Sunday, 15 August 2010

Revisiting The WHA

As you're aware, I love hockey history. There are countless stories that have gone down in history that have been forgotten where today's hockey culture could learn a lot. I'm not sure why the NHL fails to recognize the efforts put forth by a number of players in the WHA, but it is what it is at the Hockey Hall of Fame, and I'll leave it at that. The stories that come out of that league about the way things were done behind the scenes, though, are close to being stories presented by Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone. Today is one such story, and it was reported in Sports Illustrated on May 28, 1979 by Reyn Davis. Enjoy the article, and I'll pick up some of the interesting points below.

  • "Joanne Hull was screaming at her husband: 'Why would you ever want to live in Winnipeg and play for that fat Jew?'" Wow. I'm not sure how many players' wives would negotiate with their husbands that way today, but Joanne Hull made it clear that she was not happy about Bobby Hull's dealings with Ben Hatskin.
  • "[I]t will live again next season when New England, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebec—the four hearty survivors of the 32 teams that at one time or another belonged to the "other" league—join the NHL". I'll be honest when I say that I didn't know that there were 32 franchises that once played in the WHA. And here we sit today with the NHL at 30 franchises and "struggling". Deja vu, anyone? More on this below.
  • "Lured from the Boston Bruins by a $2.7 million contract with the Philadelphia Blazers, Sanderson played just six games for Philly before he became persona non grata because of his frequent disappearances". Sanderson was thought to be a big-time player in the same mold as Hull, but it seemed as though he didn't care about hockey in the least.
  • "One team had four names—New York Raiders, New York Golden Blades, New Jersey Knights and San Diego Mariners. Norm Ferguson was the captain and player representative of all four clubs. 'I remember the day I signed with the Raiders,' Ferguson says. 'It was April Fools' Day of 1972.'" 'Nuff said there, I suppose.
  • "When the Golden Blades couldn't meet their second payroll in 1973, the franchise was placed in receivership by the league and whisked off to Cherry Hill, N.J., just a step ahead of the bailiff." You are reading that correctly - the Golden Blades lasted exactly one two-week pay period before relocating. Ouch.
  • "There were no showers in the visiting team's dressing room, so the opposition had to dress at the Holiday Inn two miles up the road." This is in regards to the Cherry Hill Arena that the New Jersey Knights played in. No showers? That's inexcusable.
  • "Five Crusaders had their cars stolen out of the parking lot at the Arena, Wayne Muloin and Tom Edur both losing new Thunderbirds on the same night. Steve Thomas, the Crusaders' trainer, who often had to work at the Arena late at night, was mugged three times one winter." Who would want to see hockey in Cleveland with that kind of track record? Forget taking your kids to the game!
  • "A good travel agent was as valuable as a 40-goal scorer." The WHA travel schedule was simply brutal compared to the NHL of today. Because most WHA franchises were in "outposts" compared to their NHL brethren, the comment above proved true.
  • "[T]hose Jets are the last professional team to have beaten the Soviet National team". Those Jets are the 1977-78 Jets, regarded as perhaps the best team to have ever played in the WHA. Bobby Hull, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Ulf Nilsson, and Anders Hedberg brought fans to their feet every time they were on the ice.
To put this in perspective, only four teams survived the NHL-WHA merger, if you can call it that: the Winnipeg Jets, the Edmonton Oilers, the New England Whalers, and the Quebec Nordiques. Those that didn't survive include "the New York Raiders, the New York Golden Blades, the New Jersey Knights, the San Diego Mariners, the Houston Aeros, the Philadelphia Blazers, the Vancouver Blazers, the Alberta Oilers, the Calgary Cowboys, the Minnesota Fighting Saints, the Chicago Cougars, the Denver Spurs, the Ottawa Civics, the Ottawa Nationals, the Toronto Toros, the Los Angeles Sharks, the Michigan Stags, the Baltimore Blades, the Cleveland Crusaders, the Minnesota New Fighting Saints, the Phoenix Roadrunners, the Cincinnati Stingers, the Birmingham Bulls, the Indianapolis Racers—plus the Calgary Broncos and the Miami Screaming Eagles, who never got on the ice, and San Francisco and Dayton, which were not around long enough even to get nicknames."

That's a pretty extensive list of teams that met their ultimate demise, considering that the WHA only existed from 1972 until 1979. As seen above, the New York Golden Blades only lasted two weeks before moving to New Jersey, while the Ottawa Civics only lasted one game before moving to Denver to become the Denver Spurs.

