This week the Sharks hit the road again. This time the destination is Western Canada. Monday it’s Edmonton, Wednesday Calgary and then Thursday we’re off to Vancouver.
Those three stops along with the recent retirement of Mark Messier made me think back to the days of the World Hockey Association…the WHA. Messier was the last player with WHA experience to retire, putting an end to an era. All three of these Canadian cities at one time held WHA franchises.
The WHA first saw light of day in 1971 hoping to become a rival to the NHL. At that time the NHL was a 12-team circuit split into two divisions. A pair of venture capitalists, Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson saw the time ripe for expanding the scope of major league hockey. Their vision was a league that would in short time become comparable to the NHL in both quality of play and profitability.
There was no shortage of skeptics as the WHA announced their concrete plan for a new 12-team league to begin play in the fall of 1972. The WHA boldly prepared to go head to head with the NHL in six major markets: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minnesota and Los Angeles. Two previously untested US hockey cities; Cleveland and Houston joined the fold. And in a radical move the WHA announced teams in smaller Canadian cities of Ottawa, Quebec City, Winnipeg and Edmonton. The NHL in 1972 had franchises in just three Canadian cities…Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.
The WHA's next move was to secure players. The NHL had forever operated under the ‘reserve clause’, meaning that a player was property of a particular team for life unless he was traded, sold or released. Many talented players were buried in the minors, unable to crack the roster of their parent NHL club. The WHA would prove to be a boon for virtually every player in pro hockey. The WHA would refuse to recognize the reserve clause and offered contracts to hundreds of NHL, AHL, WHL and college players. Many journeyman NHLers and high level minor leaguers jumped at the opportunity of making big league money and getting an opportunity to play.
The WHA’s future remained uncertain until the day Chicago Blackhawk star Bobby Hull shocked the hockey world by accepting a 10-year, $1 million to skate for the Winnipeg Jets. After Hull’s signing, many NHL stars took a serious, long look at the WHA. Smooth skating Montreal defenseman J.C. Tremblay signed. Boston Bruin stars Ted Green, Johnny McKenzie, Derek Sanderson and Gerry Cheevers all inked WHA deals.
Lesser known, but talented prospects began to jump too, giving the WHA needed depth. The WHA had sizzle enough to make a deal with a US television network. CBS agreed to cover regular season Sunday afternoon games as well as the all-star game and playoffs.
The NHL had no choice but to pay notice to these upstarts. They were forced to offer big money deals to retain their own players. Stars like Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr, Stan Makita and Jean Ratelle would make more money than they had ever imagined. It was a good time to be a player.
The WHA endured major growing pains in that first season. Only the Minnesota team could truly compete favorably in an NHL market. The New York Raiders, who played in Madison Square Garden were provided terrible dates and were paying more in rent than they could gross at the gate. The Philadelphia Blazers and Chicago Cougars struggled in antiquated buildings. The LA Sharks had minor success in the LA Sports Arena, while the champion New England Whalers had to split their home season between the Boston Garden and the Boston Arena (home of college hockey’s Northeastern Huskies).
Real success was taking place north of the border. The Quebec Nordiques quickly gained a loyal and passionate following. The Nords played in Le Collisee and smartly build their club around a nucleus of young talented French-Canadians.
Out west the Winnipeg Jets instantly took hold under the magical skills of the Golden Jet, Bobby Hull. Everywhere the Jets played large, enthusiastic crowds appeared. Still further west the Alberta Oilers (a year later they adopted Edmonton into their name) quickly established the foundation for future success.
The key in these Canadian cities was the fans bedrock of passion for the game combined with the desire to put their towns on the sports map. Conventional wisdom had said that these Canadian cities could never support big league hockey.
In the WHA’s second season the Houston Aeros rocked the sports world by luring Gordie Howe out of retirement to play with his two talented sons…Mark and Marty. Solid growth continued. More NHL players jumped and then many drafted juniors opted for the WHA. On the ice the WHA was quickly closing the gap. Off the ice the league was beginning to suffer setbacks. Many teams were forced to relocate. LA to Detroit then Baltimore. New York to New Jersey then San Diego. Ottawa to Toronto then Birmingham, Alabama.
WHA originals, the Philadelphia Blazers moved to Vancouver and enjoyed good success right in the Canucks' backyard. But a poor lease and overextended owners forced another move. This time to Calgary. The Calgary Cowboys were a rough and tumble band who played in the 7,000 seat Calgary Coral. Calgary fans loved their team and enjoyed their new found ‘big league’ status.
Yet as the years passed the same song played out in different cities; owners lacking deep pockets, poor leases or overzealous signings of players put teams into financial jeopardy.
As the 70’s began to wind down the WHA days were numbered. Following the ’78-79 season the NHL and WHA finally agreed to a merger (of sorts). The NHL would absorb 4 WHA franchises…Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec and New England (Hartford).
Now more than 25 years later the WHA effects are still felt in professional hockey. The WHA tapped Europe as a source of high level talent well before the NHL discovered the likes of Forsberg, Selanne and Hossa. The WHA first installed the overtime period to settle ties and tweeked rules to enhance scoring. The WHA promoted international play even to the point of including international games into the regular season standings.
Many outstanding players got their start in the WHA. The likes of Mark Messier, Mike Gartner, Michel Goulet, Rick Vaive, Craig Hartsburg and a skinny kid who wore #99. But maybe most importantly the WHA spread the game to new markets in both Canada and the US, building a foundation for growth of the NHL we see today.
So as we take in the great hockey atmosphere this week in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, it’s time for a tip of the hat to the old World Hockey Association.
For Seagate Technology’s In The Crease, I’m Frank Albin