Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Last Days Of The WHA

While most people were moving into the roaring '80s, there was one organization that was closing its doors after seven years of craziness. The WHA's last game saw the Winnipeg Jets beat the Edmonton Oilers to win the 1979 Avco Cup. Shortly after that, the Oilers, Jets, Nordiques, and Whalers were admitted into the NHL for play in the 1979-80 season. It seems almost unfathomable that a league like the WHA hung around for as long as it did when you consider that there were 32 WHA franchises in total, yet they never had more than 14 franchises operating in one season. Needless to say, the last days of the WHA were both good and bad depending on which side of the coin you were on.

Sports Illustrated's Reyn Davis took a long look at the WHA in his May 28, 1979 article that was a look back on all the crazy things that happened over the league's seven years of existence. Let's review some of the things in his article that piqued my interest.

Here is that long list of defunct WHA franchises. Make note of some of the major metropolitan cities that the WHA called home:

"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."
The last part is a bit of a lie because the Dayton squad was supposed to be called the Arrows as a bit of a tribute to the Wright Brothers. As you may know, the Wright Brothers are credited as the first men to successfully fly an airplane, and hailed from Dayton. Once the Dayton franchise was struggling, it was sold and moved to Houston where they have a pretty solid aeronautics program at the Johnson Space Center. And the Arrows became the Aeros.

But it wasn't just the Arrows-to-Aeros that kept fans confused.
"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.'"
You literally bought programs at games to just find out the team's name, not the players who played for the visitors! Even worse, some programs became instant collector's items thanks to the instability of the franchises.
"One team, the Ottawa Civics, lasted only one game. Another club, the New York Golden Blades, lasted exactly one pay period, or 14 days. 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."
It was well-known that the WHA just barely kept its head above water financially, and the vast number of different teams over seven years is a clear indication that bankruptcy and losses ran rampant through the WHA's owners. In fact, "the owners of those 32 teams lost an estimated $50 million, while the 803 players who performed in the WHA earned some $120 million, of which about $12 million passed to the lawyers, accountants, fathers, wives and friends who negotiated their contracts." Ouch.

And then there were the personalities.
"The one player who made the easiest money in the WHA was Derek Sanderson. 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. The Blazers settled Sanderson's contract with an outright payment of $1 million, and Derek Rolls-Royced back to Boston."
Andre Lacroix was one of the most prolific scorers in the WHA, but it still didn't prevent him from being affected by the creative accounting done by some of the teams.
"'When I joined the Golden Blades,' Lacroix says, 'the league owed me $20,000. For some reason the check was sent to the team instead of me, and before I could get it from them, the owners of the Golden Blades spent the money on a team song.'

"And how did Lacroix enjoy the song?

"'I never had a chance to hear it,' he says. 'We were gone before it came out.'"
The New Jersey Knights, the team that the Blades morphed into after that one payday, played in a travesty of an arena.
"Of the 33 buildings used by WHA teams, perhaps the worst facility was the Cherry Hill Arena, where the New Jersey Knights played the 29 home games of their brief existence. 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."
Players would arrive in full uniform with their skates hanging around their necks or thrown over their shoulders. If the Cherry Hill Arena was the worst "bush league" arena, the Amphitheatre in Chicago was only slightly better.
"The referee and the linesmen had to walk through a stadium bar when making their way to the ice or their dressing room."
Yes, those old WHA days were certainly colourful if nothing else. Players like Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg, Kent Nilsson, Mark Howe, Marc Tardif, Wayne Gretzky, and Pat Stapleton made the league fun with their creativity and displays of offence, and there was certainly enough violence to go around.

I still don't know why the NHL doesn't acknowledge the WHA for all it did. The introduction of overtime, for example, was a huge innovation, and it began in the WHA. Maybe in the course of time, the NHL will come to its senses and realize that a little competition was good for the overall product, even if the competitor was over-the-top crazy. Perhaps one day the NHL will give the WHA the credit it deserves.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

JeffB said...

I just can't get enough of WHA stories. Better than, or even inspirations for, the movie Slap Shot.

The arena in Cherry Hill was so bad there were stories about the ice surface being uneven to the point the visiting team was made to sake "uphill" for two periods. There was a hump in the ice so pronounced that a normal sliding puck would suddenly take flight, including one time when it nailed some unsuspecting player right in the face!

I was so sad when my beloved Fighting Saints folded, *the first time*, mind you! I bet not many teams can claim that distinction!