Friday, March 26, 2010

Cougar Town


BY CHRISTOPHER TABBERT

     The Chicago Cougars were the first and presumably the last professional sports franchise to represent my hometown of Mt. Prospect. Likewise, the 1974 Avco Cup final series was the first and presumably the last championship of a professional sports league to be played in Mt. Prospect.
     The Cougars were members of the World Hockey Association, which was founded in 1972 as a rival to the National Hockey League, and the Avco Cup was the WHA's equivalent of the Stanley Cup. Like other upstart sports leagues which have come along over the years, the WHA was initially regarded as something of a joke. But the NHL wasn't laughing after Blackhawks superstar Bobby Hull signed with the new league before its inaugural season. Hull's defection to the Winnipeg Jets gave the WHA instant credibility, and 67 other NHL players soon followed.The loss of Hull also proved disastrous for the Blackhawks, marking the beginning of a slow, steady decline in popularity from which they are just now recovering.

     The Cougars finished last in the Western Divison in the WHA's first season, but they made the playoffs the next year, led by three former Hawks: center Ralph Backstrom, defenseman Pat "Whitey" Stapleton, and goalie Dave Dryden. The Cougars won their first two playoff series and advanced to the Avco Cup finals against the Houston Aeros, who featured 46-year-old Gordie Howe—Mr. Hockey himself—and his sons Mark and Marty.
     This was where the sublime met the ridiculous. The Cougars' home arena, the International Amphitheatre at 43rd and Halsted, had been available for the first playoff series, but not for the second series because it had booked a touring production of Peter Pan, starring former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby in the title role. As a result, the second playoff series had been moved to Randhurst Twin Ice Arena in Mt. Prospect, which was named for the vast shopping mall in whose parking lot it sat.
     By the time the Cougars and Aeros were set to start the finals, Peter Pan had moved on—but the Amphitheatre's ice surface had been melted and, for whatever reason, could not be refrozen. The Cougars attempted to shift their home games to Chicago Stadium, but that plan fell through because the Hawks were still alive in the NHL playoffs and weren't willing to share. So, with tails between their legs, the Cougars returned to Randhurst for the Avco Cup finals.
     The Amphitheatre was no great shakes. In fact, it was decrepit, as anyone who attended one of the many concerts it hosted in those days could attest. But it could seat some 7,000 spectators, whereas the Randhurst rink held less than 2,000. The latter had been designed to suit the needs of participants, not spectators, and it could hardly accommodate newspaper reporters, much less radio and television broadcasts. It was probably just as well, then, that Houston swept the series, and the Cougars were spared the embarrassment of hosting more than two games.
     The shopping-mall ice rink made the Cougars a laughingstock, and they never recovered. During the 1974-75 season, the players themselves chipped in to buy the franchise from original owners Walter and Jordan Kaiser when the brothers failed to secure financing for a new arena in Rosemont. The Cougars folded at the end of that season. The arena in Rosemont was eventually built, of course. It opened in 1980 as the Rosemont Horizon, and it's now known as the Allstate Arena. The Randhurst Twin Ice Arena, like the Amphitheatre and the Cougars, is no more.

Postscript: After the Cougars' demise, the World Hockey Association survived for several more years. When it disbanded in 1979, four of its teams joined the NHL: Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets. With them came a number of outstanding players, including Mike Gartner, Michel Goulet, Paul Holmgren, Rod Langway, Ken Linseman, Mike Liut, Mark Messier, Rick Vaive, and the Great One—Wayne Gretzky.

(c)2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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