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World Hockey Association
|Founded||September 13, 1971|
|Ceased||June 22, 1979|
|Most titles||Winnipeg Jets (3)|
The World Hockey Association (French: Association mondiale de hockey) was a professional ice hockey major league that operated in North America from 1972 to 1979. It was the first major league to compete with the National Hockey League (NHL) since the collapse of the Western Hockey League in 1926. Although the WHA was not the first league since that time to attempt to challenge the NHL's supremacy, it was by far the most successful in the modern era.
The WHA tried to capitalize on the lack of hockey teams in a number of major American cities and mid-level Canadian cities, and also hoped to attract the best players by paying more than NHL owners would. The WHA successfully challenged the NHL's reserve clause, which bound players to their NHL teams even without a valid contract, allowing players in both leagues greater freedom of movement. Sixty-seven players jumped from the NHL to the WHA in the first year, led by star forward Bobby Hull, whose ten-year, $2.75 million contract was a record at the time. The WHA also took the initiative to sign European players.
The WHA had an acrimonious relationship with the NHL, resulting in numerous legal battles, as well as competition for control of players and markets. In spite of this, merger talks began almost immediately, as the WHA was constantly unstable, with franchises occasionally relocating or folding in the middle of the season. NHL owners voted down a 1977 plan to merge six WHA teams (the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, Cincinnati Stingers, Houston Aeros, and Winnipeg Jets) into the NHL before a 1979 merger was approved.
As a result, the WHA ceased operations, and four teams joined the NHL for the 1979–80 season: the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets. Of these four teams, two of the three Canadian teams — the Nordiques and Jets — eventually moved south to Denver and Phoenix, respectively, although the NHL would return to Winnipeg with the 2011 relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers, who would rename themselves the Winnipeg Jets upon their relocation. The Whalers later moved from Hartford to Raleigh, North Carolina. The Oilers are the only WHA merger team to retain both their original name and city. The final WHA game was played on May 20, 1979, as the Jets defeated the Oilers to win their third Avco World Trophy.
The World Hockey Association was founded in 1971 by American promoters Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson. The men had previously been the founder and first president of the American Basketball Association, respectively. They quickly recruited Bill Hunter, president of the junior Western Canada Hockey League. Hunter and Murphy traveled across North America recruiting franchise owners, and by September 1971, had announced that the league would begin in 1972 with ten teams, each having paid $25,000 for their franchise.
The average NHL salary in 1972 was $25,000, the lowest of the four major sports, while players were bound by the reserve clause, a clause in every player's contract that automatically extended a player's contract by one year when it expired, tying them to their team for the life of their career. In October 1972, the WHA announced that it would not use the reserve clause, stating that "The reserve clause won't stand up to the scrutiny of ... players, players associations, the United States Congress, the public, and the Supreme Court." The WHA also promised much higher salaries than the NHL offered, and by the time the league began play, it had lured 67 former NHL players to its league, including Bernie Parent, Gerry Cheevers, Derek Sanderson, J. C. Tremblay, and Ted Green. The biggest name signed was former Chicago Black Hawks star Bobby Hull, who agreed to a ten-year, $2.7 million contract with the Winnipeg Jets, the largest in hockey history at the time, and one that lent the league instant credibility.
The NHL tried to block several of the defections. The Boston Bruins attempted to restrain Sanderson and Cheevers from joining the WHA, though a United States federal court refused to prohibit the signings. The Black Hawks were successful in having a restraining order filed against Hull and the Jets pending the outcome of legal action the Black Hawks were taking against the WHA. The new league was eager for the court action, intending to challenge the legality of the reserve clause.
In November 1972, Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. of the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia placed an injunction against the NHL, preventing it from enforcing the reserve clause and freeing all players who had restraining orders against them, including Hull, to play with their WHA clubs. The decision effectively ended the NHL's monopoly on major league professional hockey talent.
