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The story of the Florida Breakers, the WHA team that almost happened

In 1976, former NHL exec Bill Putnam went 0 for 3 retying to bring the WHA to the Hollywood Sportatorium

As we close in on the 50th anniversary of the start of the World Hockey Association, I thought this old piece from the LBC archives was worth dusting off.

If you know your hockey or Florida sports history, then you have probably heard the name Miami Screaming Eagles. If not, the Screaming Eagles were a charter member of the World Hockey Association and actually signed NHL goaltender Bernie Parent to a lucrative contract. Unfortunately, with nowhere for the team to play, owner Herb Martin sold the franchise rights to Bernard Brown and James Cooper. The team took to the ice for the inaugural 1972-73 WHA season as the Philadelphia Blazers before moving on to Vancouver, and then on to Calgary, where it finished life as the Cowboys in 1977. South Florida would have to wait twenty-one more years for the Florida Panthers to take the ice and finally give the region a big-league hockey team to call its own.

Delving a little deeper into the halcyon days of the 1970s shows the wait might not have been so long had luck, and the WHA, been a little bit more on the area’s side.

Hollywood Sportatorium developers Stephen Calder and Norm Johnson toyed with the idea of bringing a WHA expansion team to town in the early days of the “Rebel League,” but at the time, the building was still a partially open-air facility, lacking air conditioning, permanent seating and the equipment needed to make ice. Other Nixon Era dreamers were Robert Blum, who wanted to bring a WHA club to the Miami Beach Convention Center, and James Donn Jr., who tried to get an arena built near Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, with the intention of attracting an NHL or NBA team upon completion.

After the Sportatorium got a $4 million renovation in 1975, things started to get a little more serious between South Florida and the WHA. Enter Bill Putnam, who was an original minority owner and president of the Philadelphia Flyers before he moved on to the Atlanta Flames organization. Putnam would try not one, not two, but three times to bring professional hockey to Broward County in 1976.

Putnam’s original plan was to acquire an expansion club for South Florida, but when the Minnesota Fighting Saints ceased operations, after missing two payrolls, 59 games into the season on February 28th, he and his partners tried to purchase the already-existing franchise and relocate it south. In a vote held on March 8, the WHA board of trustees decided to suspend the Fighting Saints instead; this decision coming a week after the players on the roster were waived through the league on their way to free-agency. After the vote, Putnam said “I’m as confident as ever we’ll have a hockey team in the Sportatorium next fall. We started six months ago on the basic idea of an expansion team. One of the appealing things when the Saints became available was the advantage of having an organization. So we began to move faster than planned.”

Opportunity knocked again during the summer, this time in form of the Cleveland Crusaders. The NHL’s troubled California Golden Seals were finally leaving the Bay Area and on their way to Cleveland to become the Barons. Crusaders general partner Nick Mileti rightly felt the market was not big enough to support both teams, so he put his up for sale.

In early July, it looked like Putnam had a deal in place to bring the club with the WHA’s highest payroll to town. The Crusaders were all but set to become the Florida Breakers, and orange and blue uniforms with a sweeping “B” logo were designed. An office was set up at 2411 Hollywood Blvd, season tickets went on sale, and some hockey publications of the time started referring to players on the team’s roster as members of the Breakers instead of Crusaders.

Unfortunately, after a few weeks of back and forth, the transaction with Mileti hit a snag, with both parties blaming each other for not closing the deal, and in a strange twist of fate, the club would eventually end up in St. Paul as the “new” scarlet-clad Minnesota Fighting Saints, replacing the original royal blue-wearing incarnation of the team Putnam tried to purchase earlier in the year.

When negotiations with Crusaders started to sour, a game Putnam quickly set his sights on another option, the faltering San Diego Mariners. The WHA had taken over the team from owner Joseph Schwartz and was looking for a buyer. Unfortunately, the league’s preference was for one that would keep the team in San Diego. It seemed, according to some reports, that while the WHA was open to a potential franchise shift from Cleveland to South Florida, it was not as keen on swapping San Diego for the Florida version of Hollywood. McDonald’s mogul and San Diego Padres owner Ray Kroc wound up purchasing the Mariners, keeping them in San Diego for one final season before the club eventually went under a year later.

Putnam’s dream of icing a team in South Florida quickly melted away during the summer of ‘76. The Breakers organization disappeared in a haze of bankruptcy and unreturned season ticket deposits. In another twist of fate, Jerry Saperstein, son of Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein, made a failed bid a year later to bring the Mariners to the Sportatorium, as the Florida Icegators. Kroc originally had a deal in place to sell the club to a group in Melbourne, FL, but that never came to fruition due to lack of a suitable arena. Saperstein came to terms with Kroc afterwards, even hiring a general manager in Les Patrick, but the WHA nixed the deal, as it was becoming apparent in ongoing merger negotiations with the NHL that the only American-based WHA cities that had any shot of getting into the NHL were Hartford and Cincinnati. The Mariners were folded along with the Phoenix Roadrunners and Calgary Cowboys before the start of the penultimate 1977-78 season, leaving a long, hard wait for South Florida hockey fans, until H. Wayne Huizenga was finally able to succeed where Martin, Putnam, Saperstein, and later John Henry failed.

Note: Information and image for this article taken from scans of The Miami News (1976-77). Bill Putnam’s quote taken from the Montreal Gazette (March 10, 1976).