In the same way that Baseball owes some of its success to the Negro Leagues, the NFL owes a debt to the AFL, and the NBA now looks more like the ABA of old, so too does the NHL owe a huge debt to the World Hockey Association. Interestingly enough, the ABA and WHA were both the brain child of the same group of guys: Dennis Murphy, Gary Davidson, and Don Regan. As documented in Ed Willes book, The Rebel League, this “wild west” version of hockey changed the game forever. In the same way that the culture and style of play in the ABA would forever change basketball, and the wide open passing attacks of the AFL changed football, the way the game was played in the WHA changed the way the game of hockey was played in America.
As any league that operated in the 70’s, the games were entertaining but the stories surrounding the players kept your attention. The WHA (very reminiscent of “Bull Durham”) was comprised of hockey journeymen, up and coming stars, and a few proven stars whose contracts were outrageous compared to the NHL and the others on their teams. Teams were comprised of mostly skill players, or mostly goons (think the Burmingham Bulls late in the WHA). There were instances where they snuck players with warrents out of town hidden in equipment carts, coaches had to dress for pregame skates to have the minimum number of players, dads played on the same line with their sons (Gordie Howe, with Mark and Marty), and teamates would get into brawls with fans and each other (they didn’t know if they could penalize teamates for getting into fights with each other).
This is the league that promoted a blue puck, a hill at center ice in on rink, a three tiered bench, slushie ice because the machines didn’t work, and the inspiration for the movie “Slap Shot”. They were financially unstable, with teams folding left and right and zamboni’s being parked behind busses not to be moved until payment arrived. They were inventive in marketing, taking hockey to the sunbelt with franchises in LA, Pheonix, Birmingham, Miami, and Houston.
They were survivors in a time when the NHL ruled hockey. Because of the WHA, the way hockey contracts were structured changed, players were given rights for the first time, kids no longer had to wait until they were 20 to get a contract, and they were paid like other professional athletes. The WHA changed the way the players were treated.
But ultimately it ended with the 4 team merger in 1979. Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford all joined the NHL…but in the only way the WHA could. The WHA and NHL had been in negations to merge for a time when a vote came up short for the merger. When the media released that it was Vancouver and Montreal that had stopped the merger with their vote, Canadians became incensed. Montreal was owned by Molson Beer and Vancouver sold Molson products. The people of Quebec, Winnipeg, and Edmonton marched on the Molson breweries and plants in their cities, called in bomb threats, and even shot out a window in protest of the dissenting voters. The NHL became the NHL of today partially because of some beer riots. Fascinating.
The league that gave us Gordie Howe’s twilight, Wayne Gretzkey’s first and second teams (Indianapolis Racers and Edmonton Oilers), the first Eastern Europeans in American Hockey, the finesse game, and 18 year old stars, hockey in the Sun Belt, and the last team to beat the USSR before the 1980 Olympics, was now part of the establishment. And this book tells all the stories. A great read for any hockey fan.