On November 1, 1971, twelve teams were formally announced. They included teams from cities without NHL teams such as the Miami Screaming Eagles, as well as teams in cities where the league's promoters believed there was room for more than one team, such as the Los Angeles Aces, Chicago Cougars, and New York Raiders. Two of the original twelve teams moved before the first season started: the Dayton Arrows became the Houston Aeros and the San Francisco Sharks became the Quebec Nordiques. The Los Angeles franchise then took the nickname Sharks to replace Aces. The Calgary Broncos and the Screaming Eagles folded outright, replaced by the Philadelphia Blazers and the Cleveland Crusaders.
Although the league had many players under contract by June 1972, including a few NHL stars such as Bernie Parent, many of them were career minor league and college players. The new league was not considered much of a threat, until Bobby Hull, arguably the NHL's top forward at the time, jumped to the new league. Hull had not been thought to be seriously considering signing with the WHA even though he was in contentious salary negotiations with the Chicago Black Hawks, and when he told reporters that he would only move to the WHA "for a million dollars", it was both intended by Hull and taken by his audience to be a joke since a million dollars at that time was considered to be a ridiculous amount of money for a hockey player. Nevertheless, the Winnipeg Jets offered Hull a five-year, one million dollar contract with a one million dollar signing bonus. Hull accepted the Jets' offer, sealing the deal in an elaborate signing ceremony at Portage and Main. Hull's move to the upstart league attracted a few other top stars such as Cheevers, Sanderson, and Tremblay.
The WHA officially made its debut on October 11, 1972, in the Ottawa Civic Centre, when the Alberta Oilers defeated the Ottawa Nationals 7-4. Although the quality of hockey was predictably below that of the NHL, the WHA had indeed made stars out of many players that had little or no playing time in the NHL.
The New England Whalers eventually won the WHA's inaugural championship, later renamed the Avco World Trophy when the Avco Financial Services Corporation became its main sponsor. However, the trophy had not yet been completed, and the Whalers skated their divisional championship trophy around the ice surface, much to the embarrassment of the WHA office.
Right from the start, the league was plagued with problems. Many teams often found themselves in financial difficulty, folding or moving from one city to another, often in mid-season. Two of the original twelve teams, the Dayton Arrows and the San Francisco Sharks, relocated, citing arena troubles. These two franchises were moved to become the Houston Aeros and Quebec Nordiques, respectively. Other franchises, such as the Calgary Broncos and the Screaming Eagles, folded outright. The Philadelphia Blazers and the Cleveland Crusaders replaced the Screaming Eagles and the Broncos.
The New York Raiders, initially intended to be the WHA's flagship team, suffered from numerous problems. While they planned to play in the brand new Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Nassau County did not consider the WHA a major league and wanted nothing to do with the Raiders. The county recruited William Shea, leader of New York City's successful lobbying campaign to get baseball's National League to expand following the 1957 departures of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. Working with the NHL, Shea swiftly won over the initially reluctant president of the New York Rangers, Bill Jennings, who was persuaded that it would be better to accept competition from an NHL team that would at least be willing to pay his club compensation for sharing the Rangers' territory as opposed to a WHA team that would owe his franchise nothing. The older league quickly awarded a franchise to Long Island, the New York Islanders, who effectively locked up the Coliseum for their own use. The Raiders were first forced to rent space at Madison Square Garden, where they were tenants to the Rangers. The situation rapidly became untenable, with an onerous lease and poor attendance, so the three original owners defaulted and the league ended up taking control of the team midway through the season. The Raiders were sold after that season and renamed the New York Golden Blades, but were forced to revert to a Sundays-only home schedule due to the high price of rent and scheduling conflicts with other events at Madison Square Garden. This, however, was not enough to save the team, and the league was forced to take over the franchise again 24 games into the season. Realizing that it could not hope to compete with both the Rangers and the Islanders, the WHA moved the Golden Blades to New Jersey soon after taking control. Renamed the Jersey Knights, they played at the Cherry Hill Arena which had a slope in the ice surface, causing pucks to shoot upward from results of a pass or shot, as well as chain link fencing instead of Plexiglas surrounding the rink. The arena was also closely cramped, with players not having adequate changing and dressing facilities.
