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The World Hockey Association (WHA)

By Wikipedia

The World Hockey Association was a 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.

At a glance...
Established June 10, 1971
Disbanded March 22, 1979
Founders Dennis Murphy
Gary Davidson
Alberta/Edmonton Oilers
Baltimore Blades
Calgary Cowboys
Chicago Cougars
Cincinnati Stingers
Cleveland Crusaders
Denver Spurs
Houston Aeros
Indianapolis Racers
Los Angeles Sharks
Michigan Stags
Minnesota Fighting Saints
New England Whalers
New York Raiders
New York Golden Blades
New Jersey Knights
Ottawa Civics
Ottawa Nationals
Philadelphia Blazers
Phoenix Roadrunners 
Quebec Nordiques
San Diego Mariners
Toronto Toros
Vancouver Blazers
Winnipeg Jets
1972-73 New England Whalers
1973-74  Houston Aeros
1974-75  Houston Aeros
1975-76  Winnipeg Jets
1976-77  Quebec Nordiques
1977-78  Winnipeg Jets
1978-79  Winnipeg Jets
1973 Bob Neely, Chicago
1974 Pat Price, Vancouver
1975 Claude Larose, Cincinnati
1976 Blair Chapman, Edmonton
1977 Scott Campbell, Houston
1973 Bobby Hull, Winnipeg
1974 Gordie Howe, Houston
1975 Bobby Hull, Winnipeg
1976 Marc Tardif, Quebec
1977 Robbie Ftorek, Phoenix
1978 Marc Tardif, Quebec
1979 Dave Dryden, Edmonton
1973 Terry Caffery, New England
1974 Mark Howe, Houston
1975 Anders Hedberg, Winnipeg
1976 Mark Napier, Toronto
1977 George Lyle, New England
1978 Kent Nilsson, Winnipeg
1979 Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton
1973 New England   6,981
1974 Vancouver   9,356
1975 Edmonton   10,722
1976 Quebec   9,885
1977 Indianapolis   9,295
1978 Edmonton   10,484
1979 Edmonton   11,255

A key part of its success was its firm stance in not recognizing the reserve clause that found its way onto NHL contracts of the time, and its active scouting of players from all over the world, in contrast to the mainly North American NHL. However, the WHA was also known for its unstable franchises, and the multi-million-dollar salaries it introduced to the game have remained a source of contention.

See also: WHA Attendance, WHA Award Winners, WHA Drafts, WHA Records, WHA Leaders

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 Marc Tardif and Gordie Howe, and in later years, Frank Mahovlich 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 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, 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.

The Effects of the WHA

The four former WHA teams were predicted to perform poorly against the established NHL competition, since the terms of the expansion allowed the incoming WHA teams to protect only two goalies and two skaters each in the player dispersal draft. Instead, though, each did respectably well in their first year, with the Whalers and Oilers earning playoff berths. The Oilers would go on to a Stanley Cup dynasty in the 1980s. The 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs would mark the first time that two former WHA teams (the same two that earned playoff berths in 1980, the Hartford franchise having been transferred to Carolina in 1997) would play each other in the Stanley Cup finals.

The WHA had many lasting effects on NHL hockey. Scouts began looking overseas for the best players that Europe could offer. 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 Wayne Gretzky, Mike Gartner, Mark Howe, 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.

Original WHA logo

Today, the last team from the WHA still in its original city is the Edmonton Oilers. The Quebec 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 (playing temporarily in Greensboro, then in Raleigh from 1999) and became the Carolina Hurricanes.

Since 1979, three of the four former WHA teams have challenged for the Stanley Cup: the Oilers have played for it seven times, winning five; the Avalanche have played for it three times, winning twice; the Hurricanes have played for it twice, winning once. The 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs marked the first time two former WHA teams played for the Cup, with the Hurricanes defeating the Oilers in seven games.


WHA Bibliography
The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association by Ed Willes
The Complete Historical and Statistical Reference to the World Hockey Association by Scott Adam Surgent
WHA Pro Hockey '75 - '76 by Dan Proudfoot
WHA Media Guides (each team published one each year)

These and many other WHA items can be found at eBay - check our links on the far right of this page!

Share Your Memories!

We have a WHA Forum! Our sites have always been by you and about you. If you check our TV Forums or our Technology & Science forums, you'll find literally thousands of messages from fans of 1970s TV shows, survivors of hurricanes or aircraft accidents, etc. from all over the world sharing their memories, asking questions, making comments. Our baseball section is new, but don't let that stop you from sharing your memories of WHA games you saw, now-forgotten stadiums, etc. Of course you can also ask questions, post trivia, or just read what others are saying.

--Patrick Mondout


The signing of Bobby Hull proved the WHA was a serious competitor to the NHL.

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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
It uses material from this Wikipedia article, which is probably more up to date than ours (retrieved August 12, 2005).

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