WHA stars get their due

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:04 AM ET

At first glance, it looked like just another flim-flam artist trying to make a buck off the old World Hockey Association.

A WHA Hall of Fame? Puh-lease, spare us the details.

Turns out the details are rather fascinating.

What if we told you a film documentary of the WHA's Winnipeg Jets was going to premiere here this summer, and that Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Bobby Hull had agreed to show up for it, as part of a Jets players reunion?

The documentary will include long-lost footage of the Jets in action against the Russians in Japan, somewhere around New Year's, 1978.

And if all goes according to plan, the WHA Hall of Fame will have a permanent home in the city that gave hockey one of the most entertaining teams of any era, any league.

It's all the brain child of Tim Gassen, a film producer from Indianapolis, of all places, who grew up a huge fan of the WHA.

"What's best about the WHA was embodied in the Winnipeg Jets," Gassen said yesterday from his home in Phoenix. "Those Winnipeg Jet teams are still among the greatest of all major league hockey, and I don't care what initials of league you put in front of the name."

Gassen waited for years for some institution to properly document and preserve the WHA's legacy. When nobody did, he dove in five years ago, first turning out a book and documentary on the Indianapolis Racers and their 17-year-old phenom, Wayne Gretzky.

As more and more ex-players, managers and fans came forward with artifacts, photos, even video, Gassen put together an 11-man advisory board, which included WHA alums Hedberg, Jacques Demers and Pat Stapleton, sent out and received ballots from another 30-plus former players, broadcasters and hockey historians and produced the lineup for the WHA Hall of Fame.

The list, to be officially unveiled later this month, includes nine former Jets players, led, of course, by the Hot Line -- Hull, Hedberg and Nilsson -- and including goalie Joe Daley.

"Wow. I didn't know that," Daley said. "That's nice to know. It's wonderful news."

A Winnipeg native, Daley is one of just a handful of people who played all seven of the WHA's seasons, from 1972 through '79, joining the renegade league after four years in the NHL.

What the WHA gave players like him was a choice, and suddenly the NHL's monopoly and resulting iron-fisted rule over players was broken.

When Chicago's Golden Jet jumped ship, all Hull broke loose, and when No. 9 was paired with a couple of soft-spoken but hard-skating Swedes, the game was changed, forever.

"It really opened up Europe," Daley said. "We filled a team with them, when it was against the ideals of building a team. They thought we had way too many. We proved that wrong."

Watching this new hybrid of a game storm his home town, Gassen, then 17, was instantly hooked.

More than three decades later, all his scrounging through the basements of TV stations and the garages of retired producers has helped preserve a chapter in hockey history that was on the verge of being lost forever, as much of the film and videotape wouldn't have lasted much longer.

If Gassen winds up breaking even on sales of his DVDs, he'll take it.

"But obviously this is a labour of love," he said. "No one got into this and no one jumped on board with me because they thought this was a money-making proposition."

No, this is more about giving a league its due.

And if you ask me, it's long overdue.

But why someone from a place where they don't even have pro hockey anymore?

"Maybe it makes some kind of sense that a kid from Indianapolis came up with this idea," Gassen said. "That spirit ... that's what the WHA was all about."

paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca


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