All in all, the WHA was a pretty crazy era in hockey, and it's full of great history. Thanks to Sports Illustrated's vault, we get to read about it and relive the insanity a little more.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


AllyK00 said...

Great article. Nothing like remembering a crazy time in hockey history to get us though these long summer months....

Unknown said...

"...the Ottawa Civics only lasted one game before moving to Denver to become the Denver Spurs."

This calls for a couple of corrections. First, the move was the other way around. Prior to the 1975-76 season, the Denver Spurs were granted a WHA expansion franchise. Cincinnati also got a team that year. Despite this "expansion," the league ended up with the same number of teams as in 1974-75 (fourteen), because the Chicago Cougars and Baltimore Blades (previously the Michigan Stags, previously the Los Angeles Sharks) dropped out.

Owner Ivan Mullenix reportedly began talks with buyers in Ottawa as early as the first month of the season, as attendance averaged about 3,000 to 3,500 -- of which about 1,000 were freebies.

However, the Spurs managed to play 34 games under that name. After their December 30 home game against Indianapolis, the Spurs announced their move to Ottawa.

The team was just beginning a three-game road trip (Cincinnati, Houston and Minnesota). They played their first game in Ottawa on January 7, 1976, a 3-2 loss to New England. More than 8,000 attended (a decent crowd for the WHA.) Two more road games followed (Phoenix and Winnipeg -- on back-to-back nights!) before they returned to host Houston on January 15. A sellout crowd of 9,355 watched the Aeros beat the Civics 5-4 in OT.

Meanwhile, Mullenix started selling off and trading players, even as he was negotiating with Ottawa businessmen to sell them the team.

During that January 15 game, there was an announcement over the public-address system that the league was to hold an emergency meeting in Toronto a few days later to deal with the future of the franchise.

At that meeting, the other 13 owners terminated the franchise, approved the sale and trades of the players Mullenix had tried to get rid of, and ruled the remaining 16 players were free agents.

Unknown said...

Some answers to your other point-form notes:

"... the four hearty survivors of the 32 teams ..."

I think you're drawing a mistaken comparison between the 32 different team names that played in the WHA over its seven-year history and the 30 teams currently playing in the NHL. The WHA started with 12 teams, and the largest it ever got was 14. Many of the different teams named were continuations of the same franchise. The second Minnesota Fighting Saints were the relocated Cleveland Crusaders. The Ottawa Nationals moved to Toronto, then to Birmingham. The Miami Screaming Eagles became the Philadelphia Blazers, then Vancouver Blazers, then Calgary Cowboys. And so forth.

That said, between 1974 and '76, if you combined the NHL and WHA rosters, there were 32 major pro hockey franchises. Meanwhile, the minor-pro infrastructure was shrinking (the NHL and WHA had taken over many markets from the Western Hockey League and Central Pro Hockey League). Teams had to get awfully creative in their scouting. Suddenly, there was a brief period when Canadian senior amateur players were being signed by NHL teams again. And of course, this is when Europe and the U.S. began to be taken seriously by the NHL and WHA as sources of talent. That's probably the lasting legacy of the WHA.

- Derek Sanderson was injured early in the 1972-73 season. The Philly Blazers also had a habit of not meeting payroll. So I wouldn't say Sanderson's short WHA career was for want of interest. If he'd signed with one of the stable teams, like New England, maybe a different outcome. Bernie Parent walked out on the Blazers during the 1972-73 playoffs because he was tired of rubber paychecks.

- The New York Raiders were, if memory serves, originally slated to move into the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. Instead, the NHL swooped in with the New York Islanders expansion team. So the Raiders tried to make a go of it in Madison Square Garden. The original owners left the keys on the table and the league took over the franchise for the rest of 1972-73 before selling it to a real estate broker. When the renamed Golden Blades drew flies (we're talking less than a thousand fans), he moved to Cherry Hill.

- "Five Crusaders had their cars stolen out of the parking lot at the Arena..." By 1972, the old Cleveland Arena was apparently in a rough part of town. Which is exactly why the state-of-the-art Coliseum in Richfield was being built. Not a lot of talk about this aspect, but I wouldn't be surprised if the energy crisis caused fans to stay away from the Coliseum. The NHL Cleveland Barons only lasted a couple of years there, and the NBA's Cavaliers nearly moved to Toronto in the early 1980s.

Teebz said...

I'll be honest, Shecky: I wasn't around for the WHA era.

However, your knowledge is outstanding! Would you like to scribe an article about your knowledge while I'm away in September?