In another instance, Harold Ballard, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, deliberately made the Toronto Toros' lease terms at Maple Leaf Gardens as onerous as possible after they moved from Ottawa. The Toros were owned by John F. Bassett, son of Canadian media mogul John Bassett. The older Bassett had formerly been part-owner of the Leafs with Ballard and Stafford Smythe before falling out with his two partners. At the time of the Toros' lease at Maple Leaf Gardens, Ballard was serving a lengthy prison term for fraud and tax evasion and unable to intervene; however, by the time the Toros played their first game, Ballard had been paroled and had regained control of the Gardens. Much to Bassett's outrage, the arena was dim for the first game. Ballard also ordered the cushions from the home bench removed for Toros' games (he told an arena worker, "Let 'em buy their own cushions!"). It was obvious that Ballard was angered at the WHA being figuratively in his backyard, and took out his frustration with the renegade league on the Toros. These terms compelled Bassett to move the team to Birmingham.
In Denver, the Denver Spurs, an established Western Hockey League team, were originally supposed to join the NHL much in the same way the Vancouver Canucks and California Golden Seals had done in the preceding decade. When the NHL reneged on the agreement and Spurs owner Ivan Mullenix was unable to negotiate an early entry into the NHL, he accepted an offer to join the WHA. Disastrous attendance in Denver was blamed largely on the city's rejection of the WHA's assertion that it was a major league, and halfway through the season, the team abruptly moved to become the Ottawa Civics; after only seven games as the Civics, and 41 overall, the franchise folded. The NHL eventually fulfilled its promise to come to Denver by moving the Kansas City Scouts to Denver to become the Colorado Rockies in the 1976 offseason.
Part of the financial trouble was also attributed to the high player salaries. For instance, the Philadelphia Blazers signed Derek Sanderson for $2.6 million, which surpassed that of Brazilian soccer star, Pelé, making him the highest-paid athlete in the world at the time. Unfortunately, his play did not live up to the expectations of his salary, and between an early-season injury, intemperate remarks to the press, and Blazer financial troubles, Sanderson's contract was bought out before the end of the season.
As well, big stars lacked supporting players and the quality of the on-ice product suffered.
The WHA had won several key victories, including a court ruling which prevented the NHL from binding players to NHL teams via the reserve clause, and the signings of more NHL stars such as Gordie Howe, Andre Lacroix, Marc Tardif, and in later years, Frank Mahovlich and Paul Henderson.
In 1974, to broaden a depleted talent pool, the WHA began employing European players – which the NHL had largely ignored up to that time – in serious numbers, including stars such as Swedish players Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson and Slovak center Vaclav Nedomansky, who had just defected from Czechoslovakia. Winnipeg especially loaded up with Scandinavian players and became the class of the league, with Hedberg and Nilsson combining with Bobby Hull to form one of hockey's most formidable forward lines. Along with the mass import of European stars, the Vancouver franchise attempted unsuccessfully to lure Phil Esposito away from the NHL by offering a contract similar to that of Bobby Hull, with a million dollars upfront.
The 1972 Summit Series, which pitted Team Canada against the Soviets, did not permit WHA players, due to the decision of series organizer Alan Eagleson, an NHL agent who was influential in forming the Canadian team. Bobby Hull, one of the best WHA players, was ruled ineligible to play because of his defection from the NHL, despite being initially selected by coach Harry Sinden. Dennis Hull initially planned to boycott the event as well as a show of support for his older brother, but Bobby persuaded him to stay on Team Canada. Other WHA stars turned down included Gerry Cheevers, J.C. Tremblay and Derek Sanderson. Some NHL owners also threatened not to free their players to participate if WHA players were permitted.
In the 1976 Canada Cup, the NHL and NHLPA broadened the scope of the competition, inviting to the tournament a number of hockey countries and allowing each invited country to send the best possible team they could muster, so this time WHA players were permitted. WHA players played on four of the tournament's six teams.
