Hockey Central
The World Hockey Association

Defying all hockey shibboleths, a group of California entrepreneurs launched what they labeled a second major league of the ice sport in 1972. Organized by Santa Ana attorney Gary Davidson and promoter Dennis Murphy, the World Hockey Association took on the National Hockey League against long odds. Neither Davidson nor Murphy had any previous hockey experience and because of that fact alone the imminent demise of the WHA was predicted freely at the very start.

On February 12, 1972, the WHA held its first player draft at the Royal Coach Inn in Anaheim, California. Until then the WHA had no profound impact on the NHL. Elders of the established circuit refused to recognize the new threat and moved along the plans for further expansion of their own. But two weeks later, the first shock rippled through the established hockey world when Bernie Parent, one of the most gifted young NHL goaltenders, made public his intent to sign with a WHA team. At the time Parent was supposed to play in Florida with the proposed Miami Screaming Eagles, but the team never got off the ground. Instead he joined the Philadelphia Blazers.

Parent's decision was the catalyst for other NHL players to jump to the new circuit and, one by one, major signings were announced. WHA teams spirited away the likes of Derek Sanderson, Ted Green and J.C. Tremblay from their respective NHL teams. But the biggest coup was the signing of Bobby Hull to a 10-year $2.75 million contract. The WHA opened its first season on October 11, 1972, with Quebec at Cleveland and Edmonton at Ottawa. Edmonton's Ron Anderson scored the first-ever WHA regular season goal.

The league opened with 12 teams spread over two divisions: New England (Boston), Cleveland, Philadelphia, Ottawa, Quebec and New York were in the Eastern Division; Winnipeg, Houston, Los Angeles, Alberta (Edmonton), Minnesota (St. Paul) and Chicago were in the Western Division. In the first playoff finals New England (Whalers) defeated Winnipeg (Jets) four games to one to win the WHA's inaugural playoff championship.

Not only did the WHA survive its first year of operations, it also held its first All-Star Game – January 6, 1973 at Quebec City – and had one of its games shown on the CBS television network. Danny Lawson became the first WHA player to reach the 50-goal plateau on February 22, 1973 in Ottawa.

Some NHL officials took the WHA challenge seriously and in April, 1973, secret meetings were held between Gary Davidson and an NHL group led by William Jennings, president of the New York Rangers, in an effort to hammer out an agreement, but no pact was forthcoming. Davidson announced that the WHA would continue to operate independently. "We believe that the NHL's reserve clause is wrong," said Dividson. "It would be impossible for us to consider any formal association with the NHL so long as they still have it." More importantly, the old guard among the NHL governors was adamantly opposed to any agreement with the WHA and maintained hopes of eliminating the maverick league.

In its second year, the WHA added to its trophy collection by making a deal with the Avco Financial Services organization which lent its name to the WHA's black, lucite and silver Stanley Cup-sized championship trophy. Hereafter, the winner of the WHA playoff would become the holder of the Avco World Trophy. In May 1974, the WHA Houston Aeros captured the Avco World Trophy in 14 games, sweeping Winnipeg in the quarterfinals, taking Minnesota in six, then sweeping Chicago in the finals.

Like the NHL, the WHA was struggling through tumultuous times and reorganization was the order of the day. In June 1974, the league divided into three divisions (Canadian, West, East) and a "wild card" team playoff format was adopted. Phoenix and Indianapolis were the new expansion teams. Another blow was dealt the NHL when the WHA's Toronto Toros persuaded superstar Frank Mahovlich to leave the established league.

In contrast to the NHL, the WHA owners instantly realized that there was a motherlode if rich talent to be mined in Europe. The Winnipeg Jets, in particular, stocked their roster with Swedes and Finns rather than Canadians, and, as a result, Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg teamed with veteran Bobby Hull to comprise one of the most formidable attacking units of the 1970s. The WHA made another meaningful inroad on the international level when if persuaded Soviet hockey officials to sanction an eight-game series between a WHA All-Star squad and a similar team from Russia. The tourney took place in the fall of 1974, with the Soviets easy winners.

It's setbacks notwithstanding, the WHA continued to grow because of one pivotal element: the spectacular growth of new arena construction throughout North America and the demand, in every city, for suitable tenants. Whereas the NHL was more demanding by far in setting forth conditions for entry, the WHA gladly would accept any franchise bidder, as long as an attractive arena was located in the city in question. Thus, Cincinnati, which was not likely to become an NHL entry any time soon, was welcomed into the WHA in 1975, upon completion of the handsome Riverfront Arena. Cleveland – the building actually was located in distant Richfield, Ohio – also had a new arena, as did Indianapolis and Edmonton.

From the outset, one of the most frequently debated questions among hockey fans was the quality of WHA play in relation to that of the NHL. Clearly, the new league lacked the depth of stars still in the older circuit, but it did offer some interesting talents: the Swedes, two talented Finnish players, two Czechs and, of course, Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and his two youngsters, Mark and Marty. Scoring came easier in the WHA and when Bobby Hull equaled Maurice Richard's venerable NHL record of 50 goals in 50 games on February 114, 1975, the achievement was greeted with less than overwhelming enthusiasm.

Some players who made the leap from the NHL to the WHA reconsidered and returned, among them Parent and Sanderson; but others, such as Hull, stuck with the new league. More than anyone, Hull proved to be the foremost gate attraction in the WHA and further helped the league's cause by his graciousness with fans and the media. On December 14, 1975, Hull received still more attention when he became the first WHA player to score 200 goals in league play.

