Serious hockey fans know the real story of the World Hockey Association (WHA) and it's seven-year battle against the venerable National Hockey League (NHL) during the 1970s. These fans undoubtedly know that when the WHA folded up its show in the summer of 1979, and that it left behind a legacy that goes beyond the four member clubs who survived to merge into the NHL (the Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets - although only the Oilers remain in their original location today). The WHA's legacy included large-scale signings of European players, leading to a more free-flowing style of play that would eventually take root in the NHL; adoption of rules - particularly overtime - that have been picked up by the NHL as well; and perhaps most impactful: the WHA abolished the reserve clause (and refused to acknowledge the NHL's reserve clause), resulting in higher player salaries (often to the detriment of its own teams), and more player movement which has evolved into today's free agent system.
Coming as it did on the heels of the NHL's rapid expansion from the Original Six to twelve - and then 14 - clubs, the arrival of the WHA meant that just six years after the top level of hockey was comprised of just six teams, there would in the fall of 1972 suddenly be 28 - and eventually the two leagues would peak at a total membership of 32 teams spread across North America.
There were plenty of mistakes along the way - poorly run franchises placed in cities that weren't ready for major league hockey, substandard arenas, low quality of play in the early years (though the WHA eventually approached the NHL's level of play towards the end of its run), and overly aggressive expansion. All of these played a role in the ultimate demise of the WHA.
THE FORMATION OF THE WORLD HOCKEY ASSOCIATION
The two men who pioneered the WHA were veterans of creating "rebel" leagues. Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson had worked together in building the American Basketball Association, which by 1971 had proven to be a somewhat unstable, but serious, contender for the hearts & minds of pro basketball fans in America, and a definite thorn in the side of the established NBA. Though both men were from Southern California and had absolutely no experience with hockey at any level, they decided to team up to create a hockey league styled upon the ABA.
Like the ABA, the WHA would not honor the existing contracts of hockey players with their NHL teams. One of the avowed missions of the WHA would be the abolishment of the reserve clause that tied every hockey player to the NHL team which owned his rights in perpetuity. Ignoring the reserve clause and playing upon the player's disillusionment with their lack of power would be a prime tool for the WHA to lure players - possibly even star players - away from the NHL.
Murphy and Davidson decided upon a 12-team circuit and would place their teams in North American cities that either had no NHL presence (places like Edmonton, Winnipeg and Calgary in Canada along with relatively small Dayton, Ohio and unlikely hockey locale Miami, Florida in the U.S.) and the major TV markets in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Bids poured in - the pair had set the franchise admittance at just $25,000 and that attracted plenty of suitors - many of whom had no clue how to successfully run a pro sports franchise, let alone how much money it would actually take to do so.
The original slate of clubs as announced at a press conference on November 1, 1971 at the Americana Hotel in New York were: Alberta (Edmonton), Calgary, New York, New England (Boston), Ontario (either Hamilton or Ottawa), Winnipeg, Chicago, St. Paul (MN), Dayton (OH), Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco. It didn't take long for reality to set in and for those locations to be dramatically altered.
There were arena issues right from the start. It turned out that Miami didn't have an adequate arena anyway and the club was shifted to Philadelphia, playing in the Civic Arena. Similarly, the Dayton club couldn't find a home and ended up transferring to Houston to play in the Sam Houston Coliseum. Calgary's owner became ill and the team was shifted to Cleveland, Ohio where they would share a home with the NBA's Cavaliers. The Chicago entry was blocked from Chicago Stadium (home of the Black Hawks) and ended up signing a lease for the International Amphitheater (where they would struggle financially due to small crowds). San Francisco couldn't get off the ground either and ended up losing its nickname (the Sharks) to LA and its team to Quebec.
When the dust settled in the summer of '72 the WHA had a 12-team circuit. In the Eastern Division would be the New England Whalers (playing occasionally in the Boston Garden - when the Bruins & Celtics were away - but more often in the smaller Boston Arena), the New York Raiders (leasing space in Madison Square Garden at a costly rate), Cleveland Crusaders, Ottawa Nationals, Philadelphia Blazers, and Quebec Nordiques. In the West would be the Winnipeg Jets, Alberta Oilers, Los Angeles Sharks (playing in the LA Sports Arena and occasionally in Long Beach to avoid conflicts with the LA Forum's tenants, the NHL's LA Kings), Minnesota Fighting Saints (who would get a brand new arena in St. Paul in January of '73 while battling the NHL's North Stars who played in nearby Bloomington), Chicago Cougars, and Houston Aeros.
The WHA would have head-to-head confrontations with NHL clubs in Boston (New England), Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Minnesota.
THE NHL REACTS
Meanwhile, the National Hockey League was watching these developments with a general attitude of disdain. The prevailing belief was that the new enterprise would sink in an ocean of red ink. NHL president Clarence Campbell, having just expanded his league from six to twelve clubs in 1967 and then added two more in 1970, had promised no further expansion until "at least 1974" but the new league forced a reassessment. While Campbell was openly dismissive of the WHA at the start, he also recognized the opportunity to stick it to the newcomers when William Shea (of NY Mets fame) approached him about putting a new NHL club in the Nassau Coliseum. The WHA Raiders had been hoping/planning to play on Long Island - Campbell took the opportunity to expand early and placed the NY Islanders there. He also pre-empted the planned WHA foray into the U.S. south by putting the Flames in Atlanta (which turned out to ultimately be a failure, but it took nearly a decade for the fallout to occur). What Campbell and the NHL failed to do was come up with a cohesive plan to deal with the WHA's upcoming player raids. And that would cost them dearly.
Initially most of the big names stayed put with the glaring exception of Bobby Hull who famously remarked that the only way he'd go to the WHA is if they wrote him a million dollar check. When Murphy scraped together enough money from the WHA owners to do just that, Hull signed a 10-year contract with the Winnipeg Jets and the WHA had it's first marquee player. Others would come in time but Hull was the first and gave the upstarts a much-needed dose of legitimacy - after he finally was cleared to play, having missed 14 games while the lawsuit between the NHL and WHA was worked out. The fact that the courts upheld Hull's right to jump leagues would prove to be a boon for the bank accounts of hockey players in the future.
All things considered, the NHL was the better league - it had a galaxy of stars even with Gordie Howe having retired. But the cost of doing business was about to go up, and Hull wouldn't remain the only marquee player to jump to the WHA.