Poor Hal Freeman.
Four years earlier, the then-Spectrum president was working in his office when a wind storm shredded the new arena’s roof.
Now Freeman stood on the Philadelphia Civic Center’s ice, boos and souvenir pucks being hurled toward him, wondering if he was cursed.
It was Friday, Oct.13, 1972, and Freeman was the brand-new vice president of the brand-new Philadelphia Blazers of the brand-new World Hockey Association. The Blazers, debuting at home that night, had been born months earlier as the Miami Screaming Eagles. The owners had paid $25,000 to enter the new 10-team league
But when the team and Miami disagreed on several key issues, the franchise was hurriedly moved to Philadelphia. Here it would compete with the NHL’s Flyers and endure one of the worst opening nights ever.
A city’s sports history is honeycombed with athletes and teams who remain noteworthy not because of any impressive statistics but for the indelible memories they created.
The Philadelphia Bell, for example, were part of the World Football League, one of those cut-rate ventures that used to pop up occasionally to challenge existing leagues. The Bell’s brief existence was filled with colorful characters and unprecedented chutzpah. They were sunk, in part, by a scandal — dubbed “Papergate” – in which investigators determined the huge crowds reported for its initial two games (55,5334 and 64,719) had been markedly smaller (13,855 and 6,200).
Many others flashed briefly in the local skies, leaving behind an enduring trail of stories: individuals like Jeff Stone, Tim Rossovich, and Roy Rubin; teams like the Tapers, Firebirds, and Atoms.
Compared to other now-you-see-’em-now-you-don’t teams, the Blazers seemed solidly constructed.
The WHA stole 67 NHL players, including superstar Bobby Hull. The Blazers had legitimate talent — Bernie Parent, Andre Lacroix, John McKenzie, Danny Lawson, Derek Sanderson.
Sanderson was hockey’s answer to Joe Namath. The Blazers decided his handsome, mustachioed countenance would be their public face. So they inexplicably shelled out a then-record $2.5 million for someone who, talent-wise, might not have ranked in the sport’s top 25. He was a hard-drinking, hard-living libertine with no emotional or moral anchor, flaws exacerbated by a contract that, when he signed, was the largest in sports history,
“I met him for lunch in Center City before a road trip,” recalled Bill Fleischman, then the Daily News beat writer. “Accompanying him was a flight attendant, a major babe. Near the end of lunch, he asked if he could borrow some money for the trip. I probably had $40 or $50 with me. I think I loaned him $20. Can’t recall if he paid me back.”
The Blazers lost their Oct. 12 opener to New England. Since the Flyers wouldn’t allow use of the Spectrum, their opener the following night – a rematch with New England – was scheduled for the 10,000-seat Civic Center.
Freeman and others worried about the potential perils of a Friday the 13th debut. Their fears eased when a decent crowd of 6,000 filed into the 42-year-old building for the 7:30 game. But when it didn’t start at 7:30, or 7:45, or 8, those spectators, who’d been given commemorative orange pucks, grew increasingly annoyed.
Warming up, players complained about terrible ice. They were assured the new Zamboni would smooth the problem.
But the Zamboni hadn’t been delivered yet and wouldn’t arrive until 8:10, which, when the Blazers history is written, might go down as their high-water mark.
After a pass or two along the rutted surface, the Zamboni’s weight collapsed the ice, creating an enormous spider-web of large and small cracks.
Freeman and other Blazers officials went out to inspect. The angry fans now had a target, booing lustily and heaving those pucks toward the cluster of suits at mid-ice.
Alarmed, co-owner Jim Cooper grabbed a mike and begged for mercy, to little avail. Finally, near 9, with an unplayable surface, a decision was made to abort. Loathe to address the fans again, Cooper had Sanderson relay the bad news.
“Please come back,” Sanderson urged, “as soon as we fix this bloody ice. I hope you can get out of the building. … I’m going to hang around. I’m not due to pick up my date until 11:15.”
It would be 12 days before the Blazers played a home opener. A loss to Cleveland dropped them to 0-7, the same record as the hapless 76ers. Worse, Sanderson and Parent were seriously injured.
The Blazers improved, but the city shrugged. Parent returned and performed well. Lawson led the WHA with 61 goals, Lacroix with 124 points. The Blazers made the playoffs.
And their average home crowd was 2,200.
After a playoff-opening loss to Cleveland, who would sweep, Parent refused to play. The Blazers, he said, wouldn’t pay his medical bills and had tapped into a $600,000 account contractually set aside for him.
That offseason, for a second time, Parent would sign with the Flyers.
Sanderson would appear in only eight games. At seasons’ end, he was paid $1 million and released, returning to the NHL. Only 32, his career concluded in 1978. He then lost his money, his health and, before finally rescuing his life, became addicted to drugs and alcohol.
The Blazers moved to Vancouver for 1973-74. The WHA died in 1979, though four clubs – the Oilers, Jets, Nordiques, and Whalers — transitioned to the NHL.
As for poor Hal Freeman, who died at 72 in 1998, the curse continued.
A former Inquirer sportswriter and an otherwise warm and good-natured person, he would go on to work for the ill-fated Bicentennial Commission, the now-defunct Philadelphia Atoms soccer team, the now-shuttered Living History Center, and the now-vanished Garden State Park.
Which guaranteed that, much like the Philadelphia Blazers, he won’t be forgotten.