WHA Oilers were Wild Bill Hunter's baby
MURRAY GREIG, QMI Agency
|Edmonton businessman, promoter and hockey pioneer Wild Bill Hunter celebrated the city's entry into the WHA in 1972. (Provincial Archives of Alberta/Edmonton Sun file)
The World Hockey Association was conceived by Americans Gary Davidson and Dennis Murphy — the same guys who gave us the American Basketball Association, the World Football League and World Team Tennis — but it took a couple of Albertans to transform the WHA into reality.
In the spring of 1971, Davidson and Murphy contacted Walt Marlow, a sportswriter at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, to pitch the idea of new pro hockey league. Marlow, who grew up in eastern Alberta, suggested they set up a meeting with Edmonton businessman “Wild Bill” Hunter.
Born in Saskatoon, Hunter had been an air force pilot, sporting goods dealer, magazine publisher and radio broadcaster before launching a long and lucrative career in hockey management.
He was a former coach and GM of the Saskatoon Quakers in the professional Western Hockey League and owned both the Regina Capitals (senior) and Medicine Hat Tigers (junior) before founding the Western Canada Junior Hockey League (now the WHL), the largest amateur circuit on the planet.
At the time Davidson, Murphy and Marlow set up their first meeting with him, Hunter was owner, president and GM of the Edmonton Oil Kings.
“I’d known Walt for several years, and though I’d never heard of the WHA, I was excited about it because Walt seemed to be,” Hunter recalled in an interview shortly before his death in 2002.
“I flew down to Anaheim, and Murphy picked Walt and me up at the airport and drove us to Davidson’s place, where we sat around the pool and discussed their plans for a new pro league.
“It didn’t take very long before I realized these guys didn’t know a damn thing about hockey. It was ridiculous.
“I arranged to take Murphy and Davidson to a Los Angeles Kings game that night. When the referee went to drop the puck for the opening faceoff, Gary turned to me with a puzzled look on his face and said, ‘What are they doing?’
“That’s when I knew we had a lot of work to do.”
Hunter returned to Edmonton intrigued enough by the concept that he contacted longtime cronies Ben Hatskin and Bob Brownridge.
Hatskin, a former centre with the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, had built a vast business empire and was president and owner of that city’s entry in the old WHL.
Brownridge, a self-made oil magnate, had played hockey for the 1946 Allan Cup champion Calgary Stampeders and co-founded, along with Scotty Munro, the Calgary Centennials junior franchise.
Hatskin and Brownridge agreed to accompany Hunter to the WHA’s organizational meeting in Los Angeles in late September 1971.
“It was a total joke,” recalled Hunter.
“It was supposed to be a meeting of potential franchise owners, but it turned out to be a bunch of Murphy’s old political pals and hangers-on whom Dennis and Gary had known from their ABA days.
“I almost had to wrestle Ben and Bob into staying down there for the weekend, but by the time it was over we’d weeded out most of the phonies.
“Then Benny gave everybody who was left an ultimatum. He said that unless I was put in charge of putting together the league, he was gone.
“Well, everybody in the room respected both Benny’s bank account and his confidence in me. That’s how I got the green light to start building the WHA.”
The Alberta Oilers (they didn’t become ‘Edmonton’ until 1973-74) were officially founded on Nov. 1, 1971, with Zane Feldman as president and Dr. Charles A. Allard as chairman of the board.
The club’s other executive officers were: Hunter (vice-president and general manager); E.E. Fitzgibbons (vice-president); Gordon Arnell (secretary); W.Z. Estey (director); and Raymond Barth (treasurer).
Dave Butler, Vic Mah, Ed Trott, Jim Choppen, Fred Kemp, Ken Cuchinski and Alex Romaniuk served as directors.
Eight months after the initial organizational meeting, Hunter and Hatskin had whittled the list of potential franchise owners to 12, and set their sights on luring superstar Bobby Hull from the NHL’s Chicago Black Hawks to the Winnipeg Jets.
On June 27, 1972, Hull agreed to a deal that paid him a signing bonus of $1 million in cash and $250,000 per season for five years as a player, followed by $100,000 per year for five years as a Jets executive.
Hatskin was on the hook for the signing bonus, but he needed some help with the rest of the deal. Hull’s contract with Winnipeg marked the first time in the history of pro sports that every member of a league chipped in to sign one player.
“Bobby was the best player in the NHL when he jumped to our league,” said Hunter. “He might not have been the fastest or the strongest, but his enormous skills, combined with his charisma, made him by far the most desirable player for us.
“I’ll never forget the meeting in Chicago when it came time for the other teams to cough up their dough. Some of the American owners got cold feet, so Benny and I filibustered for 12 hours to wear down their reserve.
“I told them, ‘We don’t want any cheques from you bastards, either; it’s gotta be cash!’
“They couldn’t believe two guys from Edmonton and Winnipeg were talking to them like that, but after Bobby joined our league and they saw what a huge impact he had, those same guys were slapping us on the back.
“When Bobby signed on the dotted line, we got instant credibility.”