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Tuesday, 24 May 2011

WHA DVD: Remembering The WHA

In the last DVD of the WHA series, we get a glimpse into the rest of the WHA outside of the Indianapolis Racers, the Winnipeg Jets, and the Houston Aeros. The WHA was responsible for many things that hockey players may take for granted today - higher salaries, drafting younger players, and the job creation for more international players were three of the major changes that the WHA forced the the NHL to adopt as part of their standard operating procedures. But the WHA did one major thing in that it forced the NHL into changing how it dealt with most matters because if a player wanted to play elsewhere, the WHA gave him the opportunity to play against some of the best players the world had to offer.

I'll repeat this once more before going on: this is an excellent two-DVD set about the history of the WHA, and some of their innovations and decisions that were made in the WHA that affected the rest of hockey. Journalist Timothy Gassen does a superb job in interviewing former players and personalities that were a part of the league's lore, and he really brings the stories that made the teams and players as popular as they were to light. Mr. Gassen has lots of video and audio clips in the stories, and there are lots of pictures shown as well. If you're a fan of hockey history, this DVD set is one to have in your collection.

The documentary on the WHA is fascinating. Much like yesterday, if you'd like to keep this information away from your eyes, please scroll to the bottom of this article for information on how to order this two-DVD set. Otherwise, let's get ready for some incredible stories from the WHA.

There were a ton of marquee players that made the jump over to the WHA in its first few years of operation: Hull with the Jets, Howe with the Aeros, goaltender Jacques Plante with the Oilers, Frank Mahovlich of the Toros, Dave Keon of the Racers, Derek Sanderson of the Blazers, Ralph Backstrom of the Cougars, and goaltender Gerry Cheevers of the Crusaders are all prime examples. These players served to provide legitimacy of the league and helped to bring in fans in cities where hockey had never been a household sport. You knew these names because of what they had done in the NHL, so having them in the WHA gave the league instant name recognition for its stars.

The WHA also implemented drafting players at a younger age. The WHA allowed for eighteen year-olds to be drafted in order for these younger men to get into professional hockey before the NHL could draft these players. In essence, the WHA was opening the door for younger star players to play in the WHA before the NHL even had a chance at picking them in the draft. Players like Mark Napier, Mark Howe, John Tonelli, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Mike Gartner all got a chance to play in the WHA before they had even been selected by an NHL team.

The international flavor was also present as Swedes and Finns made their way over to the WHA. The Jets had a very international flavor to their roster, and the Phoenix Roadrunners seemed to attract a large number of Finnish players. While there was a prevalent thought that Canadian hockey was superior, especially after the 1972 Summit Series, it was evident that a lot of American, Swedish, and Finnish players were very talented hockey players. The WHA provided the stage for these players, and a lot of them went on to NHL careers thanks to the WHA providing them with a place to play in North America.

The one thing that the WHA didn't have a lot of were owners with deep pockets. There seemed to be teams popping up and closing down all over the map during the WHA's era of hockey. There were many changes throughout the WHA's lifespan thanks to a number of monetary and management problems.

  • The 1972-73 inaugural season saw twelve teams take to the ice: Alberta, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, Minnesota, New England, New York, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Quebec, and Winnipeg. The Ottawa Nationals closed up shop at the end of the '72-73 season.
  • The Philadelphia Blazers became the Vancouver Blazers by the start of the 1973-74 season while the New York Raiders became the New York Golden Blades who became the New Jersey Knights by the end of the 1973-74 season. The Toronto Toros began play in the 1973-74 season. Only the Alberta Oilers changed names but didn't move - they renamed themselves as the Edmonton Oilers.
  • The Indianapolis Racers, Michigan Stags, Phoenix Roadrunners, and San Diego Mariners all joined the WHA for the 1974-75 season, but the Stags moved midway through the season to Baltimore to become the Blades. The Los Angeles Sharks and New Jersey Knights didn't make it into the 1974-75 season.
  • The Calgary Cowboys, Cincinnati Stingers and Denver Spurs joined the WHA for the 1975-76 season, but the Spurs relocated midway through the season to Ottawa to become the Civics. The Civics did not make it through to the end of the season. The Chicago Cougars didn't make it into the 1975-76 season, and the Minnesota Fighting Saints would eventually close shop at the conclusion of the season.
  • For the start of the 1976-77 season, the Toronto Toros had a new home and name as they became the Birmingham Bulls. The Minnesota Fighting Saints were resurrected, but they only lasted for this one season before closing shop for good. The Cleveland Crusaders couldn't make things work, and folded before the season began.
  • For the first time since the WHA was founded, the league would play with less than twelve teams. Only eight franchises iced clubs: Birmingham, Cincinnati, Edmonton, Houston, Indianapolis, New England, Quebec, and Winnipeg. Calgary, Minnesota, Phoenix, and San Diego could not ice teams for the 1977-78 season.
  • The Houston Aeros would cease operations for the 1978-79 season, leaving the WHA only seven teams. Of those seven teams, only the four northernmost teams made it through the WHA-NHL merger: Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec, and New England.
The WHA had many guys who became larger than life as well. Defenceman JC Tremblay of the Nordiques was always regarded as one of the best players of his time. Indianapolis goaltender Gary "Suitcase" Smith had a special knack for playing a period, stripping down and hitting the showers during an intermission, and then suiting back up and going out to play the next period. Minnesota's Bill Goldthorpe was the real-life inspiration for Slapshot's Ogie Oglethorpe. The WHA was larger than life for most of its personalities, and the fans absolutely loved their characters.