Decline and merger
By 1976, it had become evident that many of the WHA's franchises were teetering on the verge of financial collapse, and that the (at one time) combined 32 teams of the NHL and WHA had badly strained professional hockey's talent pool.
In 1977, merger discussions with the National Hockey League were first initiated, with Houston, Cincinnati, Winnipeg, New England, Quebec, and Edmonton applying for entry to the NHL. The NHL voted the proposal down. Merger discussions resumed in 1978, but Houston was not part of the proposal this time, and as a result the Aeros elected to fold on July 6, 1978. During the final series of talks, Aeros owner Kenneth Schnitzer suggested to the NHL that either his team be admitted as an expansion team independent of a merger, or he would attempt to purchase an existing club and relocate it to Houston. Neither came to fruition. Another proposal had the Edmonton Oilers and the New England Whalers moving to the NHL, with the Winnipeg Jets following a year later, but this was also not accepted by the NHL.
The final two seasons of the WHA saw the debut of many superstars, some of whom became hockey legends in the NHL, including Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mike Liut, and Mike Gartner. The Birmingham franchise alone featured future NHLers Rick Vaive, Michel Goulet, Rob Ramage, Ken Linseman, Craig Hartsburg, Rod Langway, Mark Napier, Pat Riggin and Gaston Gingras.
However, by the end of the final season, only six teams remained. Facing financial difficulty and unable to meet payrolls, the WHA finally came to an agreement with the NHL in early 1979. Under the deal, four WHA clubs – the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers (renamed the Hartford Whalers), Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets – joined the NHL. The other two WHA teams, the Cincinnati Stingers and Birmingham Bulls, were paid $1.5 million apiece in compensation. The older league treated the new clubs' arrival as an expansion, not a merger. The NHL also refused to recognize any WHA records. While the new clubs were allowed to stock their rosters with an expansion draft, NHL teams were allowed to reclaim players who had jumped to the WHA.
The WHA was able to extract three key concessions. First, the WHA teams were allowed to protect two goaltenders and two skaters to keep their rosters from being completely stripped clean by the NHL teams. Second, the NHL allowed all of the WHA's Canadian teams to be part of the deal. The NHL had originally only been willing to take the Oilers, Whalers, and Jets, but the WHA insisted that the Nordiques be included as well. Third, although the NHL had insisted on treating the deal as an expansion, it agreed to freeze the expansion fee for each team at $6 million U.S., the same fee paid by every other team that had joined the NHL in the 1970s. By comparison, when the Atlanta Flames were sold and moved to Calgary one year later, the sale was $16 million U.S.
The deal came up for a vote at the NHL Board of Governors meeting in Key Largo, Florida on March 8, 1979. The final tally was 12-5, one vote short of passage, as a three-quarters majority was required to permit a merger. The Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks voted against the deal. The Bruins were not pleased with having to share New England with the Whalers. Los Angeles and Vancouver feared losing home dates with NHL teams from the East. Montreal and Toronto were not enamored at the prospect of having to split revenue from Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts six ways rather than three.
When a second vote was held in Chicago on March 22, 1979, however, Montreal and Vancouver changed their votes, allowing the deal to go forward. Vancouver and Los Angeles were won over by the promise of a balanced schedule, with each team playing the others twice at home and twice on the road. The Canadiens' owners, Molson Breweries, were feeling the effects of a massive boycott that originated in Edmonton, Quebec City, and Winnipeg and spread across Canada. With the boycott severely hurting Molson's sales, the brewer reached agreement with the owners of the three Canadian WHA teams to have Molson replace their competitors (and Nordiques owners) Carling O'Keefe as the exclusive beer supplier for the Oilers' and Jets' arenas; it is probable that this concession was made in exchange for the Canadiens' vote.
The agreement officially took effect on June 22, 1979 (three months to the day after the deciding vote). On that day, the WHA folded and the NHL formally granted expansion franchises to Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec City, and Winnipeg.
