Monday, 1 August 2011

More NHL-WHA History

With August upon us, and those of us in Canada enjoying a "civic holiday" on this fine day, we're less than 70 days from hockey season once again. It was about this time in 1972 that the war between the NHL and WHA was completely and fully engaged between the two institutions, and there was quite a bit of animosity as the NHL prepared two new teams, the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames, to compete with their twelve teams against the upstart WHA franchises. With the start of the two seasons coming up in October 1972, I thought it might be prudent to look back at some more history on how the NHL and WHA started their acrimonious relationship with one another.

Sports Illustrated's Mark Mulvoy turns in another excellent piece about the two hockey leagues who were squaring off to do battle over signing players in the summer of 1972. There are definitely some interesting facts in Mr. Mulvoy's piece, published on June 19, 1972, about both the WHA and the NHL, and I'd like to point out some of those facts below. Some of these may raise eyebrows, and I'm hoping to provide some better insight into the WHA-NHL war of 1972.

"The NHL governors conferred 42 marginal players upon their newest lodge brothers, the Atlanta Flames and the New York Islanders, and it took statisticians nothing flat to show that Boston's Phil Esposito scored as many goals last season (66) as all the new Islanders combined, 13 more than all the Flames."
Boston's Phil Esposito score more goals in 1971 than all of the players awarded to the New York Islanders and all of the players awarded to the Atlanta Flames. That's a pretty significant statistic when you think that 21 players on either team couldn't put a combined 66 pucks past goaltenders in 1971. From the way it looks, expansion teams had a very difficult time in putting together a competitive roster in 1972.
"When and if Hatskins deposits a $1 million advance in Hull's bank account, the Golden Jet will indeed be the Golden Jet."
As we know, there was a major press conference at Portage and Main in Winnipeg where Mr. Hatskin and the Jets awarded Mr. Hull a cheque for that $1 million signing bonus, and guaranteeing that The Golden Jet would be a Winnipeg Jet for at least the 1972 season. Hull played in the WHA for the Jets until shortly after the 1979 NHL-WHA merger.
"Hull's next move will either start a legal war between the NHL and the WHA over the reserve clause in Hull's contract with the Black Hawks, or it will enable the NHL to relax again until, say, someone like the young hotshot Gilbert Perreault, who prefers his native Quebec to Buffalo, jumps leagues."
When Hull joined the Winnipeg Jets, the Chicago Black Hawks sued the WHA and Hull because of the reserve clause in the NHL that stated that a player's rights were still property of a team after his contract had expired. It was the basis for all of the lawsuits that the NHL filed against the WHA, but Bobby Hull's move was the biggest of the suits filed by the NHL. All of them, except Hull's injunction, were thrown out of court as the courts found this practice "monopolistic, conspiratorial, and illegal". With this clause rendered virtually useless, NHL free agency became a reality for players and allowed for movement of players between the two leagues and amongst their teams.
"Senator Scott dispatched a long telegram to the governors. He mentioned that President Nixon was behind the proposed Eisenhower Sports Center in Washington and that an NHL franchise would be most welcome. Scott, as the governors knew, is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has an Antitrust Subcommittee. 'After Senator Scott's telegram,' Adams said, 'we received a lot of pressure from Washington through phone calls. They all said the same thing: Washington should have a franchise. Well, why not? It will never hurt us to have a team in the nation's capital.' Now Washington will have a hockey team and it may get the Baltimore Bullets, too, since Abe Pollin owns both franchises.

"What worries the NHL, however, is that some of the rejected applicants, particularly Cleveland, Cincinnati, Phoenix and San Diego, will bid for WHA franchises rather than wait for the next NHL expansion in, perhaps, 1976. The NHL plans to have 24 teams in North America by the 1980s. Joining the WHA might be a wiser proposition, financially as well as competitively."
In 1974, the NHL expanded the league to include franchises in Kansas City and Washington. From what the league is reporting to Mr. Mulvoy, though, it looks like Washington, DC wasn't even on the horizon when they were looking at new locations for expansion. And all it took to sway the NHL was some politicking from Washington, and the NHL moved Washington ahead of cities like "Cleveland, Cincinnati, Phoenix and San Diego".

