dead leagues metanode
They played from the fall of 1972
to the spring of 1979
, then four teams - the Edmonton Oilers
(and prize catch Wayne Gretzky
), Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques, and the Hartford Whalers
- were absorbed into the NHL
. The WHA
helped inflate depressed player salaries, by offering the functional equivalent of free agency
to players whose NHL deals had expired. It also gave some young players a chance to be stars now
, rather than be relegated to temporary second-line status - Marc Tardif of the Montreal
signed with the Nordiques, Bernie Parent joined Miami for the chance to be a full-time #1 goalie - and gave veteran stars like Frank Mahovlich
a chance to cash
in, at long last.
They lured big names: first, Bobby Hull.
"How much will it take, Bob?"
"Oh, say, a million bucks."
"It's a deal."
By signing the "Golden Jet" to a megabuck deal, the Winnipeg Jets gained respectability and a team name. Gordie Howe came out of retirement when the Houston Aeros gave him the irresistable opportunity to play alongside his sons Mark and Marty. The Miami Screaming Eagles went for sex appeal, signing the Boston Bruins' Namath-like figure Derek "Turk"
The plan, when the league was founded, late in 1971, was to bring hockey to those many cities unserved by an NHL team, or by major-league sports in general. Canadian cities - Edmonton, Calgary, Quebec City, Winnipeg, and Ottawa. US cities Miami and Dayton. The hard part, but a necessary one, was to establish the league in major hockey markets, where they would go head-to-head with the NHL: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston. Another team would be based in St. Paul. The
NHL countered by speeding up expansion: the New York Islanders were added, depriving the WHA's New York Raiders of an potential arena to play in (on Long Island); the Atlanta Flames took away a promising Sunbelt market.
Money, organizational, and logistics troubles forced some teams to move, even before the first puck was dropped: the Screaming Eagles moved to Philadelphia and became the Blazers; the Dayton Aeros moved to Houston; the San Francisco Sharks moved to Quebec City (Los Angeles then took the "Sharks" name); the Calgary Broncos became the Cleveland Crusaders, both a smart move to a potentially-strong untapped market, and a chance for the Alberta Oilers to have the province's fan base all to themselves (though based in Edmonton, they would play some of their home games in Calgary, IIRC).
The first regular season game was on October 11, 1972; the Alberta Oilers defeated the Ottawa Nationals 7-4, at the Ottawa Civic Centre. The first winners of the AVCO Trophy: the New England Whalers, who won the championship series against the Jets.
There would be expansion teams, franchise movements, money troubles, and lots of excitement, both on and off the ice. Future NHL stars began their careers in the WHA; in order to gain a competitive advantage in luring top junior players, the WHA lowered its draft age to 18 (the NHL would eventually follow suit). Mark Messier signed on, as did Mike Gartner and many others.
Toronto's John Bassett, whose team, the Franchise Formerly Known as the Ottawa Nationals, Ontario Nationals, and Toronto Toros, and then known as the Birmingham Bulls, tried to sign a 16-year-old prodigy named Wayne Gretzky. Only the objections of Walter, Wayne's dad, would put the kibosh on that. Gretz later signed with the Indianapolis Racers, before his contract was sold to Edmonton. The "Baby Bulls" that did sign gave Bassett a brawling team, a younger, tougher Broad Street Bullies, minus the talent that wins championships.
The teams that survived to make it into the NHL were all small-market teams and continued to struggle financially as the cost of competing went up; the New England Whalers, like all the franchises that went head-to-head with established NHL teams, had to move, first (from Boston) to Hartford for many years, then, in 1997, becoming the Carolina Hurricanes. The Jets are now the Phoenix Coyotes, the Nords now the Colorado Avalanche. The Oilers, now perhaps the best NHL team, dollar-for-dollar, continue to struggle in Edmonton - but at least Peter Puck is out of the picture.