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"What if…?" #4: The WHA Never Existed?

July 30, 2009, 5:17 PM ET [ Comments]
Shawn Gates
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What if…: The WHA Never Existed?

FACTS: In operation from 1972 to 1979, the World Hockey Association (WHA) was the only league to really challenge the modern NHL as a legitimate competitor. Founded by Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, founder and first president of the American Basketball Association, respectively, in 1971, the intent of the WHA was to capitalize on the lack of professional NHL teams in a number of “viable” North American markets, while also providing an alternative product in cities with existing NHL franchises. Franchises awarded and teams having played in the league included the:

a)Alberta Oilers (1972–79, renamed Edmonton Oilers in 1973)

b)Chicago Cougars (1972–75)

c)Cincinnati Stingers (1975–79)

d)Calgary Broncos (never played)/Cleveland Crusaders(1972–76)/Minnesota
Fighting Saints (1976–77)

e)Denver Spurs (1975–76) / Ottawa Civics (1976)

f)Dayton Aeros (never played) / Houston Aeros (1972–78)

g)Indianapolis Racers (1974–78)

h)Los Angeles Sharks (1972–74) / Michigan Stags (1974–75) / Baltimore
Blades (1975)

i)Minnesota Fighting Saints (1972–76)

j)New England Whalers (1972–79)

k)New York Raiders (1972–73, renamed New York Golden Blades in 1973)/
New Jersey Knights (1973–74) / San Diego Mariners (1974–77)

l)Ottawa Nationals (1972–73) / Toronto Toros (1973–76) / Birmingham
Bulls (1976–79)

m)Miami Screaming Eagles (never played) / Philadelphia Blazers (1972-
73) / Vancouver Blazers (1973–75) / Calgary Cowboys (1975–77)

n)Phoenix Roadrunners (1974–77)

o)San Francisco Sharks (never played) / Quebec Nordiques (1972–79)

p)Winnipeg Jets (1972–79)

Now while I stated that the WHA challenged the NHL I would be remiss if I didn’t qualify this. Let’s take an example from the insect world. Compare the fly and the bee. Both are irritating, small, and I don’t really want either in my home. The fly can’t really do anything to harm me prior to me killing it. The bee on the other hand, can sting me, putting me out of sorts for a while, but it’s not doing any long term damage per se (For the sake of an analogy, please leave allergies out of the mix!). The WHA was the bee to the NHL’s person. And in much the same way that the bee’s attack ultimately leads to its own death, the WHA’s attempts to compete with the NHL ultimately buried the league as well. How so? Take a peek:

a)They wanted to attract high calibre players by paying more than the NHL (where the average salary at the time was $25,000) but in doing so created rampant financial problems for themselves resulting in numerous and frequent team relocation, sometimes even in the middle of a season (two of the original franchises didn’t even play a gamer before being relocated!).

b)Teams in cities where NHL teams were already present were forced to rent space from arenas where rent was high, the NHL clubs wouldn’t allow them to use their facilities inside the arena (Harold Ballard actually removed the seat cushions from the benches when the Toros played, and forced them to pay above the arena rental price for the use of the lights), and the available slots for them to play where they could actually afford to pay the cost wreaked havoc on scheduling (The New York Golden Blades could only play Sunday afternoon home games at MSG).

c)The amount of money used to sign away players from the NHL left franchises with little cash left, resulting in a supporting cast of players around their stars who were college level talent at best.

d)Ongoing legal battles with the NHL drained league finances over time, always leaving the WHA with a tenuous operating capital at best.

Throw in the silly stuff like not having the championship trophy ready for when the first champions were crowned (the New England Whalers ended up skating around with their conference trophy instead), using orange pucks, and playing in arenas with uneven ice surfaces and chain link fencing instead of plexiglass and you’ve got a recipe for disaster!!

