World Hockey Association

From Academic Kids

The World Hockey Association (French: Association Mondiale de Hockey) was a professional ice hockey league in North America from 1972 to 1979. It was the first major competition for the National Hockey League since the collapse of the Western Hockey League in 1926. Although the WHA was not the first league since that time to attempt to challenge the NHL's supremacy, it was by far the most successful. A key part of its success was its firm stance in not recognizing the reserve clause that found its way onto NHL contracts of the time, and its active scouting of players from all over the world, in contrast to the mainly-North American NHL. However, the WHA was also known for its unstable teams and its large player salaries, a problem that eventually made its way to the NHL, and remains to this day.

The WHA hoped to capitalize on the lack of hockey teams in a number of major cities, it also hoped to attract the best players by paying more than the cartel of NHL owners were.

Contents

History

The league was founded by American promoters Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, the founder and first president of the American Basketball Association, respectively. Murphy and Davidson were quick to bring Canadian investor Bill Hunter into the fold. Hunter was considered one of the most powerful men in hockey not associated into the NHL, and with his help, the WHA had solid backing in Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg, potentially giving the new league four Western Canadian teams - one more than the NHL had in all of Canada at the time.

Part of the WHA's success was its abolishment of the reserve clause in its contracts, as well as the fact that it would also not honor the reserve clauses in NHL contracts. As many players employed by the NHL were set to have their contracts expire in 1972, many would try to defect to the WHA as a negotiation tool with their teams, or, in any event, consider offers to play for the fledgling league before looking to new NHL contracts. Some, including many stars such as Bobby Hull, would carry out their threat and join the WHA. The NHL, for its part, did nothing, believing the WHA would fold before their first season. When it was apparent that the WHA would play, the NHL responded by adding the New York Islanders and the Atlanta Flames into their fold.

On November of 1971, twelve teams were formally announced. They included teams from cities without NHL teams such as the Miami Screaming Eagles -- possibly the best known hockey franchise never actually to take the ice -- as well as teams in cities where it was felt there was room for more than one team, such as the Los Angeles Sharks, Chicago Cougars, and the New York Raiders. Of the original twelve teams, a few, such as the Dayton Aeros and the San Francisco Seahawks, folded, citing arena troubles. These two franchises were moved to become the Houston Aeros and Quebec Nordiques, respectively. Other teams, such as the Calgary Broncos and the Screaming Eagles, folded outright. The Philadelphia Blazers and the Cleveland Crusaders would replace the Screaming Eagles and the Broncos.

Although the league had many players under contract by June of 1972, including a few NHL stars such as Bernie Parent, many of its players were career minor leaguers and college players. Thus, the new league was not considered much of a threat - that is, until Bobby Hull, arguably the NHL's top player at the time, moved to the new league. Hull, who considered moving to the WHA as part of a negotiation tactic with the Chicago Blackhawks, had jokingly told reporters that he would only move to the WHA for a million dollars, at that time a ridiculous amount of money for a hockey player. But to everyone's surprise the Winnipeg Jets accepted the offer, and Hull accepted and moved to the WHA. Hull had signed a five-year, million-dollar contract, with a million-dollar signing bonus. Hull's signing attracted a few other top stars such as Gerry Cheevers, Derek Sanderson, and J. C. Tremblay.

The WHA officially made its debut on October 11, 1972 in the Ottawa Civic Center, when the Alberta Oilers defeated the Ottawa Nationals 7-4. Although the quality of hockey was predictably below those of the NHL, the WHA had indeed made stars out of many players that had little or no playing time in the NHL. The New England Whalers would eventually win the WHA's World Trophy (later renamed the Avco Cup when the Avco Financial Services Corporation became its main sponsor).

However, the league was suffering. Big stars lacked supporting players, and many teams often found themselves in financial difficulty, folding or moving from one city to another - often in mid-season. The New York franchise was a key example: as the NHL's Islanders had locked up Nassau Coliseum for their own use, the WHA were forced to play in lesser arenas, often without visitor's locker rooms. Because of this, the franchise went through several ownership changes year after year after year. Part of the financial troubles was also attributed to the high player salaries: Derek Sanderson was paid large amounts of cash to play for the WHA, but when his on-ice performance suffered, he was paid even more money to sit at home. Despite this, the WHA had several key victories, including a court ruling which prevented the NHL from binding players to NHL teams via the reserve clause, and the signings of more NHL stars such as Marc Tardif and Gordie Howe, and in later years, Frank Mahovlich and Paul Henderson. In 1974, the WHA began employing European players -- which the NHL had largely ignored up to that time -- such as Swedish players Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson and Czech star Vaclav Nedomansky.

By 1976, it had become evident that the WHA's franchises were teetering on the verge of existence, with stable teams few and far between, and that the combined efforts of the NHL and WHA had badly strained the talent pool. Merger discussions then began, with one popular proposal (but not popular enough among the NHL owners) having six of the then eight WHA teams moving to the NHL. Another idea had the Edmonton Oilers and the New England Whalers moving to the NHL, with the Winnipeg Jets following a year later. Neither of these ideas were accepted.

The final two seasons of the WHA saw the debut of many superstars, some of which became hockey legends in the NHL. They included Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Rob Ramage, Ken Linseman, and Mike Gartner. However, by the end of the final season, only six teams remained. Facing financial difficulty and unable to meet payrolls, the WHA and the NHL came to an agreement on March 22, 1979, where the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers (renamed the Hartford Whalers), Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets joined the NHL while the Birmingham Bulls and the Cincinnati Stingers were paid generous amounts of money to fold.

The Effects of the WHA

With the WHA no more, the four teams that were formerly of the WHA were predicted to not perform well against NHL competition. Each of the four teams did respectably well in their first year, with the Whalers and Oilers earning playoff berths. The Oilers would go on to a Stanley Cup dynasty in the 1980s. As for the other three teams, financial interests from the United States would lead those teams southbound.

The WHA had many lasting effects on NHL hockey. Scouts no longer scoured the Canadian wilderness for the next big NHL superstar, instead looking overseas for the best that Europe could offer. The WHA also ended the NHL policy of paying its players only a fraction of the league's profits and, combined with the abolition of the reserve clause, led to much higher player salaries.

The Revived Dream

In 2003 it was announced that a new WHA with Bobby Hull as commissioner was in the works. It was to begin operations in 2004-2005, to coincide with the expected shutdown of the NHL due to labour problems. Cities planned for teams included Florida, Toronto, Hamilton, Halifax, Detroit, Dallas and Quebec City. Vancouver was considering to be the 8th team. Hull hoped that elite players, including his son Brett Hull will decide to play in the WHA while the NHL was shut down. However, the league never got beyond the planning stages, and was recently sold to an investor; whether the league will ever get off the ground is problematic. See new World Hockey Association.

AVCO World Trophy winners

  • 1972-73 New England Whalers (later Hartford)
  • 1973-74 Houston Aeros
  • 1974-75 Houston Aeros
  • 1975-76 Winnipeg Jets
  • 1976-77 Quebec Nordiques
  • 1977-78 Winnipeg Jets
  • 1978-79 Winnipeg Jets

WHA Teams

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