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Troubled WHA folds and its teams join the NHL

Canada is a hockey nation, but has had a heck of a time preventing its hockey franchises from going south. From the (then) defunct Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques to financial messes in Edmonton and Ottawa, the CBC has followed the ups and downs of Canada's small-market NHL teams as they forever skate on thin ice.

The short-lived experiment that was the World Hockey Association is over. As we hear in this clip, the decision has just been made to merge the upstart league with the rival National Hockey League. Of the six WHA teams that survived this far, two will close up shop and four will join the NHL. Three of the survivors are Canadian: the Edmonton Oilers, the Winnipeg Jets and the Quebec Nordiques. As we hear in this clip, there are doubts that they will be able to compete. 
• The World Hockey Association was established in 1972 to rival the National Hockey League and was the first serious competition the NHL had seen since the Western Hockey League collapsed in 1926. The WHA was founded by Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, who had created the American Basketball Association (which competed with the National Basketball Association from 1967 to 1976, when it was folded into the NBA).

• Twelve WHA teams were announced in November 1971, though some failed almost immediately and were moved to different cities. Canadian WHA teams over the years included:
- the Ottawa Nationals (moved to Toronto after one season, to become the Toros)
- the Vancouver Blazers (formerly of Miami and Philadelphia)
- the Calgary Cowboys (1975-77)
- the Edmonton Oilers (Alberta Oilers in their first season)
- the Quebec Nordiques
- the Winnipeg Jets

• In addition to bringing professional hockey to smaller cities, the WHA made many aggressive moves to attract players and fans alike. It offered generous salaries without the "reserve clause" that bound NHL players to their teams. It also scouted overseas for talent, and implemented lenient rules on violence. Other tactics were mere gimmicks, such as flashy uniforms, wildly curved sticks and experimenting with coloured pucks.

• The WHA's biggest coup was luring superstar Bobby Hull away from his NHL Chicago Blackhawks, offering him an unheard of $1 million contract with the Winnipeg Jets. The league as a whole targeted Hull and helped pay his huge salary. In return, "the golden jet" practically carried the league through its first year; reporters joked that WHA stood for "Watch Hull Autograph."

• Other NHL hockey stars eventually followed Hull's defection to the WHA. They included Paul Henderson, Dave Keon, Derek Sanderson, Bernie Parent, Jerry Cheevers and J.C. Tremblay. Gordie Howe came out of retirement to play for the Houston Aeros and New England Whalers, where he recorded his 1000th goal at age 49.
• Not coincidentally, the WHA planned their first year for 1972, a year in which many NHL player contracts expired.

The WHA's first year was rocky but most teams eventually became competitive. In exhibition games played between WHA and NHL teams between 1974 and 1978, the WHA teams won 33 games, lost 27 and tied in seven.
• But the WHA's financial problems worsened each year. The clubs couldn't really afford the giant salaries of their stars, nor could they attract talented supporting players to fill out the teams.

• By 1979 only six WHA teams remained. On March 22, 1979, the league was merged with the NHL. The Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets and New England Whalers (of Hartford, Conn.) joined the NHL, while the Birmingham Bulls and Cincinnati Stingers folded.

• In 2003 a plan to revive the WHA was announced, with Bobby Hull as league commissioner. Operations were to begin in 2005 to coincide with a predicted NHL lockout. Projected teams include Halifax, Hamilton, Toronto and Quebec City, as well as Dallas, Detroit, Florida and possibly Vancouver. The new league openly planned to target elite NHL players and attempt to lure top prospects such as sensation Sidney Crosby.
Medium: Radio
Program: Sunday Magazine
Broadcast Date: April 1, 1979
Guest(s): Howard Baldwin, Harold Ballard, Barry Shenkarow, John Ziegler
Host: Bob Oxley
Reporter: Gary McCarthy
Duration: 8:02

Last updated: April 30, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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