The NHL worried that these four rejected cities may join the WHA, and their worries were confirmed when Nike Mileti bought the rights to the Calgary Cowboys WHA franchise and moved them to Cleveland to play as the Crusaders as part of the original twelve WHA franchises. The 1974 offseason saw WHA franchises awarded to Phoenix, named the Roadrunners, and San Diego, named the Mariners. In 1975, Cincinnati was added to the WHA's roster of teams when the Stingers took to the ice.

1976 saw the NHL gain one of these cities back as the California Golden Seals were moved to Cleveland to begin play in the NHL as the Barons. Like the Kansas City Scouts, the Barons didn't find a market that was receptive to the NHL, and the franchise was eventually moved out of Cleveland. As for having 24 teams in the 1980s, the NHL was close: they had 21 teams until 1991-92 when the San Jose Sharks were added to the league.
"For his franchise Roy Boe of the Islanders paid $6 million to the NHL and $4 million to the New York Rangers (for infringing upon their territory). Including interest payments, Boe projects a total cost of more than $19 million over the next 10 years."
Slightly less than the $60 million relocation fee that Winnipeg paid this year, right? The expansion teams in the early 1990s paid $50 million to join the NHL, and the last four teams - Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Columbus - all paid $80 million to join the NHL. Adding a franchise to a league is NOT a supply-and-demand issue*, so why is the NHL putting ownership behind an eight-ball before the team even hits the ice? It seems "inflation" is something that has greatly benefited the NHL.
"By contrast a WHA franchise cost only $25,000 when the league was formed and now the price is about $200,000. Expenses fluctuate with the initiative of the team. The New England Whalers spent freely to sign 14 players and easily have the strongest team in the WHA. But Quebec, Ottawa and Chicago, reluctant to splurge, had signed only three players among them."
This is why some of the WHA teams - Winnipeg, Houston, and New England - were successful and competitive early on in the WHA. In fact, as the picture at the top of the page shows, the Aeros defeated the St. Louis Blues in 1974, proving that the WHA had legitimate NHL teams playing in their circuit. The NHL could learn something about how the WHA worked its expansion, especially when you consider that Phil Esposito himself outscored the entire roster of the New York Islanders and the Atlanta Flames, both expansion teams in 1972.

I found the chart showing the prospects of survival for the WHA teams to be a little funny considering that most of the WHA teams hadn't signed a lot of players by June of 1972. Here is the chart, and note that the more stars a team has, the better its chances of survival are according to Sports Illustrated.
Minnesota, who was ranked with three stars, collapsed twice as a WHA team, first at the end of 1976 before being saved for one more season before closing up shop in 1977. Quebec, who was given one star because they had no one signed at the time, survived the NHL-WHA merger and lasted until 1995. Houston, also with one star, not only lasted until the merger, but applied to be part of the merger into the NHL. New York, ranked with two stars, lasted one and half seasons in The Big Apple before finally folding down the turnpike in New Jersey. Philadelphia, with two stars thanks to Bernie Parent's signing, lasted one season in the City of Brotherly Love before moving out to Vancouver for the start of the 1973-74 season.

Maybe there's something to be learned from the chart's projections. Maybe it goes to show that, despite a solid market with a large number of people, nothing is guaranteed in professional sports. Or maybe, just maybe, one shouldn't count their chickens before they hatch.

In any case, there was some interesting information that Mr. Mulvoy put forth in this article. If you noticed the asterisk above, it's because I will be talking about the expansion fees that the NHL was charging for the new NHL squads and the newly-relocated Jets. That will happen on Tuesday because, personally, I think that the NHL does its newest franchises a disservice by charging ludicrous amounts of money just to join the fraternity. We'll look at this tomorrow.

Until then, keep your sticks on the ice!

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