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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.


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You are in my wheelhouse now big boy, the WHA is a love of mine. I think that I wrote to you before about my autograph and card collection, I literally have every card printed from the WHA era including the Quaker Oats posters that they printed one year in lieu of cards. Find an old timer and have them tell you what they are, lol. 


  Haskin actually got an agreement from the other nine owners to split the cost of Hull's million dollar signing bonus equally, stating his coming would be good for the league. In the end, all but three reneged, they for the most part didn't have that kind of money to spend on a player who was not on their team, and Haskins and three others split the cost.


  A lot of people derided the league as a sort of 'super AHL' especialy when guys like Ron Ward who scored 2 goals in Vancouver the year before managed a whopping 51 with the New York Raiders in the leagues first year. But in truth, they were probably somewhere between the NHL and the AHL, with the gap closing every year as the WHA raided Juniors stars, ignoring the cozy archaic agreement still in place between the NHL and juniors, the WHA stealing the Howe boys for starters and then Gretzky, Messier, Goulet, Ramage, Liut, Linesman, Ramage, Hartsburg, Napier, Gingras, and so many more were pirated away from Juniors.


  And Lets not forget that Hull was not the only former NHL star to shine in the WHA. Frank Mahovlich for one, Pie McKenzie, Derek Sanderson played a whopping eight games and was given a million dollars to go away. Bernie Parent refused the lowball offer from Ballard and the Leafs and played one year in the WHA before going to the Flyers. Paul Henderson of the summit series fame played forever, as did Dave Keon. The Leafs were among the hardest hit franchises as their owner, Ballard was unbelievably cheap. Either the Leafs or tightwad Charlie O Finley and his Seals. Gerry Cheevers starred in Cleveland. J.C. Tremblay starred in Quebec as did Marc Tardif.

 You mentioned the Euro effect, the first defector beyond the Iron Curtain, Vaclav 'big Ned' Nedomansky played for the Toronto Toros and then Birmingham, in fact he was part of the first and only actual trade between the WHa and the NHL, being dealt to the Red Wings by Birmingham for Steve Durbano and Dave Hanson because Birmingham was going giddy for the rough stuff and wanted two more knuckle draggers.

 Anders Hedberg and Ulfie Nilsson came to Winnipeg from Sweden and formed possibly the greatest line in the history of Hockey that was not in the NHL (some Sovietfans will disagree). "Back then, players went up and down their lanes, the center in the middle looking left and right, what we did, Anders and I crisscrossed and zigzagged, and Ulfie found the open man. we wore people down with our style, a style that everyone in the NHL has adapted since then." Hull also stated it was in their first ever practice that the three of them clicked together. Winnipeg who was the most successful franchise in the history of the league always was innovative, first signing Hull and then the Euros, Hedberg, Nilsson, Kent Nilsson (no relation) and Dan Labraatan being just some of them. Their roster was usually fifty percent European at a time when there might have been a dozen total in the NHL.

  Banana blades. At a time when the NHL only allowed a small curve on the stick, the WHA allowed, even encouraged players to experiment with heating the wood and creating a bend in the blade that allowed for some amazing slap shots. The problem was a lot of these career AHLers could shoot it but had no idea where the puck was going. Fun stuff.

  And cool nicknames. Psycho Durbano. Bad News Bilideau. Frank 'Never' Beaton (although later in his career his nickname changed to sometimes and then to often). They didn't stop with raiding players the most marketable Ref in the game was Bill Friday who was a showboat on the ice, the league stole him away. They experimented (briefly) with orange pucks. They played in some of the worst venues in the history of hockey (In Chicago,mused coach Jacques Demers, when the winds were blowing south the blood and the feces aroma from the stockyards was so strong that it permanently settled into whatever clothes you were wearing) and some of the best and biggest barns that were ahead of their time as well.

  Franchises always on the move, changing cities to avoid collectors. A roof collapsing mid season on the Whalers home arena. A future long time NHL ref being a tough guy for the Stingers. A teenage Gretzky centering a line with fifty year old Gordie Howe in an all star game. Doug Harvey staying on the wagon for one last year as he taught Mark and Marty the subtle nuances of playing defense in the pros. So many stories, it goes on and on.

 Thanks Scott for bringing this subject up, it is a long time favorite of mine. If you get the chance pick up a copy of the Rebel League, it is well written, very few factual errors and tells a lot of the rich history of the game in a concise manner. Thanks again.

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I thought you'd enjoy this one, yave. The WHA definitely has its fair share of stories, especially considering how short its lifespan was. I really didn't get to put everything I would have liked to into this, because I didn't want to make it too long. In doing my research for this post, I could easily see how I could do quite a few posts about the league without having any trouble. I may do that at some point in the future.

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The Avco trophy was rewarded to the winner of the championship, named for the Avco insurance agency who paid a whopping five hundred bucks for the naming rights.

 The first championship was won by the Whalers over the Jets in five games. Before the fifth game the league realized that they had no trophy to present, a mad scramble ensued in which for twenty nine dollars they purchased a large golfing trophy and took the Golf guy off the top. True story, that was the original Avco cup. The league ended up with three trophies awarded over the years, one is at the Hall of fame in Toronto and the other two are scattered to the wind.

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I remember Gordie How played into his 50s.   The mention of Derek Sanderson brings back memories.  He makes Steve Ott look like a choir boy.  He used to climb into the seats in enemy arena's and fist fight fans.  Classic entertainment.  

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Howe actually came out of retirement (and underwent surgery) to return to play in the WHA. If not for that league, he might not have had that later part of his career.

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Both, actually. He was with the Aeros from 1973-77 and with the Whalers from 1977-80, with the last season being an NHL season post-merger.

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