When the WHA and the NHL finally began playing exhibition games against one another, there was always some hope that the WHA would show the NHL that they were second-to-none when it comes to their hockey abilities. Indeed, that seemed to happen more often than not as the WHA won the battle between the leagues by a 33-27-7 record! The one team that every WHA team wanted was the Montreal Canadiens, but the Canadiens refused to participate in any exhibition game against the WHA. In what could be considered a preview of the future WHA teams, the Oilers, Jets, Whalers, and Nordiques had the best records of all the WHA teams against the NHL.
  • Edmonton Oilers: 5-4-0. Defeated St. Louis 3-2 in 1977, Detroit 5-4 in 1977, Minnesota 4-2 in 1978, Vancouver 5-3 in 1978, and Colorado 6-4 in 1978. Lost to Vancouver 4-3 in 1974, Pittsburgh 3-1 in 1976, Cleveland 4-2 in 1977, and Minnesota 9-3 in 1978.
  • Winnipeg Jets: 7-5-2. Defeated Pittsburgh 5-3 in 1976, St. Louis 6-2 in 1976, Minnesota 4-3 in 1977, St. Louis 6-2 in 1977, St. Louis 3-0 in 1977, Detroit 1-0 in 1977, and Minnesota 6-5 in 1978. Lost to Minnesota 2-1 in 1977, Colorado 5-3 in 1978, the New York Rangers 4-2 in 1978, and the New York Rangers 7-4 in 1978. Tied St. Louis 2-2 in 1978, and Minnesota 5-5 in 1978.
  • New England Whalers: 9-3-4. Defeated Washington 5-4 in 1977, the New York Rangers 7-4 in 1977, Atlanta 5-4 in 1977, Pittsburgh 9-0 in 1977, Atlanta 4-3 in 1977, Washington 5-2 in 1978, the New York Islanders 5-2 in 1978, Washington 5-1 in 1978, and Detroit 3-0 in 1978. Lost to Philadelphia 4-2 in 1974, Boston 5-0 in 1977, and Detroit 7-5 in 1978. Tied the New York Rangers 2-2 in 1976, Chicago 2-2 in 1977, Chicago 4-4 in 1978, and the New York Rangers 4-4 in 1978.
  • Quebec Nordiques: 6-1-1. Defeated Washington 5-1 in 1977, Colorado 3-2 in 1978, Minnesota 5-2 in 1978, Pittsburgh 3-0 in 1978, Chicago 5-2 in 1978, and the New York Rangers 4-1 in 1978. Lost to Washington 7-4 in 1978. Tied the New York Rangers 5-5 in 1977.
Against the NHL, the remaining teams included Houston (1-2-0), Toronto/Birmingham (2-4-0), Calgary (1-1-0), Cleveland (0-1-0), San Diego (1-0-0), Indianapolis (1-1-0), and Cincinnati (1-0-0). Clearly, the WHA teams were good enough to skate alongside the NHL teams, but some NHL teams wanted nothing to do with "that other league" or playing them as a form of validation that the WHA was as good or, in some cases, better than the NHL.

Clearly, there should be some shift in thinking about how the WHA changed hockey for the better, and how the NHL benefited from the rival league's presence. Unfortunately, the NHL still has made no effort to recognize the WHA or its contributions to hockey in any way, and I find this to be a shame. The WHA wrote an amazing chapter of hockey history in its short seven-year span, and hockey fans deserve better from the NHL than its complete ignorance towards the WHA.

Like the previous DVD sets, this is also a two-DVD set of amazing hockey footage and history. Disc One has the "Remembering The WHA" documentary. It also has "Restored WHA Game Highlights" which are fantastic. There's a "Vintage Houston Aeros Features" section that has all sorts of amazing Aeros footage. The jewel of the DVD, however, might be the section that contains "Gretzky's 1978 WHA Debut" with the Racers. Outstanding footage in that section!

Disc Two has a number of "Restored WHA Team Films" that, like the Aeros features, have incredible footage. How some of this stuff has made it past hockey historians is beyond me. There's also a "Gretzky DVD Trailer" for what looks to be a future DVD in this series.

If you'd like to add this DVD to your collection, please click here to get to the ordering page. You get all the features of the two discs above, and you can even get an autograph from Timothy Gassen inside the DVD case!

If you prefer the old-fashioned way of ordering, you can do that via snail mail. There are some rules, though, so please read the following:
"Money orders in U.S. funds and cashier's checks in U.S. funds are also welcome; sorry, we cannot accept personal checks or Canadian currency. Make money orders and cashier's checks payable to PCMP LLC

"You can also send well-concealed U.S. cash in a letter, but do so at your own risk. U.S. FUNDS ONLY!"
If yuo still want to go through the Postal Service, send your funds to:

PO Box 121
Tucson, Arizona
85702 USA

Three DVDs in three days, and I am completely enveloped in WHA history. I loved watching these DVDs, and I'm glad to have ordered them. If you are interested in hockey history or just love good, old-time hockey, these DVDs have something for everyone!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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