As Dr. Evil learned in the original Austin Powers movie, “one meeeeeellion dollars” doesn’t get the respect it once did. However, in 1972 it was an extraordinary amount of money, and the World Hockey Association (WHA) wanted to pay it to one player in an effort to buy immediate credibility for a league yet to play a single game.
That player, of course, was Bobby Hull.
By 1972 Robert Marvin Hull was an athletic demi-god in one of the world’s most important cities. During his time as teammates with Stan Mikita in the Madhouse on Madison, the Blackhawks were the best team in America’s second largest city.
Neither MJ nor Walter Payton had yet begun their legendary Chicago careers, so not only was Hull the most prominent player in the NHL, he was at that time also the most famous professional athlete in the city’s history.
Here then was Bobby Hull’s choice: remain a well-paid, popular jock in an important, dynamic city where he was as widely recognized as the mayor or toss all that and move to… Winnipeg. A fine place, to be sure, but Winnipeg nonetheless.
The million dollar offer Hull received from the WHA wasn’t actually a suitcase filled with gold ingots that he could immediately hand to a teller at the First National Bank of Manitoba; rather, it was the promise of a million dollars, made by a team that hadn’t yet played a game in a league that knew neither how many teams would actually exist on opening night nor in which arenas those teams which survived that long would actually play.
Promises of future riches are not always kept; ask someone who received stock options during the 1990s from a company that promptly went out of business.
So, here again was Hull’s choice in 1972: accept a pretty good contract offer from an established NHL club and rest comfortably knowing payment was guaranteed. Or sign with an insurgent league, the very existence of which was being actively opposed by a squadron of well-paid lawyers, and accept the risk of any and all checks bouncing higher than an unfrozen puck.
Hull made his choice, and one would hope that his peers and the players who followed him into professional hockey were giving him their own standing ovation on the night last March when he was honored at the United Center. By choosing Robert Frost’s ‘road less travelled,’ Hull did more to improve conditions for pro hockey players than anyone else before or since. His decision to sign with the Winnipeg Jets had two immediate results:
First, it doubled the number of players earning major league money in 1972. Hull’s decision to play for Winnipeg validated the WHA as a major league instead of a minor league with pretensions. The league needed approximately 300 players to staff its 12 rosters. In addition, the NHL decided to accelerate its own expansion timetable, adding teams in Atlanta and Long Island to defend those markets from WHA incursions.
The new teams needed about 25 players each for another 50 pro hockey jobs. Thus, Hull’s signature on the Winnipeg contract essentially increased the number of major league hockey teams from 12 to 26 in one year.
Second, he gave individual players something they never had before: leverage in contract negotiations. For the first time, players actually had a second major league to which to market their skills and that immediately resulted in upward pressure on salaries in the NHL. Many players (as well as officials and coaches) who chose to stay in the NHL benefited from those who accepted the risks and signed with the WHA.
The impact of this leverage and the sudden demand for players was immediate, quantifiable, dramatic, and enduring. According to the Ed Willes’ wonderful book The Rebel League Hull “singlehandedly blew open the market for players and allowed his generation and succeeding generations an opportunity at a real payday.”
Accepting a million dollar offer may not qualify as a Kennedyesque ‘Profile in Courage,’ but Hull’s 1972 decision carried with it a degree of risk the passage of time has allowed people to forget. The WHA did subsequently survive for seven tumultuous years; all of the players got some of their money while some of the players got all of their money.
However, there were no guarantees of any kind when Hull put his pen to Winnipeg paper, and players past and present should be grateful the 'Golden Jet' had enough guts to bet on himself and the new league.