Hockey Headlines

Friday, 8 July 2011

Before They Hit The Ice

Way back in 1971 and into the early parts of 1972, there was a great movement started by two men, Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, who seemed to play the role of rebel against some of the major professional sports leagues. Murphy and Davidson were the founders of the American Basketball Association that rivaled the NBA, and they also founded the WHA which rivaled the NHL. In starting the WHA, a lot of the meetings were undocumented from as far as I can tell, but I once again turn to the Sports Illustrated Vault to learn a little more about what was going on during these formative years of the WHA before they became the major competitor for business with the NHL.

It seems that the WHA had grandiose visions of how to promote their league from the moment they hit the ground: acquire the best players possible who were not under contract, and draft younger players than the NHL to give the league an infusion of youth that could buoy some of the franchises who had signed aging superstars. The weapon that the WHA brought to the table was cold, hard cash, and the NHL franchises weren't used to this tactic. Sports Illustrated's Mark Mulvoy wrote a very interesting article about this that was published on February 28, 1972. I just want to take a quick look at some of the items that Mr. Mulvoy points out in his excellent piece.

Yes, the Minnesota Fighting Saints did indeed select Minnesota Governor Wendell Anderson in the WHA Draft. The problem with the Saints' statement of "he has the type of job where he might become available at any time" was a little ridiculous since he had just taken office on January 4, 1971! Anderson would hold office in Minnesota until December 29, 1976 when he resigned his Governor's position to become a US Senator. He did play with the US Olympic hockey team that brought home a silver medal from the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. For what it's worth, Anderson never once suited up for any team in the WHA.

The Miami Screaming Eagles didn't even make it to the ice with Lester Patrick as their general manager. The Screaming Eagles closed up shop and headed north to the City of Brotherly Love where they became the Philadelphia Blazers. The offers made to NHL stars Derek Sanderson and Bernie Parent were accepted, and the Blazers had themselves two impressive NHL names on their roster. As you can see from the Parent photo, he wore #00 in net, making him the first recorded North American professional goalie to wear that number and paving the way for John Davidson and Martin Biron.

Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden was lured by the Los Angeles Sharks to come to California after his Canadiens fizzled out of the playoffs in six games in 1971-72. Dryden decided to decline the offer made by the WHA and remain with the Canadiens for the 1972-73 season, and it turned out to be a very intelligent decision. Dryden posted a record of 33-7-13 behind the Canadiens' blueliners, and the Montreal Canadiens captured the Stanley Cup that year.

The part that really caught my attention was the portion with Alan Eagleson. Eagleson was the most powerful man in hockey for the majority of the 1970s, so he was definitely a well-known figure amongst the NHL management and the NHL players. To hear him actually offer up any player in the NHL if the WHA was willing to pay seems a little backwards considering the leverage he had in the NHL's ranks.

"If your money is green, I'll get you all the NHL players you want. If it isn't, well, forget it."
No offence to anyone who he represented, but it sounds like Eagleson was dealing in used cars, not hockey players' legal representation with management.

I found it shocking that the San Francisco franchise that was owned by Davidson was sold to a group from Quebec City for $215,000 before they had even signed one player. The WHA owners reportedly saw the ownership of a franchise by the men who ran the league as a conflict of interest, and I think that's a fair assessment. In addition to the $215,000 from the Quebec group, each WHA team put in $25,000 as a "finder's fee". I'm not sure what needed to be found other than someone with some dough behind their name, but the league started off with nearly half a million dollars of leverage behind their name.

The Los Angeles Aces suddenly found themselves all alone in the WHA with the San Francisco team being sold, and they jumped at the opportunity to grab San Francisco's team name. Thus, the Quebec Nordiques were born out of the sale of the San Francisco franchise, and the Los Angeles Aces became the Los Angeles Sharks. I find that kind of weird because the Quebec Aces were a very well-known Quebec team, but they decided to go with Nordiques despite the Los Angeles franchise abandoning that name. Opportunity possibly missed, but the Nordiques definitely made their own name over the years.

From the very beginning, the WHA had overtime - something the NHL only used in the playoffs to decide a winner up to that point. The idea of orange pucks didn't fly, but they did experiment with both blue pucks and red pucks to see if they made any difference to players and fans alike. The red pucks didn't make it very far, but the blue pucks were actually used in games!

While Minnesota certainly survived for a while in the WHA and the New England franchise eventually became the Hartford Whalers of the NHL, the Dayton, Ohio franchise was moved before they even hit the ice. Reportedly, Paul Deneau, the owner of the Dayton Aeros, was so disenchanted with the lack of interest in the WHA team that he decided to move the franchise before the team hit the ice. They landed in Houston, Texas, and the Houston Aeros became one of the strongest teams in the WHA's history both on and off the ice.

The Chicago Cougars never did find a suitable home for their franchise, but they did play three seasons out of the run-down International Amphitheatre. It appeared that the team may be moving into a new arena after land was secured in Rosemont, but Cougars owners Walter and Jordon Kaiser were unable to secure enough funds to have an arena built. The land that they had secured eventually became an arena site, but not owned by the Cougars. Instead, an arena named the Rosemont Horizon was built there, and was later named to Allstate Arena which now houses the AHL's Chicago Wolves.

To add to the Cougars' arena woes, the 1974 WHA Championship against the Houston Aeros saw the Cougars play their home games in a shopping mall - I kid you not! Because a showing of Peter Pan had been booked in the International Amphitheater, the Cougars were bumped and had to find another place to play. After considering Cleveland as a potential destination, the team decided that it was better to stay closer to home and chose the Randhurst Twin Ice Arena in Mount Prospect as their home arena for this series despite the arena holding around 2000 people maximum. The WHA Final didn't go well as the Aeros knocked the Cougars off in front of sparse crowds.

Needless to say, the initial meetings were well-documented by Mr. Mulvoy as this new professional hockey league was getting its start. The WHA provided a lot of interesting stories as it began play in 1972-73, but these stories behind the stories are what makes for such interesting history. Thanks to the Sports Illustrated Vault, they live on today!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

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