wild Bill was the president-in-waiting. The financial backers were some of the people Hunter had worked with to make the deal for the St. Louis Blues in 1983, only to have the NHL shoot down the move to Saskatoon, then a city with a population of 160,000.
Back in 1971, on the day the formation of the World Hockey Association was announced in Anaheim, Calif., Hunter was the first to address on-lookers. "Ladies and gentleman,'' said Hunter, "this is the greatest day in the history of the world.''
Now, in 1991, Hunter was announcing that St. Paul had been awarded a franchise in the Continental Hockey Association at breakfast with a couple of sportswriters. This made me suspicious that two decades later, Wild Bill wasn't quite as confident that his latest new hockey league was going to make it to the ice.
So, I had to ask: "How many teams you got so far, Bill, for the launch in the fall of 1992?''
The answer was two, St. Paul and Saskatoon, but Wild Bill insisted he soon would be announcing a third in an undisclosed location in the southeastern United States.
Could it be the return of the Miami Screaming Eagles, the original WHA franchise that signed goaltender Bernie Parent but never played a game?
Hunter waved off the question, saying his mystery owner didn't want the location disclosed until he had a lease negotiated with the prospective arena.
Hunter and O'Halloran were more forthcoming with St. Paul. They were in the throes of negotiating a lease to play in the Civic Center on that very day we had breakfast.
Sadly, Bill wasn't able to pull this one off. The Continental never started, the Civic Center wound up with the Minnesota Moose of the minor International Hockey League (1994-96), and eventually was turned to rubble to make room for the Xcel Energy Center.
My favorite Wild Bill anecdote was from the great storyteller Glen Sonmor, who was GMing the Minnesota Fighting Saints, when Wild Bill was operating the Edmonton Oilers. This was such a good Sonmor yarn it was used in the 1991 column and was recycled for the 2002 obit column, and now here it is again:
"In the WHA's early years, Bill owned the Oilers,'' Sonmor said. "Two or three times, he fired his coach and went behind the bench.
"Bill would make a dramatic announcement: 'My doctor has advised me against this. He says I'm not healthy enough to coach, but I'm willing to risk life and limb to try to rescue us.' ''
And rescue the Oilers he did. Thirty-one franchises came and went through the WHA from 1972 and 1979. Four teams made it to the merger with the NHL, and three wound up being relocated. Only the Edmonton Oilers remain in tact from the WHA.
And Wild Bill probably wouldn't have had the resources to make all this happen -- to be in the spotlight on the greatest day in the history of the world -- without his profits from Hunter's Sporting Goods in North Battleford, hometown of Andrew Albers.
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