Franchise rumblings were heard after the 1975-76 season, when the league realigned back into two divisions, eliminating the Canadian Division. The Toronto Toros could not complete with the NHL's venerated Toronto Maple Leafs and emigrated to Birmingham, Alabama to become the Bulls. Likewise, the Crusaders became a losing proposition in Cleveland and moved to St. Paul. Birmingham proved to be a pleasant addition to the league, but St. Paul couldn't make it past 42 games before folding. It was a portent of things to come. By the end of the 1977-78 season, the WHA had dwindled from 12 to eight teams, having lost St. Paul, Calgary, Phoenix and San Diego.

There was, however, new hope on the diplomatic front. Howard Baldwin, new WHA president, enjoyed a very positive relationship with two key National Hockey League leaders: Ed Snider, owner of the Philadelphia Flyers, and John Ziegler, new president of the NHL. The endless, unspoken WHA-NHL war was bleeding both leagues white and a spirit of reconciliation once again brought the leaders together. Only this time there was more understanding on both sides of the bargaining table and a realization that a peace pact of some kind was in order. The result was that four WHA teams – the Edmonton Oilers, the New England (renamed Hartford) Whalers, the Quebec Nordigues and the Winnipeg Jets – were admitted to an expanded NHL, effective following the 1978-79 season. The World Hockey Association, after seven seasons of tumultuous operation, ceased to exist.

In many ways the WHA had a profound impact on the North American professional hockey scene. The competition for talent sent player salaries skyrocketing to all-time highs. The WHA spread pro hockey to new areas, but sometimes these gains were offset by inefficient management practices that ultimately turned fans away from the game. As a result, cities that had been long acclaimed for their support of minor professional franchises – among them San Diego and Cleveland – found themselves temporarily transformed into hockey wastelands.

The progressive nature if the WHA leadership resulted in a heavy accent of European talent, a trend then followed by the NHL, and an increase in many of the game's skills. Further, the WHA recognized cities heretofore ignored as potential moneymakers or dismissed as lacking a big league market by the NHL. On the legal front, the WHA fought many battles and won a significant number of challenges. It was the WHA which experimented with teenage stars, ultimately leading the NHL to abolish its rule forbidding the signing of players under 20 years of age. It was the WHA which signed the electrifying Wayne Gretzky at a time when some in hockey circles were unsure of the lad, disparaging him as too thin, too weak, maybe even too unskilled and not likely to become a major factor in the major-league game!

The WHA spawned interest, created a group of gifted hockey executives and offered an interesting form of sports entertainment throughout the 1970s. But more than anything else, the league demonstrated in the 1970s that there wasn't room in North America for more than one major professional league. That is why the World Hockey Association is now a footnote in the lore of the game.

The following are the teams and nicknames for the clubs that made up the WHA and what has happened to those four clubs which merged into the NHL.

 
World Hockey Association Franchise Guide
Alberta Oilers 1972-73
   renamed the Edmonton Oilers prior to the 1973-74 season
Baltimore Blades 1974-75 formerly Michigan Stags
Birmingham Bulls 1976-77 to 1978-79 formerly Toronto Toros
Calgary Cowboys 1975-76 to 1976-77 formerly Vancouver Blazers
Chicago Cougars 1972-73 to 1974-75
Cincinnati Stingers 1975-76 to 1978-79
Cleveland Crusaders 1972-73 to 1975-76
   moved to Minnesota in 1976 and renamed Minnesota Fighting Saints
Denver Spurs 1975-76
   moved to Ottawa during the 1975-76 season and renamed Ottawa Civics
Edmonton Oilers 1973-74 to 1978-79
   previously named Alberta Oilers; joined NHL in 1979; still in the NHL
Houston Aeros 1972-73 to 1977-78
Indianapolis Racers 1974-75 to 1978-79
Jersey Knights 1973-74
   formerly New York Golden Blades; moved to San Diego in 1974 and renamed
   San Diego Mariners
Los Angeles Sharks 1972-73 to 1973-74
   moved to Detroit in 1974 and renamed Michigan Stags
Michigan Stags 1974-75
   formerly Los Angeles Sharks; moved to Baltimore during the 1974-75 season
   and renamed Baltimore Blades
Minnesota Fighting Saints 1972-73 to 1975-76; 1976-77
   folded in February 1976; revived as relocated Cleveland franchise in July 1976
New England Whalers 1972-73 to 1978-79
   joined NHL in 1979 and renamed Hartford Whalers; moved to North Carolina
   in 1997 and renamed the Carolina Hurricanes
New York Golden Blades 1973-74
   formerly New York Raiders; moved to New Jersey during the 1973-74 season
   and renamed the Jersey Knights
New York Raiders 1972-73
   renamed New York Golden Blades in 1973
Ottawa Civics 1975-76 formerly Denver Spurs
Ottawa Nationals 1972-73
   moved to Toronto in 1973 and renamed Toronto Toros
Philadelphia Blazers 1972-73
   moved to Vancouver in 1973 and renamed Vancouver Blazers
Phoenix Roadrunners 1974-75 to 1976-77
Quebec Nordiques 1972-73 to 1978-79
   joined NHL in 1979; moved to Denver in 1995 and renamed
   Colorado Avalanche
San Diego Mariners 1974-75 to 1976-77 formerly Jersey Knights
Toronto Toros 1973-74 to 1975-76
   formerly Ottawa Nationals; moved to Birmingham in 1976 and renamed
   Birmingham Bulls
Vancouver Blazers 1973-74 to 1974-75
   formerly Philadelphia Blazers; moved to Calgary in 1975 and renamed Calgary
   Cowboys
Winnipeg Jets 1972-73 to 1978-79
   joined NHL in 1979; moved to Phoenix in 1996 and renamed Phoenix Coyotes