The Legacy of the WHA
The history of top level North American professional sports is littered with the debris of numerous upstart leagues that burst onto the scene to challenge the “big kids” on the block. Some, most notably the American Football League, which accomplished a full merger with the NFL, have been quite successful, while others have disappeared after only a season or two, leaving little trace of their existence.
The success of such leagues can be measured in many different ways. In this post, I want to take a look at the legacy of the World Hockey Association. In one respect, it was not as successful as the AFL in that it never fully gained the acceptance of the NHL and was not part of a total merger with all of its teams accepted as the AFL was, but it still cannot be denied that it had a major impact on the sport of hockey in North America and the NHL itself.
In the 1970’s, professional sports did not offer the high salaries that athletes draw today. The average salary in the NHL in 1972 was around $25,000, equivalent to about $140,000 in 2015 dollars. Additionally, the NHL had a reserve clause at that time, which automatically renewed a player’s contract with his team for one year upon its expiration. As such, unlike today, players were not able to bargain with other teams, possibly gaining a higher salary from another team. The players were locked into contract with their team, leaving them at the mercy of the organization for their pay.
It was the reserve clause and the low salaries that drove the founders of the WHA to establish their new league. Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, who had previously created the American Basketball Association to rival the NBA, turned their attention to rectifying the injustice they saw in the NHL’s contract rules. Upon its creation, the WHA promised not only to avoid the reserve clause, but to offer higher salaries than the NHL. Knowing that it would have to attract star players to achieve an appearance of legitimacy, the WHA immediately set its sights on the biggest star of the day, Bobby Hull.
Winnipeg Jets owner Ben Hatskin approached Hull, intending to lure him into the upstart league. When asked what it would take to get him to defect to the WHA, Hull jokingly replied, “A million dollars.” Enlisting the help of other league owners, Hatskin raised the necessary funds and offered Hull a contract with a one million dollar signing bonus, an additional million for the first four years and $100,000 a year for the next six. It was an offer too good to pass up, and Hull decided to make the jump. The NHL and the Chicago Black Hawks had no intention of letting their top star go without a fight. The result was a legal battle that struck down the NFL’s reserve clause, opening professional hockey up to free agency once and for all, thus accomplishing the top goal of the league’s founders.
While contract reform was the number one priority for the WHA, that is not the only major change that the league brought about. Of the four major professional sports leagues, the NHL proved to be the most resistant to expansion. From the 1942-43 season until the 1966-67 season, the NHL existed with only six teams, the so-called “Original Six.” The league showed no interest in any expansion until it was informed in 1965 that without expansion, it would not receive a television deal, and that the networks would consider broadcasting Western Hockey League games. Fearing the loss of television revenues and the emergence of a rival league, the NHL expanded to twelve teams for the 1967-68 season. Following outrage over Vancouver’s being passed over for expansion, the league expanded once more in the 1970-71 season, growing to fourteen teams.
Whether or not the NHL would have pursued further expansion at that point could be debated, but what cannot be debated is that the WHA sped up the expansion process. The WHA attempted to challenge NHL supremacy directly in some markets, but also placed teams in certain markets that were unserved by the established league. That pushed the NHL to action, and the league added the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames to its ranks in the 1972-73 season in an effort to keep the WHA out of the newly built Nassau Coliseum and Omni Coliseum. After the two leagues “merged” prior to the 1979-80 season, the NHL was composed of 21 teams, more than tripling its size in only twelve years.
One final aspect of the WHA’s impact that we will consider is its creation of the modern international flavor of North American Hockey. In the 1966-67 season, the last of the Original Six era, 97% of NHL players hailed from Canada. In the 1971-72 season, the last season before the creation of the WHA, the number was 95%. A noticeable drop in that number took place during the WHA’s existence, and in the first post-merger season, the number was 84%. After the 1977-78 expansion of the NHL, the two leagues had a combined 30 teams, five times more than the number of top level teams barely a decade earlier. This rapid expansion strained the talent pool, and to cope, teams in both leagues looked to American and European players to fill their rosters. In the 2014-15 season, eight nations can claim to be home to at least one percent of players active during the season, with six producing over three percent each – a far cry from the earlier single nation domination of the sport.
The WHA disappeared from the scene 35 years ago, but its impact on the sport of hockey is still obvious. Whether we realize it or not, the game as we know it today would be far, far different if not for an upstart league than appeared and disappeared within a decade, but shook the status quo to its core. This is the legacy of the World Hockey Association.