Monday, May 23, 2016

1976-77 Regular Season

1976 was an eventful year in the hockey world. The PHL welcomed two new franchises in the fall, the Edmonton Northern Lights and the Long Island Concordes. The expansion led to some controversy when a few GMs from other teams complained that the rules for the expansion draft favored the new clubs too much. Boston was hit particularly hard, losing valuable depth players Don Greer and Daryl Ferguson both to Edmonton just weeks after losing the Lewis Cup to LA. The Bulldogs struggled throughout the year and just barely reached the playoffs with only 27 wins. Both the new clubs made the most of their inaugural season. Long Island got off to a fantastic start under the leadership of George Allen and thanks to a big rookie season from Craig Davidson. At Christmas, the Concordes amazingly found themselves in second place in a very weak Atlantic Division. Despite a mid-season slide, the Concordes fast start gave them enough momentum to hold onto a playoff spot. On April 3, the Long Island Concordes became the first expansion team to clinch a playoff spot (aside from the GHL merger) since the 1946 Buffalo Bulls. Across the continent, the Edmonton Northern Lights also enjoyed an incredible first season, thanks almost entirely to the inspired play of goaltender Bill Kelly. Kelly won all 31 of Edmonton's wins to claim the Whyte trophy as the league's top goaltender as Edmonton matched their expansion cousins in Long Island and secured a playoff spot.

The Washington Generals finally returned to the post season for the first time since their Hamilton days, thanks to a breakout year from Gerry Stokes. Ottawa and New York dominated the Eastern Conference, each winning their divisions with Ottawa just edging out Montreal during the last week of the season to take the Northeast. A new "battle of Ontario" emerged during the 1976-77 season. Toronto, known as "Canada's team" since the PHL's inception, had always had a strong rivalry with the Hamilton Kings. After the Kings' relocation to Washington, Racers fans turned their attention to the Beavers, who were quickly becoming contenders. The budding rivalry came to an explosive head on January 11, 1977, when Ottawa's Randy McCracken bumped Toronto goaltender Ralph Morello. The response from the Racers was swift as the Phil Morrison and Todd Beirness both grabbed a hold of McCracken, who held his own against both players. one month later, the teams met again in Toronto, where they engaged in a minor brawl when Ottawa's Derrick Rowe grabbed a hold of Phil Morrison on the bench after Morrison refused to fight him earlier. As the scrap turned into a full-scale brawl, even the fans began to get into it. Elsewhere in the Northeast Division, the Nova Scotia Claymores and Detroit Mustangs both suffered disastrous seasons, finishing with only 18 and 17 wins respectively. While the aging Claymores simply struggled to keep up with quickly improving competition in the Northeast Division, Detroit was racked with injury problems. Cliff Lyle took a hard hit during the World Hockey Challenge final and missed the first five games with a separated shoulder. When he returned against Quebec on October 16, he took another hard hit from Nationale defenseman Paul Ryan, this time knocking him out while separating his shoulder once again. Lyle would end up missing half of the season. Before he could return, winger Kirk Saunders went down for the year with back injury, while Bobby Vail suffered a severe concussion, missing the rest of the season as well.

 In the Western Conference, the LA Wizards enjoyed a record-breaking season, winning 61 games while only losing 8. Stuart Holly set a new single-season scoring record with 82 goals, while Ray Fowler scored 58. Excitement surrounding the Wizards reached and all-time high as movie stars were seen nearly every night at the Inglewood Colosseum. Stuart Holly and Ray Fowler soon became two of Hollywood's hottest stars themselves with the dynamic duo even being featured on a soap opera at one point. The Wizards/Nuggets rivalry began to heat up. California proved to be LA's stiffest competition, as they were the only team to beat the Wizards more than once, defeating them three times while winning 49 games to take third place in the West.  Guy Dupont, angry after losing the World Hockey Challenge, turned it into a career season, scoring 47 goals and leading Minnesota to another strong 118 point season, while in St. Louis, David Appleby nearly single-handedly led the Spirits to the playoffs for the second straight year. Appleby was quickly proving himself to be one of the top young players in the PHL and a future legend. Back in Toronto, legendary center Mark Benson announced he would retire at season's end after 21 seasons with the Racers. On the final night of the regular season, the Racers held Mark Benson Night, as the team announced they would retire Benson's number 15 the following season. It was a fitting way to end the regular season as a potentially very intriguing post season approached.

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