The Formation of the World Hockey Association


In 1972 the only real threat ever to the NHL's dominance of the hockey world began when Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson formed the World Hockey Association. No strangers to starting rebel sports leagues, they were also behind the defunct by now American Basketball Association, and would later start up the United States Football League. Officially announced on June 10, 1971 in New York, the WHA's philosophy was relatively simple - establish themselves in cities shunned by the NHL (many Canadian), as well as set up base in North America's media centres, competing head-on with the competition.

On Nov 1, 1971, Murphy and Davidson announced the 10 charter cities would be Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Dayton Ohio, Long Island NY, and St Paul Minnesota, with themselves owning a club in San Fransisco. Three weeks later, two more franchises were added to the roster, with the New England Whalers anchoring themselves in Boston and a team to travel the highway between Ottawa and Toronto. But before the first puck was dropped however, several shufflings occurred after the NHL announced it's own expansion to Long Island and Atlanta.

Disgruntled after learning they'd be sharing Nassau County Coliseum with the Islanders, the upstart Raiders moved upriver to Manhattan. Fearing the Southern United states couldn't support two teams in a new sport for the region, the Screaming Eagles were also on the fly, nesting in Philadelphia as the Blazers. Though they weren't in fear of competing with the NHL in that market, the owners of the Dayton Aeros weren't pleased with initial interest and they moved to Texas, another hockey-virgin state, making Houston their home. But feeling a presence in Ohio was integral to the survival of the league, the league herded up the Calgary Broncos and moved them to Cleveland, where they became the Crusaders. This forced Edmonton to share the Oilers (basically the evolution of the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings) with Calgary under the monikor 'the Alberta Oilers'. And when the owners of the team proposed for Ontario couldn't come to an agreement with Harold Ballard to share Maple Leaf Gardens, the club was moved to Ottawa full time and named The Nationals. The obvious conflict of interest Davidson and Murphy were faced with by owning a club as well as the league prompted prompted them to sell the San Fransisco Seahawks to a group in Quebec. A deal with Le Colisee in Quebec City was reached and Les Nordiques (the Northerners) were born.

The league knew that in order to survive, they'd have to raid the NHL of some marquee players and held their initial draft in 1972. Each team was allowed to protect four players. Although a few young minor leaguers and Olympians who the owners were hoping to build the future around were on the list, mostly major stars from the NHL had their WHA rights reserved. Most aggressive in trying to lure NHL'ers over to the other side were the Chicago and Quebec camps. Their general philosophy was to get names already known and loved by Les Canadiens and Black Hawks fans. Jerry Korab, Stan Mikita and goalie Gary Smith were originally courted, but none jumped ship. Other names to initially be approached by the WHA included goalies Gerry Desjardins (also of the Hawks), Ken Dryden, Phil Myre, Doug Favell, Gilles Villemeure and Eddie Johnston, as well as Gilbert Perrault, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lapointe, Brad Park, Peter Mahovlich, Steve Shutt and Bobby Clarke. Although most of those courted remained in the NHL, The Maple Leafs' Bernie Parent was first to cross the line, signing with Miami. But it was Bobby Hull's inking a deal what at the time was the most ever paid to a hockey player with Winnipeg that got the attention. Eager to have arguably the top player in the game in the new league, the $1 million signing bonus was chipped in by all teams as well as league officials. This opened the doors for several other 'names' jumping ship, including the Blazers who signed the Bruins' Derek Sanderson and the Flyers' Andre Lacroix & Bernie Parent. Cleveland signed Gerry Cheevers, Chicago came to terms with ex-Hawks Pat Stapleton and Ralph Backstrom, then with the New York Rangers. Quebec meanwhile employed the same tactic, signing several players in the Montreal lineup including Jean Claude Tremblay and Rejean Houle, as well as many in Les Canadiens' farm system.

Another key to presenting the new league as an 'alternative' was to use red and blue pucks. Naturally this added to the 'curiosity factor' the media was already feeding on. Although they'd lost a few key players, the NHL wasn't taking the new kids on the block too seriously ... in public. But placing teams in Long Isand and Atlanta to rival the WHA's plans in those markets told a different story. The key would be media coverage - and for the most part television coverage during the first year was rather indifferent. But as the league's inaugural season drew closer, areas too small by NHL standards such as Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg embraced the new league whole heartedly.

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