Legacy of the WHA
The WHA had many lasting effects on NHL hockey. The NHL used to recruit virtually all its players from Canada, but following the success of the Jets' Hedberg and Nilsson, scouts began looking overseas for the best players that Europe could offer. Teams such as the Whalers and Fighting Saints also offered excellent opportunities for young American players, and several U.S.-born or -raised NHL stars of the early 1980s (such as Mark Howe, Rod Langway, Dave Langevin, Robbie Ftorek, and Paul Holmgren) began their pro careers in the WHA. As a result, the NHL evolved into a truly cosmopolitan league during the 1980s.
The WHA also ended the NHL policy of paying its players only a fraction of the league's profits and, combined with the abolition of the reserve clause, led to much higher player salaries. Many great stars began their careers in the WHA, including Mark Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mike Gartner, Mike Liut, and Mark Messier. Messier was the last WHA veteran to play in the NHL; he opened his professional career with 52 games with the Indianapolis Racers and Cincinnati Stingers in 1978–79, and played his last NHL game on April 3, 2004. The final active player and official in any on-ice capacity for the league was referee Don Koharski, who started as a linesman for the WHA and retired at the end of the 2008–09 NHL season.
The WHA instituted sudden death overtime for regular season games to break ties. If no team scored during a 10-minute overtime period then the game would end in a tie. In the 1983-84 season, the NHL then instituted a 5-minute sudden death overtime period to break regular season ties.
The WHA also experimented with blue colored pucks which were supposedly easier for fans to see. The NHL did not adopt the blue pucks, but any remaining blue WHA pucks are highly sought after collectors' items.
Fate of surviving teams
The former WHA clubs, by the terms of the expansion, could protect only two goalies and two skaters each in the player dispersal draft. The Jets posted a dismal nine wins in their second season (second-fewest all-time for a season in the NHL), and finished last that season. However, the other former WHA teams did respectably well in their first year, with the Whalers and Oilers earning playoff berths. The Oilers chose to protect Wayne Gretzky in the dispersal draft, which would prove fortuitous. Gretzky and the Whalers' Gordie Howe were selected to the mid-season All-Star Game, respectively the second-youngest and the oldest ever to play in such a match.
The 1980s was a successful period for the former WHA teams. The Oilers shattered numerous NHL records and amassed a Stanley Cup dynasty. The Jets, decimated by the dispersal draft, developed a solid nucleus of players which helped the club achieve respectable regular-season finishes. They had initially been placed in the Norris Division when the league realigned its divisions and adopted a playoff format that mandated intra-divisional matchups for the first two rounds in 1981. Winnipeg might have enjoyed better playoff fortunes had they been able to remain in the relatively weak Norris, however, just one year later, the Colorado Rockies moved east to New Jersey and the Jets were compelled to shift to the Smythe Division in order to re-balance the divisions. The Jets were never able to overcome the Oilers to win a Smythe Division title and advance past the second round of the postseason. After missing the playoffs in their first NHL season, the Nordiques quickly became competitive, advancing as far as the third round of the playoffs in only their third season. Quebec developed an intense rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens, advanced to the third round again in 1985 and captured the Adams Division title in 1986. The Whalers had similar rivalries with the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, attracting many Bruins and Rangers fans to their home games at the Hartford Civic Center, and skating to the 1986–87 Adams Division title.
In the 1990s, the former WHA clubs suffered from escalating player salaries (ironically, the same trend that was instigated by the WHA), which were difficult to meet with the restricted revenue streams in their smaller markets. The ex-WHA clubs based in Canada were also hit hard by the declining value of the Canadian dollar. The Nordiques moved to Denver in 1995 and became the Colorado Avalanche, the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996 and became the Phoenix Coyotes, and the Hartford Whalers moved to North Carolina in 1997 and became the Carolina Hurricanes. A year later, the Oilers came very close to being relocated to Houston until a consortium of local investors came up with the funds necessary to keep the Oilers in Edmonton. The Oilers remain as the last WHA team still in its original city.
Hockey Hall of Fame members
List of WHA players and executives inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, for achievements in their hockey career.