Now that being said, the WHA certainly wasn’t without its impact on the NHL. Much the opposite, the upstart league forced the NHL’s hand in a number of areas that it either hadn’t considered, or as was often the case didn’t WANT to consider. The NHL was in reactive mode to the WHL’s proactive approach. Getting back to the insect analogy, I may not be overly worried about the bee in and of itself, but if I don’t want more bees coming into my home I’d best look at how to prevent them from getting in. I may like the luxury of keeping my windows wide-open, but if I want to keep the bees away I need to either close the window or put up a screen. I may not want to spend the money to keep them out, but which is better: Keeping my money or having my home overrun by bees. I may not want a swarm surrounding my house, but if I can provide some of them with their own home in my backyard (a hive) I can actually make some money off their honey. In much the same way the WHA, while not a huge threat its existence, forced the NHL to expand its approach to the game from sporting, business and entertainment perspectives. Here’s how:

1)No Reserve Clause: The WHA offered contracts sans the reserve clause, an addendum included in the contracts of athletes from all 4 major sports at that time that automatically extended a player's contract by one year when it expired. Talk this out in your head and it will be readily apparent that unless the team trades you or releases you from the contract, you’re tied to them for life. No free agency in the cards, thereby allowing the league to keep salaries in check. Without this clause the WHA was able to offer players deals much larger than the $25,000 average NHL contract. Now the NHL took the WHA to court to try to prevent players from going over to the new league, and were awarded restraining orders against players joining their WHA teams in some cases that granted a temporary reprieve. That is until the Supreme Court in Philadelphia ruled that the NHL could not enforce the reserve clause and lifted the restraining orders, effectively ending the league’s monopoly on players who had ever signed a contract with them.

2)Higher Salaries: NHL average salary in the early 70’s was $25,000. Here’s a sample of some WHA contracts: Bobby Hull = 10 year, 2.7 million ($270,000 a season); Derek Sanderson = 5 years, 2.65 million; Robert Picard = 5 years, $625,000 ($125,000 per season as a rookie!). Think the NHL might be losing out on some players with salaries like this? Try Bernie Parent, Gerry Cheevers, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mike Gartner, Gordie Howe, Paul Henderson, Ken Linsmen, Rick Vaive, Mark Howe and many others.

3)Expansion Into The Sun Belt Of The US: Denver, Houston, San Diego, San Francisco, Phoenix, Miami, Birmingham. The Los Angeles Kings were in the NHL at that point, but how much of a risk is putting a team in one of the top 2 markets in the US? WHA really went out on a limb with their expansion!

4)The Existence Of The New York Islanders And Calgary (Atlanta) Flames: The WHA is the reason these franchises were created. Directly. The flagship team for the WHA was to be the New York Raiders. The plan was for this team to play in the newly constructed Nassau Colliseum on Long Island but to be quite frank the politicians in Nassau County did not want them in the building as they did not see the league as viable. Problem being at that point was that the only way to block them was to have another team in there. Enter the NHL!! They lobbied the league for a VERY quick expansion into their arena, and while the NHL didn’t necessarily enjoy moving as quickly as they did, they felt it necessary to do so. Welcome to the NHL NY Islanders! As for Atlanta? They needed a team to balance the conferences.

5)European Players: Simply put, to round out their rosters with cheap talent the WHA started heavily scouting Europe and bringing over players from there, something the NHL was not doing at the time. Swedish players Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson were the most notable players of this scouting and signing strategy.

6)Four More Teams: Even in demise, the WHA contributed to the NHL! Once the league finally folded in ’79, 4 of the 6 remaining franchises were “merged” into the NHL. These teams (Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec and Hartford) were the only ones to have survived the lifespan of the league. The NHL required the incoming teams to pay a six million dollar fee and allow existing NHL teams to reclaim their old players. The WHA teams required safety for 2 goalies and 2 forwards/defensemen while also insisting that ALL Canadian teams be allowed into the NHL (the NHL govenors didn’t want to take Quebec).

7)Overtime: The WHA had a 10 minute sudden death overtime rule. The NHL had no overtime rule. The NHL wanted to institute this. The players insisted with more time they wanted more money. Both sides eventually agreed on a 5 minute OT with no extra money!!

That’s a pretty huge impact and influence for a league oftentimes viewed as a weak presence on the professional scene. Given the influence and impact of this league then, I must throw it out to you all to chew on:

WHAT IF #4: The WHA Never Existed?

The implications are huge. I’m not asking for anyone to address the entire impact this would have had as that would be very onerous! Pick any one or two aspects of this and run wild. I think we’ll have a good time with this one!


Shawn Gates
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Twitter: ShawnHockeybuzz
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