The Rise And Fall Of The World Hockey Association, 1972-79
By Mark Weisenmiller

Like lava lamps, disco and Richard Nixon, the World Hockey Association (WHA) is inextricably linked with the 1970s.
For long-time hockey fans, the romance with the WHA was fun-filled, intense, brief and eventually disappointing.

By the time the Winnipeg Jets beat the Edmonton Oilers for the Avco Cup (the league’s version of the Stanley Cup) in 1979, hockey observers knew that the cash-strapped WHA was doomed. That game, the sixth in the playoff finals, was the last WHA game ever played.
The seven years of the circuit’s existence were full of fun and adversity.
The Philadelphia Blazers’ first home game, on a Friday the 13th, was delayed when the Zamboni broke through the ice.
Marty, Gordie and Mark Howe of the Houston Aeros

When the WHA held its first player draft, in the middle of the 1971-72 NHL
season, the first “‘name” NHL player to join the new league was the Philadelphia Flyers’ Bernie Parent.

After Parent signed a contract for $120,000 to play for the Miami Screaming Eagles (a team that never played a game), Rod Gilbert, Vic Hadfield and Brad Park departed from the New York Rangers and signed WHA contracts that exceeded Parent’s.
In a much publicized move in 1972, Bobby Hull left the Chicago Blackhawks to join  the Winnipeg for $1 million in salary and a $1 million signing bonus.

Boston Bruins superstar Derek Sanderson, as flamboyant off the ice as he was on it, also signed with the Blazers, inking a five-year deal worth $2.6 million.
Since the WHA did not recognize the reserve clause, common in NHL contracts at the time, multi-million dollar contracts became almost routine.
The WHA was founded by Gary Davidson and Dennis Murphy, who were
also the driving forces behind the American Basketball in the 1970s.

When formed, the WHA had 12 teams, two of which – the Dayton Aeros and the San Francisco Sharks – relocated immediately to Houston and Quebec, respectively.
The Aeros hit the PR jackpot in 1973 when former Detroit Red Wing great Gordie Howe came out of retirement to play alongside sons Mark and Marty, two Aeros signees. Although Howe was 45 years old, he recorded 31 goals and 69 assists during the 1973-74 season to hit the 100-point milestone for the first time in his career and led the Aeros to the Avco Cup championship. No. 9 had another banner year the following season as the Aeros repeated as WHA champions.

Other notable NHL players who opted for the new league included Gerry Cheevers, Paul Henderson, Frank Mahovolich, Pat Stapleton and Mike Walton.
Almost nightly, the WHA had to deal with odd circumstances or happenings, or
sub-par venues and equipment. In his autobiography “Bernie!”, Parent recalled the home arena of the Blazers:
“The playing area was too narrow, making a goaltender feel like he was at
the end of a tunnel when the other team came down the ice. And our dressing
rooms were on the second floor . . . The dressing room, like the entire interior
of the building, was painted bright orange and yellow, the team colors."
An excellent book about the WHA is “The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly
Life of the World Hockey Association” In his introduction, author Ed Willes wrote, “In 1978-79, the last season of the World Hockey Association’s seven-year life, Quebec Nordiques Coach Jacques Demers had to dress for a pre-game warm-up to ensure his team met the league’s minimum player requirements.”

Later, Willes tells the story of the Birmingham Bulls’ tough-guy defensman, Steve Durbano. After a game during the 1977-78 season, Durbano was beaten up by a drunk fan, and Glen Sonmor, the Bulls coach, told his team after the game that Durbano was in trouble and instructed them to go to his rescue.
“There was just one problem,” wrote Willes, “most of the players had been preparing for their post-game showers and hadn’t bothered to cover up when Sonmor sounded
the alarm. A horde of naked hockey players combed the area looking for the
fan amid a stunned group of (Winnipeg) Jets supporters. The search was
finally abandoned. The fan had escaped.”

The WHA is credited with beginning the practice of scoutsing Europe for players. Stars such as Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson of Sweden and the great Vaclav Nedomansky of Czechoslovokia came to play in the WHA. NHL superstars who began their careers in the WHA included Michele Goulet, Mike Gartner, Mark Messier, Rick Viavie and, of course, Wayne Gretzky.

Fiscal difficulties year after year were the death knell for the WHA. Only six teams were in the league during its final season. Four of them -- the Oilers, the New England Whalers, the Quebece Nordiques and the Jets -- became NHL teams after the WHA folded, with most of the other players going to the NHL teams that held their rights.
For the WHA, the party was over.

 




 
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