Remembering the Cincinnati Stingers Hockey Team

November 08, 2018 3 Comments

Cincinnati Stingers team photo

As even the most casual sports fan in the Queen City knows, FC Cincinnati will join Major League Soccer for the 2019 season. It’s the city’s first new major league sports team since 1975. That was the year the Stingers of the World Hockey Association took to the ice at Riverfront Coliseum (now U.S. Bank Arena).

The team was conceived a few years earlier by Brian Heekin and Bill DeWitt, the latter being the son of former baseball executive and one-time Reds owner Bill DeWitt. At the time, the city had a very popular minor league team called the Cincinnati Swords who played in the American Hockey League and were a farm team of the Buffalo Sabres.

However, Cincinnati had across the board big-league aspirations. The Reds and Bengals had just moved into Riverfront Stadium, and the city also had a team in the National Basketball Association, the Royals. Acquiring a major league hockey team seemed like a logical move.

At first, DeWitt and Heekin sought a team in the National Hockey League (NHL) but could not secure a franchise, despite plans to build a new, state-of-the-art arena next to Riverfront Stadium.  

The World Hockey Association, which began play in 1972, offered the Cincinnati hockey group an expansion team in their league in May of 1973. DeWitt and Harkin accepted.  Still, it took them a few years to get their finances sorted and additional investors lined up in order to get the new arena built. In the meantime, the Royals left Cincinnati for Kansas City where they became the Kings for the 1972/73 season.

As the new hockey team and arena came closer to becoming a reality, the Swords, unwilling to compete with a major league hockey team, folded after the 1973/74 season leaving the city without a hockey team for a year.

In September 1975, though, Riverfront Coliseum opened. The Stingers opened the 1975/76 WHA season on October 11 on the road against the Cleveland Crusaders at the Richfield Coliseum. They beat their cross-state rivals 1-0. After three more road games, the Stingers returned to Cincinnati for the home opener against the Edmonton Oilers. The Stingers won that game 6-4.

The team drew an average of 7,741 fans that first year, finishing last in the WHA’s Eastern Division with a record of 35 wins, 44 losses, and one tie. The following season they made the playoffs, finishing second in the East behind the Quebec Nordiques while attendance held steady. Sadly, the Stingers were swept by the Indianapolis Racers 4 games to 0 in the first round. Cincinnati sports radio legend Andy MacWilliams was the Stingers’ play-by-play voice and called the action in the clip below.

The Stingers stumbled in 1977, finishing seventh out of eight teams in a shrinking WHA that had once had 14 total teams. At the end of the season, talks of a merger with the NHL began to heat up. Two years earlier, in 1976, the idea of the NHL absorbing multiple WHA teams had been proposed, only to be scuttled by the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, and Chicago Blackhawks who held a grudge against the new league for, signing away their top stars, driving up player salaries, and increasing overall operating costs. The 1976 plan would have included the Stingers, while the newer plan did not.

By 1978, the NHL had the WHA on the ropes, and while the older league was anxious to regain its monopoly, it wanted to do so by taking in the fewest number of teams possible. The WHA insisted that all of its surviving Canadian teams move to the NHL, leaving Cincinnati, along with the Houston Aeros, Birmingham Bulls, and Indianapolis Racers on the chopping block. The Aeros were soon convinced they would not be included. The NHL’s two Sun Belt teams at the time, the Atlanta Flames and Los Angeles Kings, were struggling financially, while the third, the California Golden Seals, had moved to Cleveland to become the Barons. That didn’t help Houston’s case, and the team folded in 1978.

The Racers collapsed 25 games into the 1978/79 season. Before the end of the season, a merger deal was completed. The four Canadian teams would join the NHL as would the New England Whalers who would be renamed the Hartford Whalers. The Bulls and Stingers were each paid $1.5 million in compensation.

What’s odd about the merger deal is that the Stingers actually outdrew the Whalers in the WHA’s final campaign. The Stingers pulled in 7,048 a game to the Whalers 6,988. However, the Whalers, even though they played in a smaller market, were in slightly better shape financially and thus more attractive to the NHL.

The following season, the Bulls and Stingers reformed, joining the Central Hockey League (CHL). The Bulls lasted two more seasons, the Stingers only one. Cincinnati fans did not take the demotion well and stayed away in droves from Riverfront Coliseum.

The CHL returned for one season, 1981/82, as the Toronto Maple Leafs established a farm team in Cincinnati called the Tigers. After that team folded, the city was without pro hockey until the arrival of the Cyclones in 1990. That team, in three different incarnations across three different leagues, has played in town ever since, missing only the 2005/2006 season. The Cincinnati Mighty Ducks also played in town from 1997 to 2005, giving the city two different minor league hockey squads for eight seasons.

With the NHL Blue Jackets playing up in Columbus, it is unlikely major league hockey will ever return to Cincinnati.


3 Responses


June 19, 2020

The Stingers did not last one year as claimed. They did not even make it through their first CHL season. Birmingham did not last 2 season as claimed. They lasted only 1 1/2 seasons, folding midway through their 2nd CHL season.


June 19, 2020

You got it wrong in this article. You claimed the NHL took in the 4 WHA teams from Canada and the Hartford Whalers. In reality, the NHL only accepted 3 Canadian teams, the Winnipeg Jets now Phoenix Coyotes, the Quebec Nordiques, now Colorado Avalanche, and the Edmonton Oilers along with the Harford Whalers, now Carolina Hurricanes. That’s 4 WHA teams total, not 5, as your article suggests.

Jill McDaniel
Jill McDaniel

November 08, 2018

and then there was our “killer” bee. high sticking demotion from NHL

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