The blue puck that changed the game.

 

With ESPN airing hockey content for the first time in eight years and a number of high profile European stars showcasing this other league (KHL) during a tenuous time for the NHL. I find it a bit ironic that 40 years ago tonight the first blue puck was dropped at the Ottawa Civic Center as the WHA, an upstart hockey league, began their chaotic though exciting seven year journey as “The Rebel League”.

Most people in Chicago only remember the league signing for Bobby Hull away from the Blackhawks to the first million dollar contract. The infamous Peter Pan series, when the Chicago Cougars were forced out of the International Amphitheatre and had to play a series at the 2000 seat Randhurst Ice arena due to the double booking of a play. Yet, the WHA was so much more.

The League was both revolutionary and controversial. In the footsteps of Curt Flood in baseball, WHA investors challenged the reserve clause of the four major sports and offered many established NHL stars such as Hull, Gordie Howe and Frank Maholivich very large contracts. The most exorbitant contract was that given to Derek Sanderson worth 2.6 million dollars making him the highest paid athlete in the world surpassing Pele. Which he subsequently blew most of the money and was back in the NHL a year later.

For the first time on North American ice, numerous European players showed off their skills and different styles. This was no better personified than when Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg teamed with Hull to put up a ridiculous point total of 362 between them with the Winnipeg Jets in 1975. These two Europeans were able to showcase a new style few fans or players on this side of the globe had ever seen before. Moreover, they were the early catalysts for the European influence our game has today.

However, the league was not without its many faults., From bad owners who lied about finances to players having to be stuffed into equipment bags to get past police who had arrest warrants and even having your ice melted for Peter Pan, there were many things about the league that led to its demise. But to me, the lasting legacy of the WHA is that for a time there were a group of individuals that went against the mainstream and delivered a product as good as or better than the hockey of the day.

One day sooner or later, Jim Cornelison will sing the Anthem, some moron will yell “shoot the puck,” and Sam will be freezing his ass off in front of the United Center before a game. The KHL will go back to being decent hockey with overpriced 4th line NHL vets that like to bitch on Twitter about playing in Siberia, but just for a second imagine if something like the WHA came along again.

I recommend “Rebel League” by Ed Willes, an awesome book about the WHA. Full of great stories and information, that I literally read in two days and I don’t read much!

  • Fork

    There’s also some sweet WHA stuff on YouTube, as well as a nice DVD set you can nab.

  • Pucks and Stones

    ” WHA investors challenged the reserve clause” – I think this is the true legacy of the WHA right there……..who knows what the professional sports landscape would look like these days.

    oh and ” I don’t read much” – you’ll fit in well here.

  • Paul the Fossil

    I remember attending a Chicago Cougars game at the Amphitheater with my dad. Pretty fun including the pervasive scent of cattle from all the stock shows that were the place’s bread and butter. I think it was the year the Cougars made the WHA’s Finals.

    The WHA wasn’t actually the first league to challenge the reserve clause, the ABA and AFL had done that in the 60s. In all three of those sports the ultimate resolution was the established league absorbing the strongest parts of the challenger league to re-establishing the monopoly situation.

    I’ve read that Derek Sanderson actually returned most of that big contract, or rather never collected on it. He played in only a handful of WHA games, decided that it wasn’t really the big leagues and wasn’t going to be, and walked away from it to return to the Bruins.

    In hindsight from watching videotape of NHL games from the mid-70s (e.g. the ’74 and ’75 Stanley Cup Finals which I watched recently on the NHL Network) it’s obvious that the WHA had a seriously-diluting effect on the caliber of NHL play. A lot of NHL regulars had switched over to the WHA but meanwhile the NHL teams still weren’t interested in employing Europeans. That meant that suddenly every 3rd line and 2nd D pair in the NHL (at that time they didn’t use 4 lines or 3 D pairs regularly) included players who would never have been there even in 1971 never mind prior to the 1967 expansion. There are whole shifts in those 1975 Finals games in which the _average_ skating speed is John Scott-level, and watching that I had to wonder what the games between non-playoff teams would seem like through modern eyes! Also some of the goaltenders that NHL teams had to scrape up and use in that period probably wouldn’t get drafted by a semi-pro league today.