"They'd drop the puck, and five seconds into the game there would be a huge brawl after praising the Lord. That's the truth. I was with one of them in Cincinnati. Robbie Ftorek and Rick Dudley, they dropped the puck, it was chaotic, the biggest brawl ever or one of the biggest brawls. It came after 'bless you, everything go well.'"
-- Jacques Demers
Demers freely admits that if the Chicago Cougars General Manager -- and NHL Hall of Fame defenseman -- Marcel Pronovost didn't hire him to be an assistant coach for that World Hockey Association team in 1973, it is unlikely that he ever would have gotten a chance to be behind the Canadiens bench.
After all, Demers was a Tier Two coach who worked full time for Coca Cola when Pronovost hired him. Back then, the Cougars was playing in the Chicago stockyards at the International Amphitheater, a place where NBA franchises died. In 1961, the Chicago Packers failed there, and the 1966 Chicago Bulls NBA expansion team barely made it out.
"It was next to the stockyards and a lot of the newspaper write ups reflected where we played," Demers recalled. "We played the Stockyards, then the Coliseum and ended up at the (Chicago) Stadium.
"Once you got past the smell (at the stockyards), I think you were OK, it wasn't bad," said Johnny "Red" Kerr, the Cougars' first coach. "But the people really didn't want to come down to watch the games because of the stench that was around. But it wasn't from our team."
The stockyards didn't change very much from 1966 until Demers got his first professional team, the Cougars. Eventually, the stockyards closed, but the arena, which hosted big events like five U.S. presidential conventions, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra and Liberace, was still open.
"It smelled like cows," Demers remembered. "You know for me, I didn't care what happened. I just wanted to be a part of professional hockey. I took a chance, I left a job, 11 years working for Coca Cola. It was a great and I even remember in the finals, we had to go play in a shopping center; it barely put in 2,000 people. There were rats, mice, but it was affordable ice and it gave me the opportunity to get started. But we didn't last long. The second year we got to the (WHA championship final) Cup with Pat Stapleton and Ralph Backstrom and then folded.
"In the playoffs, the Amphitheatre was taken. I think there was stock going in, and we ended up playing in a shopping center, a little arena there."
Chicago ended up playing at the Randhurst Twin Ice Arena in the 1974 semifinals and finals because the Amphitheater had booked a Peter Pan show that starred Olympic gold-medal gymnast Cathy Rigby. Chicago beat the Toronto Toros in the Eastern final and should have played in the stockyards arena, but arena management melted the ice, and the copper pipes used to chill the portable ice surface were dismantled.
The Cougars played the Houston Aeros, a team led by Gordie Howe, in the finals. In the WHA, Gordie Howe played two championship games on the road in Mount Prospect, Ill., in a shopping center. Such was life in the WHA. Houston swept the series.
"We always have great feelings about the WHA," said Demers. "(Wayne) Gretzky would have went on, but for a lot of people like me, the WHA got us started. It was the door that opened for me to go to the NHL and it was great."
Demers started as an assistant coach in a rat-infested building with a terrible stench and spent part of his Cougars career in a shopping center. Still, it was the big time for him. He went on to Indianapolis when he was named head coach in 1975-76 and then Cincinnati. Along the way, Demers just missed out on two future NHL all-time greats, Gretzky in Indianapolis and Mark Messier in Cincinnati.
"The year I left Indianapolis (in 1977), the team folded and I went to Cincinnati. Nelson Skalbania bought the team and brought Gretzky with him. I didn't have Messier either; I went to Quebec City and then to the NHL."
"I missed out on two of the greatest players ever," he said with a laugh. "The one thing that was great, they were part of the WHA -- Rick Vaive, Rob Ramage, Kenny Linseman, Bobby Hull, obviously, Anders Hedberg. We did something positive and we were attracting a lot of players. We just ran out of money and good arenas. I felt there was so much closeness between the players, we wanted to beat each other badly, the referees, the league, we had something to prove."
WHA lifers -- and there were quiet a few as the league only lasted seven years between 1972 and 1979 -- have lots and lots of stories. The Birmingham Bulls played just three years between 1976 and 1979, but there are numerous tales about the team. Howe once pointed out that prior to games in Birmingham, they would play the Star-Spangled Banner, followed by Dixie and the Lord's Prayer and then a fight would break out. Demers said he saw the same thing too.
"Birmingham Bulls," Demers recalled. "They'd drop the puck, and five seconds into the game there would be a huge brawl after praising the Lord. That's the truth. I was with one of them in Cincinnati. Robbie Ftorek and Rick Dudley, they dropped the puck, it was chaotic, the biggest brawl ever or one of the biggest brawls. It came after 'bless you, everything go well.'"
Demers took a Cougars team into Cherry Hill, N.J., in 1973-74 when they played the Jersey Devils on tilted ice in one end of the old Cherry Hill Arena, a place that featured a nail in a wall for players to hang their clothes on if they dressed at the arena, which visiting teams seldom did. That team moved to Baltimore, which was a better home as the Baltimore Arena did house an NBA team. But the Baltimore Arena was built with a stage placed in an end zone, which terribly restricted seating capacity. The building's design deprived Baltimore of an NHL expansion team in 1967. St. Louis ended up with the team.
The WHA was a colorful league and there were a number of teams that either moved or went out of business. Three of the four teams that Demers coached folded -- Chicago, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. Quebec survived and entered the NHL in 1979. Only three original franchises -- Quebec, Winnipeg and Edmonton -- made it from start to finish and into the NHL. A fourth team, the New England Whalers, moved from Boston to Hartford after the second season. The WHA was in some markets that would eventually get an NHL team, including Calgary, Denver and Phoenix. The league also had a team called the Miami Screaming Eagles that never played a game.
"You know one thing, Bobby Hull, Ralph Backstrom, Pat Stapleton, certainly Frank Mahovlich, I am probably forgetting other big names, I thought they opened the doors for me. If they don't go -- J. C. Tremblay, Marc Tardif -- there is no chance I go to the NHL. I was not a known guy. I was just a junior-hockey coach, Tier Two. I was given a chance by Marcel Pronovost, took it, went with it and never looked back."