The Cincinnati Stingers hockey team began life in the upstart World Hockey Association in the winter of 1975-76. Owners Bill DeWitt Jr. and Brian Heekin originally set out to get an NHL expansion club for the Queen City, failed, and then accepted the first expansion franchise awarded by the fledgling WHA as a fallback option in May 1973. The hockey team was mothballed for two years as Dewitt Jr. and Heekin worked to finance and build Riverfront Coliseum. The arena finally opened in September 1975 with the Stingers as its primary tenant.
Meanwhile, the WHA and the NHL were embroiled in a costly arms race for talent. Serious merger talks began in 1976. In the summer of 1977, a merger agreement was hammered out that would see the Stingers join the NHL in the winter of 1977-78, but the measure failed by a single vote when put to the NHL owners, many of whom still harbored enormous ill will towards the WHA owners for putting an end to their monopoly and driving up salaries.
It took two years to get the parties back to agreement, during which time the WHA contracted to only six teams. The Stingers were always a somewhat weak entry in the league, losing in excess of $1 million in each of their four WHA seasons from 1975 to 1979. The club nearly folded in the summer of 1978 before issuing a ticket sales ultimatum to the public through the Chamber of Commerce and the Office of Mayor Jerry Springer (yes, that Jerry Springer). When the 1979 NHL-WHA merger finally went through, the Stingers were left out. The WHA’s four eldest clubs – the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets – were accepted into the NHL but forced to pay $6 million expansion fees. The WHA’s weaker sisters – the Stingers and the Birmingham Bulls – were paid to go away. DeWitt and Heekin accepted a reported buyout of $3.15 million.
Both Cincinnati and Birmingham then re-formed as minor league franchises in the Central Hockey League for the 1979-80 season. The Stingers would serve as a shared farm club for the Jets, Nordiques, Oilers and Whalers, receiving prospects and backstop for any financial deficits from the four former WHA clubs that made the leap to the NHL.
But after four years of top flight WHA competition, Cincinnati hockey fans had little use for the CHL, or for the Stingers’ humiliating new status as a lowly farm club for their own former rivals. Fewer than 20,000 fans turned out for the Stingers first 16 home dates at the Riverfront Coliseum. Saddled with an unpopular minor league club paying big city rent at the Riverfront Coliseum, the Stingers’ NHL paymasters quickly grew unhappy with the arrangement:
“I’m not in business to support hockey for the citizens of Cincinnati, and I don’t think they would expect it of me,” Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington told The Associated Press. “When you are drawing 800 or 900 people to the games, it’s obvious you are losing a lot of money. My patience is wearing pretty thin.”
By December, it was clear the team could not go on. The end came in ignominious fashion on December 18th, 1979, with the Stingers getting blasted 10-1 by the visiting Oklahoma City Stars on a dreary Tuesday night at the Coliseum. Only 949 fans bothered to show. Stingers officials announced the team was out of business effective immediately as soon as the final siren sounded.
CHL Commissioner Bud Poile blamed “the highest hockey rent in the world” at Riverfront (a reported $7,300 per game per The Associated Press) for the Stinger’s untimely demise, adding: “I hope it hasn’t killed hockey in the area.”
It didn’t. Strangely, the CHL took another crack at Cincinnati less than two years later. But the Cincinnati Tigers lasted only a single season at Riverfront Coliseum in the winter of 1981-82 before they too folded. The Central Hockey League itself followed not long afterwards, closing up shop in May 1984.
A few pieces of late-era Stingers trivia:
- The Stingers folded on December 18, 1979 with a 11-21-1 record after playing 33 games of an intended 80 game schedule.
- Stingers leading scorer Bernie Saunders (13 goals, 11 assists) is the brother of ESPN anchor John Saunders. He appeared in four games with the Quebec Nordiques during the 1979-80 season, becoming only the 5th black player to skate in the NHL.