Leagues on thin ice

WHA commissioner Bobby Hull had plenty to smile about earlier in the summer when the new league was...

WHA commissioner Bobby Hull had plenty to smile about earlier in the summer when the new league was unveiled. Yesterday, the league was in damage control, insisting that the WHA wasn't folding before the season even began. (Toronto Sun File/Craig Robertson)

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:14 AM ET

Both of North America's hockey leagues attempting to fill the hole created by the NHL lockout spoke of restructuring yesterday, as the number of Europe-bound NHLers climbed to 181.

The World Hockey Association appears to be on the shakiest ground. Co-founder Allan Howell told The Toronto Sun yesterday that an announcement will be made this morning to clarify plans for the 2004-05 season in the wake of the Dallas Americans pulling out earlier this week. His partner, Dr. Nick Vaccaro, denied a published report the WHA is dead, telling the Canadian Press: "We're in discussions right now with a group of people looking to acquire our rights so they can operate possibly as a single entity this year. It would basically be the transfer of the WHA trademark rights. If this transition goes effectively, then the season should be saved."

A planned 60-game regular season, with teams in Vancouver, Detroit, Halifax, Miami, Toronto and possibly Hamilton is in jeopardy. Postponing the WHA until next year would be as bad as folding it, since the NHL will likely return by the autumn of 2005 at the latest.

Meanwhile, Original Stars Hockey League president Randy Gumbley said yesterday his 4-on-4 barnstormers will start the next segment of their season on Oct. 14, kicking off a series of games in Atlantic Canada.

FINALIZING THINGS

"The WHA has been working on their league for months and months, but we're only in Week 6 and still trying to finalize things," Gumbley said. "We're restructuring."

Gumbley, who spent the past few days denying stories that the OSHL was folding, plans games in Halifax, Fredericton and Moncton, promising to release details shortly.

Gumbley claimed yesterday that well-known NHLers Rick Nash,, Kris Draper and Bryan Berard had agreed to join the OSHL this week. But Nash's agent, J.P. Barry, insisted his client was staying in Davos of the Swiss League.

Joining the exodus to Europe yesterday was Polish-born enforcer Krzysztof Oliwa of the New Jersey Devils, signing with Podhale Nowy Targ. Also agreeing to deals were Ryan Malone of the Pittsburgh Penguins, with the Espoo Blues in Finland, and Jim Dowd of the Montreal Canadiens with Hamburg of the German league.

The failure of the Americans to lift off was a severe jolt to the WHA. The team was co-owned by Maple Leafs goalie Ed Belfour and considered vital to the WHA's viability.

"It's never good, certainly, when someone with the credentials of Ed Belfour is lost," Howell said.

Gino Naldini, who headed the original Toronto franchise, did not return a call yesterday. He had hoped his team would lease Ricoh Coliseum, but that venue was officially cornered by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd on Wednesday as the future home of the St. John's Maple Leafs.


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