WHA: Winnipeg tunes into EuroVision

Johnny Bassett, the flamboyant owner of the Toronto Toros — a franchise that started life as the...

Johnny Bassett, the flamboyant owner of the Toronto Toros — a franchise that started life as the Ottawa Nationals, required a cloak-and-dagger scenario involving bogus travel documents and foreign agents before Bassett was able to smuggle Czechoslovakian defectors Vaclav Nedomansky, shown, and Richard Farda out of Europe in the summer of ’74. Nedomansky — nicknamed ‘The Big N’ — was captain of the Czech national team and arguably one of the top 10 players on the planet at the time he defected. He’d been named MVP at the 1973 World Hockey Championships and was Europe’s all-time leading scorer. Greig Archives

MURRAY GREIG, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:24 AM ET

By 1974, the WHA was living up to the ‘World’ in the league’s name by aggressively recruiting European talent.

The Winnipeg Jets became the first North American team to hire a full-time European scouting staff, and within two years — primarily due to the Jets’ pioneering efforts — the WHA opened the floodgates to a foreign invasion that forever changed the face of pro hockey on this side of the pond.

But Winnipeg didn’t fire the first shot in the battle for Euro talent; that honour went to Johnny Bassett, flamboyant owner of the Toronto Toros — a franchise that started life as the Ottawa Nationals.

It required a cloak-and-dagger scenario involving bogus travel documents and foreign agents before Bassett was able to smuggle Czechoslovakian defectors Vaclav Nedomansky and Richard Farda out of Europe in the summer of ’74, but the effort proved well worth the aggravation, at least for a couple of seasons.

Nedomansky — nicknamed ‘The Big N’ — was captain of the Czech national team and arguably one of the top 10 players on the planet at the time he defected. He’d been named MVP at the 1973 World Hockey Championships and was Europe’s all-time leading scorer.

While Farda turned out to be pretty much a bust, Nedomansky didn’t disappoint his new club. For most of the 1974-75 season he was flanked by Frank Mahovlich and Tony Featherstone on Toronto’s top line, and he responded by tallying 41 goals and 81 points.

The following season he scored 56 goals (third best in the league) and 98 points, but when the franchise moved to Alabama to become the Birmingham Bulls in ’77, Nedomansky’s awesome talents deserted him.

In one of the first major NHL-WHA trades, he was swapped to the Detroit Red Wings, along with Tim Sheehy, for Dave Hanson and Steve Durbano. In six NHL seasons with Detroit, St. Louis and the New York Rangers, ‘The Big N’ notched 123 goals and 279 points.

Hot on the heels of Bassett’s bold move, Winnipeg signed Swedish stars Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson.

Nicknamed ‘The Swedish Express,’ Hedberg potted 53 goals and 100 points en route to winning the Lou Kaplan Trophy as the WHA’s rookie of the year, and over the next three seasons, playing right wing on the Jets’ ‘Hot Line’ with Nilsson and Bobby Hull, he made scoring goals in bunches his personal trademark.

In 1976-77, Hedberg became the first player in major league history to score more than 50 goals in less than 50 games (51 in 47), then for good measure he sniped number 60 in his 57th game and added number 70 in his 68th.

He went on to tally 236 goals and 458 points in just 286 WHA games, then took his act to the NHL, where he notched 397 points in 465 games for the New York Rangers between 1978-85.

Nilsson, meanwhile, was one of the toughest Swedes ever to play in North America. Beginning with his very first WHA game, the five-foot-11, 175-pounder was relentlessly targeted by opposition goons, but his willingness to drop the gloves and defend himself with a puncher’s polish went a long way toward exploding Don Cherry’s myth of the “chicken Swedes.”

Nilsson established WHA rookie records for assists (94) and points (120) in 1974-75, and although not a great skater or shooter, he earned a reputation as an adroit stickhandler and one of the game’s best passers.

After the Jets won the Avco World Trophy in 1978, Nilsson joined Hedberg in jumping to the New York Rangers in a package deal reportedly worth $3 million. In 170 games over four NHL seasons, he put up 169 points.

BENNY & THE JETS

Team owner Ben Hatskin was so enamored with European players that by the time the Jets won their first of three WHA championships in 1975-76, he had no less than nine on the Winnipeg roster: Hedberg, Nilsson, Thommie Bergman, Veli Pekka Ketola, Curt Larsson, Mats Lindh, Willy Lindstrom, Heikki Riihiranta and captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg. Maybe not surprising, considering the Jets had selected Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin in the final round of the WHA’s inaugural draft in the spring of 1972!

WHA Vs. NHL: Shooting Stars

On Sept. 26, 1974, in the first exhibition game ever played between a WHA team and an NHL opponent, rookie Don Larway scored twice to lead the Houston Aeros to a 5-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues.

Over the next four seasons the rival leagues squared off in a total of 67 exhibitions, with the WHA coming out on top with a record of 33 wins, 27 losses and 7 ties.

The rebel league’s best year was 1978, when it won 16, lost 7 and tied 4. Overall, the WHA outscored the NHL 245-239.

The most successful WHA team in head-to-head competition against NHL clubs was the Quebec Nordiques, who compiled a record of 6-1-1.

murray.greig@sunmedia.ca


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