As a kid growing up on the east coast of Canada during the 1970s, the only professional hockey that we watched regularly was the NHL on Hockey Night in Canada. For all we cared, there were really only two pro teams — the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Every other team was a bit player, to us.
It was only later on, when Wayne Gretzky was becoming famous across the country as the greatest hockey player in the NHL, that I read about his draft by the Indianapolis Racers and subsequent move to the Edmonton Oilers. By this time, the World Hockey Association (WHA) had merged its four remaining teams into the NHL, the Canadiens dynasty was sputtering out, and the 1980s were becoming the decade of the expansion teams.1
For fans who are unfamiliar with the story of the WHA, The Rebel League provides some real insight into the business of hockey in the 1970s. The NHL was an organization from the dusty past — their monopoly on professional hockey and the reserve clause ensured that players were underpaid and powerless. After the successful establishment of both the American Football League in 1960 and the American Basketball Association in 1967, two California lawyers — Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson — saw the hockey as the next professional sport that was ripe for disruption. The contract conditions in the NHL gave them the leverage they needed to pry established players away to form the nucleus of the new league.
Stars like Bobby Hull, Derek Sanderson, Gordie Howe, and Bernie Parent were among the defectors to the new league, signing contracts that featured huge salaries and generous signing bonuses. But even with these established stars, the WHA struggled from its inception until the last remaining teams merged with the NHL in 1979. The rapid expansion of the professional hockey job market brought a sharp dilution of talent. Many WHA teams played in old and decrepit rinks, or paid large rental fees to share NHL buildings. And many teams followed the old-time hockey marketing model, using the brawls and thuggery that inevitably took place in each game to try and draw new fans out to games in the non-traditional hockey markets.
The wilder side of the WHA is well documented in the many stories woven into the book by Willes, but the reputation of the league as a circus belies the lasting impact that it had on professional hockey. The reserve clause, which was abolished by the WHA at its founding, was eventually rendered useless in court battles, bringing on the free agency era. The NHL had a minimum age of twenty years old for players, and enjoyed a cozy relationship with junior teams and player agents that gave them monopolistic control over player careers. In order to broaden its talent base, the WHA began drafting players at eighteen, eventually forcing the NHL to compete for junior talent. WHA teams were also the first to employ European players in large numbers, opening up professional hockey to a new style of play that changed the game forever.
In spite of these innovations, by the late 1970s the league was basically on life support, with only 6 of the original 12 teams desperately hanging on in hopes of a merger with the NHL. The generous player salaries, the cost of building rentals and equipment, and the unstable markets for hockey in the non-traditional markets had all taken its toll. The Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets joined the NHL for the 1979-80 season, stripped of most of their talent as the terms of entry, and the league was finished.
The Rebel League is a well-written and engaging book. Willes is a good story-teller, and he makes the stories of the league formation and the business deals as interesting as the wilder tales of player escapades. The obvious relishing of the fun side of the league is balanced with more serious stories of how the new-found wealth, fame, and self-importance affected many players. Among those profiled in the book are Derek Sanderson, Gordie Howe and his sons Mark and Marty, Bobby Hull, the Swedish stars Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg, and Wayne Gretzky.
I bought my copy of The Rebel League used, from Amazon, and it was cheap but somewhat battered. It came with a cover sticker for the Vancouver Island Regional Library and a cracked spine. It also came with pencilled-in corrections from some past reader, as in the caption for the Derek Sanderson photograph above, which I like quite a bit. It’s a great read for any sports fan, and with nostalgia for the era riding high, it’s essential reading if you want to get the references.
- From 1980 to 1990, The Stanley Cup was won by the New York Islanders (4 Cups, 1972 Expansion), the Edmonton Oilers (5 Cups, 1979 WHA merger), the Calgary Flames (1 Cup, 1972 Expansion as the Atlanta Flames), with only one win by the Montreal Canadiens in 1986.
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- The Hanson brothers of Slap Shot fame were based on (and played by, partly) three brothers from Minnesota named Steve, Jack, and Jeff Carlson, who bounced up and down between the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the WHA and their minor league affiliates, wreaking havoc wherever they landed.