They laughed at the red and blue pucks. Chortled about the championship trophy being sponsored by a finance company. And guffawed at the motley collection of players perceived as grossly inferior to their own.
Indeed, on the rare occasions NHL owners deigned to acknowledge the World Hockey Association in the months leading up to the launch of the rebel league in the fall of 1972, it was with a patronizing smugness.
After all, the NHL had enjoyed a monopoly on major league competition for more than six decades and was poised to launch the most ambitious expansion in the history of pro sports.
How could this new venture — cooked up by a couple of Californians, no less — amount to anything more than an annoyance?
They were about to find out.
From 1972-79, what started as a mere irritant grew into a Zamboni-sized thorn in the NHL’s side.
Besides raiding the established league’s rosters, WHA clubs in pursuit of the Avco World Trophy trolled the minor league backwaters and made a habit of offering ludicrously lucrative contracts to untried junior prospects.
The end result was a seven-year war of attrition that triggered a 400% raise in the average hockey salary.
Derek Sanderson emerged as the poster boy of the high-priced lunacy. Signed to a $2.35 million contract by the Philadelphia Blazers, Sanderson decided he’d had enough of the WHA after eight games. The Blazers then cut him a cheque for $1 million to return to the NHL’s Boston Bruins.
Another early casualty was legendary Maurice (Rocket) Richard, the original (and expensive) coach of the Quebec Nordiques who resigned after two games, citing health reasons.
In the summer of 1972 the 12 original WHA clubs joined forces to lure superstar Bobby Hull from the Chicago Black Hawks to the Winnipeg Jets for $2.75 million. A year later, the Houston Aeros coaxed the immortal Gordie Howe out of a two-year retirement to play alongside his teenaged sons.
Players like Andre Lacroix, Danny Lawson and Ron Ward — no more than talented journeymen in their NHL days — suddenly blossomed as high-scoring superstars, piling up points for teams like the New York Golden Blades, Calgary Cowboys and Cleveland Crusaders.
Losing an eight-game series against the Soviet national team in September 1974 did nearly as much to enhance the WHA’s credibility as the Jets’ luring of Hull from Chicago.
Sure, the WHA’s version of Team Canada lost to the big, bad Bolsheviks, but how could we not love a squad that included at 46-year-old grandpa (Howe) and eccentric backup goaltender Gilles Gratton, who blamed recurring abdominal pain on a lance wound he said he suffered in a previous life during the Spanish Inquisition?
Throughout its lifetime the WHA attracted an amazing cast of colourful characters, both on and off the ice.
There was Gary Davidson, the league’s co-founder (along with Dennis Murphy), who conceived the idea of using fluorescent red pucks “because they’ll show up better on television.” The league then switched to blue pucks, with equally laughable results.
There was Wild Bill Hunter, who drafted six Russians for the original Alberta Oilers “because you have to figure that sooner or later the whole damn national team will want to defect.”
And there was Johnny Bassett, flamboyant owner of the Toronto Toros (and later the Birmingham Bulls), who once toyed with the idea of signing motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel to a five-game tryout contract.
The superstars — Hull, Howe, Gerry Cheevers, J.C. Tremblay — were all household names when they jumped to the WHA, but the league created many more of its own.
Robbie Ftorek, Dennis Sobchuk, Real Cloutier, Michel Goulet and a kid named Wayne Gretzky were some of the young guns that made their pro debuts with the Phoenix Roadrunners, Cincinnati Stingers, Quebec Nordiques, Birmingham Bulls and Indianapolis Racers.
Others earned headlines for more unorthodox reasons.
Birmingham tough guy Frank (Seldom) Beaton was arrested on an outstanding warrant in Cincinnati after he tried to avoid the cops by hiding in the Stingers’ stick locker. Steve and Jeff Carlson, a brother act from the Minnesota Fighting Saints, hooked up with Bulls bad boy Dave Hanson to portray the brawling Hanson Brothers alongside Paul Newman in the movie Slap Shot.
And who could forget Roger Cote, an original Alberta Oiler who went on to play 153 WHA games — all with a toothpick prominently protruding from his mouth? It was such a common sight around the league that fans got the impression Cote’s toothpick was surgically attached to his lower lip.
“I’m very proud to have been associated with the WHA and to have played a role in creating it,” Oilers founder Bill Hunter said shortly before his death in 2002.
“We were behind the eight ball right from Day One, but we persevered and we survived. It took the WHA to open up the game of hockey and give it back to the players and fans. That’s something the NHL hadn’t done in 60 years before we came along.
“Even with all the problems and all the headaches, the WHA was still a tremendously successful enterprise.
“The fact that our league introduced young players like Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and Mike Gartner to big-time hockey while prolonging the careers of all-time greats like Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and Frank Mahovlich is something I think deserves to be remembered.
“When our league challenged the NHL’s reserve clause and won freedom for Hull, it broke decades of one-sided control in all pro sports.
“We who were part of the WHA will always owe Bobby a great debt for what he did, and players everywhere should feel indebted to our league for having the courage to challenge the hockey establishment in 1972,
“Professional sports was changed forever, thanks to the WHA.”
Part II: The Forgotten Team Canada ... and European Invasion