Trophies and awards
This is a list of the trophies and awards handed out annually by the World Hockey Association.
- Avco World Trophy – Awarded to the playoff champion
- Gary L. Davidson Award / Gordie Howe Trophy – Most valuable player of the regular season
- Bill Hunter Trophy – Leading scorer of the regular season
- Lou Kaplan Trophy – Rookie of the year
- Ben Hatskin Trophy – Best goaltender
- Dennis A. Murphy Trophy – Best defenseman
- Paul Deneau Trophy – Most gentlemanly player
- Howard Baldwin Trophy / Robert Schmertz Memorial Trophy – Coach of the year
- WHA Playoff MVP – Most valuable player in the playoffs
Timeline of teams
Three Canadian teams completed all seven WHA seasons based in the same city, and were the same three Canadian teams that ultimately joined the NHL. The other WHA team to enter the NHL, the Whalers, were the only other WHA team to play all of its home games over seven seasons within a relatively small geographical area. Of the original 12 WHA franchises, only the Winnipeg Jets remained for all seven seasons without relocating, changing team names, or folding.
|Alberta/Edmonton Oilers||Alberta Oilers||1972–1973||Joined NHL, 1979,
as Edmonton Oilers
|Chicago Cougars||Chicago Cougars||1972–1975||Folded, 1975|
|Cincinnati Stingers||Cincinnati Stingers||1975–1979||Folded, 1979|
Minnesota Fighting Saints
|Calgary Broncos (never played)||1972||Folded, 1977|
|Minnesota Fighting Saints||1976–1977|
|Denver Spurs||1975–1976||Folded, 1976|
|Dayton Arrows (never played)||1972||Folded, 1978|
|Indianapolis Racers||Indianapolis Racers||1974–1978||Folded, 1978|
|Los Angeles Aces
Los Angeles Sharks
|Los Angeles Aces (name changed after San Francisco moved)||1972||Folded, 1975|
|Los Angeles Sharks||1972–1974|
|Minnesota Fighting Saints||Minnesota Fighting Saints||1972–1976||Folded, 1976|
|New England Whalers||New England Whalers||1972–1979||Joined NHL, 1979,
as Hartford Whalers
(now Carolina Hurricanes)
|New York Raiders/Golden Blades
San Diego Mariners
|New York Raiders||1972–1973||Folded, 1977|
|New York Golden Blades||1973|
|San Diego Mariners||1974–1977|
|Ottawa Nationals||1972–1973||Folded, 1979|
|Miami Screaming Eagles
|Miami Screaming Eagles (never played)||1972||Folded, 1977|
|Phoenix Roadrunners||Phoenix Roadrunners||1974–1977||Folded, 1977|
|San Francisco Sharks
|San Francisco Sharks (never played)||1972||Joined NHL, 1979,
as Quebec Nordiques
(now Colorado Avalanche)
|Winnipeg Jets||Winnipeg Jets||1972–1979||Joined NHL, 1979,
as Winnipeg Jets
(now Arizona Coyotes)
WHA All-Star Game
Every season of the World Hockey Association had an All-Star game, but the format changed with regularity.
- 1972–73 Eastern Division 6, Western Division 2 @ Quebec
- 1973–74 Eastern Division 8, Western Division 4 @ St. Paul
- 1974–75 Western Division 6, Eastern Division 4 @ Edmonton
- 1975–76 Canadian-based teams (5) 6, US-based teams (9)1 @ Cleveland
- 1976–77 Eastern Division 4, Western Division 2 @ Hartford
- 1977–78 AVCO Cup champion Quebec Nordiques 5, WHA All-Star team 4 @ Quebec
- 1978–79 WHA All-Star team vs Dynamo Moscow in a three-game series @ Edmonton. WHA won all 3 games 4–2, 4–2, 4–3
- List of ice hockey leagues
- List of World Hockey Association head coaches
- World Hockey Association (proposed)
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- Willes, Ed (2004). The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. ISBN 0-7710-8947-3.
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