Welcome to the World Hockey Association
The World Hockey Association was a major professional ice hockey league that operated in North America from 1972 to 1979. It was the first major competition for the National Hockey League since the collapse of the Western Hockey League after the 1925-26 WHL season. 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 fact, the WHA was home to many of hockey's all-time greats, including Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Frank Mahovlich, Mark Messier, Mike Gartner, Michel Goulet and many more.
The WHA hoped to capitalize on the lack of hockey teams in a number of major cities, it also hoped to attract the best players by paying more than the cartel of NHL owners would.
The league was founded by American promoters Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, the founder and first president of the American Basketball Association, respectively. Murphy and Davidson were quick to bring Canadian investor Bill Hunter into the fold. Hunter was considered one of the most powerful men in hockey not associated with the NHL, and with his help, the WHA had solid backing in Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg, potentially giving the new league four Western Canadian teams - one more than the NHL had in all of Canada at the time. Davidson later left to start the World Football League (WFL).
Part of the WHA's success was its abolishment of the reserve clause in its contracts, as well as the fact that it would also not honor the reserve clauses in NHL contracts. As many players employed by the NHL were set to have their contracts expire in 1972, many would try to defect to the WHA as a negotiation tool with their teams, or, in any event, consider offers to play for the fledgling league before looking to new NHL contracts. Some, including many stars such as Bobby Hull, would carry out their threat and join the WHA. The NHL, for its part, did nothing, believing the WHA would fold before their first season. When it was apparent that the WHA would play, the NHL responded by hastily adding the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames to forestall WHA franchises in new arenas just opened in both cities.
On November of 1971, twelve teams were formally announced. They included teams from cities without NHL teams such as the Miami Screaming Eagles -- possibly the best known hockey franchise never actually to take the ice -- as well as teams in cities where it was felt there was room for more than one team, such as the Los Angeles Sharks, Chicago Cougars, and New York Raiders. Of the original twelve teams, a few, such as the Dayton Aeros and the San Francisco Seahawks, folded, 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 would replace the Screaming Eagles and the Broncos.
Although the league had many players under contract by June of 1972, including a few NHL stars such as Bernie Parent, many of its players were career minor leaguers and college players. Thus, the new league was not considered much of a threat - that is, until Bobby Hull, arguably the NHL's top player at the time, jumped to the new league. Hull, who considered moving to the WHA as part of a negotiation tactic with the Chicago Blackhawks, had jokingly told reporters that he would only move to the WHA for a million dollars, at that time a ridiculous amount of money for a hockey player. But to everyone's surprise the Winnipeg Jets offered this sum. Hull accepted and moved to the WHA, signing a five-year, million-dollar contract, with a million-dollar signing bonus. Hull's signing attracted a few other top stars such as Gerry Cheevers, Derek Sanderson, and J.C. 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 would eventually win the WHA's first World Trophy (later renamed the Avco World Trophy when the Avco Financial Services Corporation became its main sponsor).
However, the league was suffering. Big stars lacked supporting players, and many teams often found Themselves in financial difficulty, folding or moving from one city to another - often in mid-season. The New York franchise was a key example: as the NHL's Islanders had locked up Nassau Coliseum for their own use, the WHA team was first forced to rent space at Madison Square Garden, and then to play in lesser arenas, often without visitor's locker rooms. Because of this, the franchise went through several ownership changes year after year. Part of the financial trouble was also attributed to the high player salaries: Derek Sanderson was paid large amounts of cash to play for the WHA, but when his on-ice performance suffered, he was paid even more money to sit at home. Despite this, the WHA had 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 Rejean Houle, Marc Tardif and Gordie Howe, and in later years, Frank Mahovlich, Rick Dudley and Paul Henderson. In 1974, the WHA began employing European players -- which the NHL had largely ignored up to that time -- such as Swedish players Anders Hedberg, Lark Erik Sjoberg and Ulf Nilsson and Czech star Vaclav Nedomansky.
By 1976, it had become evident that many of the WHA's franchises were teetering on the verge of financial collapse, with stable teams few and far between, and that the at one time combined 30 teams of the NHL and WHA had badly strained the talent pool. Merger discussions then began, with one proposal (not popular enough among the NHL owners) having six of the then eight WHA teams moving to the NHL. Another idea had the Edmonton Oilers and the New England Whalers moving to the NHL, with the Winnipeg Jets following a year later. Neither of these ideas were accepted.
The final two seasons of the WHA saw the debut of many superstars, some of which became hockey legends in the NHL. They included Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Rob Ramage, Rod Langway, Ken Linseman, and Mike Gartner. 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 on March 22, 1979: the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers (renamed the Hartford Whalers), Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets would join the NHL as expansion teams, and the WHA would cease operations. The Birmingham Bulls and the Cincinnati Stingers were paid to disband. Mark Willand
"We are without merit. We are in free fall. We are a generation of guys with no statistics - only stories. We are WHA guys living in a WHA world." - Al Smith, goalie New England Whalers