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by Erin Pollina / Buffalo Sabres
Harry Neale has been called many things during his 30-year career in hockey - including amateur scout, head coach and color commentator.

A criminal, however, is not a name he ever thought would be among them.

But thanks to the effervescent league known as the World Hockey Association, Neale can laugh as he reflects not only on the memory of being implicated as a thief, but also at the wacky establishment that provided the material – and subsequently paved the way for his livelihood.

“It was an adventure to say the least,” Neale recalled, as a coach of both the Minnesota Fighting Saints and the New England Whalers during the WHA’s seven-year history.

In the capricious rebel league that saw 26 teams come and go from 1972-1979, Neale thought he had seen it all – until he made his way to the airport for a road trip to Houston in 1976.

“We were in the process of being sold, or at least we thought we were being sold,” Neale said of the Fighting Saints. “With all of the financial issues a mess, we only got paid once in a two-month span… When the players went to the bank and their paycheck wasn’t there, it was a tough time.”

Neale convinced the general manager, Glen Sonmour, and owner Wayne Belisle that he could convince the team to go on the trip without getting paid, provided that he could at least give them meal money.

“But there we were in the Minnesota airport with no per diem,” Neale said. “And just before we got on the plane, I looked down the terminal and there was Wayne with a big paper bag of cash. He threw the thing at me and said ‘well that should be enough!’”

Belisle had gone to all his friends in the bar business in Minnesota and asked for contributions. Neale and Sonmour began sorting it into piles for the players when the pilot came to the back of the plane with some bad news.

“He told us ‘I’m sorry but I have a complaint,’” Neale said. “‘The lady two rows up on the other side thinks you two robbed a bank!’

“Fortunately, the pilot was a bit of a hockey fan and knew who we were so we calmed down the possible emergency of two thieves on a plane. But that was kind of a humorous story I don’t think too many people in the hockey business have experienced.”

While the WHA had an abundance of financial problems during its short existence, Neale says he has a soft spot for the league that gave him a chance to work in professional hockey.

The current Buffalo Sabres broadcaster began his career as an unofficial scout with the Fighting Saints in 1972. Neale was coaching an OHL team in Hamilton when his long-time friend Sonmour accepted aWHA job recruiting for Minnesota and frequently asked about junior players. Soon Neale was promoted to an assistant coach and eventually took over as a head coach in the league for all seven seasons, right up until its merger with the NHL in 1979 – a union that celebrates its 30-year anniversary on June 22

Four surviving WHA teams joined the NHL the following season, including Neale’s New England Whalers, the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets.

“I have very fond memories of my days there and whenever I bump into players that played for me, we have a few laughs thinking over some of the crazy stories from it,” Neale said of the World Hockey Association. “For me it was a chance to coach at a very competitive level and coach some very good hockey players.”

Gordie Howe (Photo: Google Images)
Much to the delight of Neale, that list includes none other than Mr. Hockey himself.

Gordie Howe joined the WHA with the encouragement of his family following a storied 25 years in the NHL and four Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings.

Howe’s sons, Mark and Marty, were both offered contracts with the Houston Aeros and urged their father to come out of retirement and join them on the roster.

After four seasons – and two championships – with the Aeros, Howe and his sons moved to play with the Whalers under the reign of Neale.

“I remember I was on the bench one night and yelled ‘Howe you’re line is next’ and just thinking ‘Wow, I never thought I would say those words’” Neale said. “I finally told him one day, ‘ya know Gordie I used to be you in my driveway when I was growing up… You were my favorite player.’

“Gordie just looked up from his newspaper and asked ‘did I ever score?’

“To this day I feel privileged to coach, in my mind, the greatest player that ever lived.”

Neale also had the opportunity to coach players such as Dave Keon, The Carlson brothers (famously depicted as the Hanson Brothers in the movie Slapshot), Paul Holmgren and even Bruce Boudreau.

While many know Boudreau as the current coach of the Washington Capitals, Neale remembers him quite differently.

“He was one of the worst-dressed players I’ve ever coached,” Neale laughed. “They called him Dirt… He had some hair back then and even that was never kept.

“We always get a big laugh out of that when he comes to town.”

Neale recalled countless stories of his former WHA players that included bench-clearing brawls, appalling locker room conditions – leading to more than one cockroach competition amongst teammates to find the biggest one – and an overall culture that was unique unto itself.

But when asked if he could change anything and find a different path to professional hockey, Neale had a firm response.

“Never,” he said. “I have nothing but wonderful memories.”

And no thief can take those away from him.
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