The Sports Lounge presents… Lost Leagues: WHA
As we are in the midst of the NHL season, let’s take a look back at the first league that attempted to compete with the NHL, the World Hockey Association. The WHA was created in the fall of 1971 by promoters Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, the men that also started the ABA basketball league. They set out to compete with the NHL by capitalizing on the lack of hockey in major U.S. cities.
Then league would begin play in 1972 with twelve teams. But even before the first pick was dropped, two franchises moved to different cities and two folded completely and were replaced by two new franchises.
The inaugural season began in September of 1972. While the quality of talent was predictably lower than that of the NHL, the WHA still managed to leave a mark with former NHL players joining the upstart league. The most notable name to sign with the WHA was Bobby Hull, who signed with the Winnipeg Jets when they offered him a $1 million contact.
The first season ended with the New England Whalers winning the league’s first championship. But the trophy was not completed in time so the Whalers celebrated with their Divisional Championship trophy instead. This was an embarrassment and an early sign of things to come.
In the next few years, WHA teams suffered financially due to high player contracts and issues trying to secure a place to play. Teams in New York and Toronto were forced to deal with high lease prices in markets where they competed with NHL teams. By the times the 1976 season rolled around, many teams were in financial distress.
This led to merger discussions with the NHL in 1977. The WHA’s Houston, Cincinnati, Winnipeg, New England, Edmonton, and Quebec franchises all applied to be part of the NHL. This was six of the WHA’s remaining eight teams. But the proposal was denied by the NHL.
The following year, another merger proposal was issued with the same teams except for the Houston Aeros. The Aeros eventually folded and this merger was denied again. Then the WHA proposed that the Edmonton Oilers and New England Whalers join the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets joining a year later. But for the third time, the NHL shot the idea down.
Even with its current struggles, the WHA marched on. The 1978 season saw the debut of two of hockey’s all-time greats: Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. But, with just six teams left, the WHA’s future was clearly in trouble.
With financial troubles mounting, the WHA ceased operations in 1979 after finally reaching a deal with the NHL. In the merger, the New England Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, and Quebec Nordiques would join the NHL. The NHL however treated these teams as expansion teams instead of a merger meaning that they had to pay a $6 million expansion fee. The other two WHA teams, the Cincinnati Stingers and Birmingham Bulls, were paid $1.5 million each for not being accepted into the NHL.
And so it was that the WHA became another league that was now out of business after trying to compete with a major league. It seems as though every upstart league tries to gain popularity by paying more for top stars only to suffer financial difficulties shortly after. But the WHA’s legacy did continue to live on in the NHL.
While the Edmonton Oilers are the only former WHA team left in its original form, the other three teams left their mark in the NHL as well. The Jets stayed in Winnipeg until moving to Phoenix and becoming the Coyotes in 1996. However, a new Jets franchise returned to Winnipeg in 2011. The Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995 and have won two Stanley Cup’s since then. And the Whalers, renamed the Hartford Whalers in the NHL brought hockey to North Carolina in 1997. Renamed the Carolina Hurricanes, the franchise went on to win the 2005-06 Stanley Cup.
No matter how the WHA’s legacy is viewed, the league lasted for the better part of a decade and left a mark in the NHL afterward. Just as Davidson did with the ABA, he took his league as far as possible. But when troubles caught up to the franchises, he did what he could to get those franchises into the bigger league.
And without the WHA, hockey may have never made its way to southern U.S. states. The NHL was mainly based in Canada and the Northeast United States. But thanks to the WHA placing franchises in cities like Houston and Birmingham, hockey is now found all along the south whether in the NHL or any of the many lower-tier leagues. Even in Louisiana, we have had over five different minor league hockey teams. And that may have never happened without leagues like the World Hockey Association giving southern states a taste of hockey in the 1970’s.
Daryl Karpinski Jr.