Pro hockey once had two leagues, and that couldn't last

The World Hockey Association was founded as a competitor to the NHL and nurtured the careers of many players, but it lasted just seven years.

1979 merger would absorb four WHA teams, but talent redistribution was a sticking point

World Hockey Association to fold, teams join NHL

44 years ago
Duration 2:17
In a final vote, team owners agree to absorb four WHA teams in to the NHL.

The World Hockey Association was an experiment that couldn't last.

Started as a 12-team league when it was announced in 1971, the WHA became a serious competitor to the National Hockey League with the signing of the Chicago Blackhawks star Bobby Hull to the Winnipeg Jets in 1972

But by 1979 the WHA was down to six teams, and their owners were deep in negotiations to have them absorbed into what would become an expanded NHL.

"I think we're possibly closer than meets the eye," said Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington on March 22, 1979.

Hockey player heads to the ice
The 1979 Winnipeg Jets would go on to win the last WHA championship, the Avco Cup. (The National/CBC Archives)

"For both leagues, expansion means the end of bitter competition for the best players," explained CBC reporter Terry Matte. 

Among those players was Wayne Gretzky, whose first professional contract had him playing for the WHA's Indianapolis Racers before being traded to the Oilers.   

Beer boycott may have forced NHL's hand

44 years ago
Duration 1:49
Fans in three cities stopped drinking Molson's beer to protest the NHL's previous rejection of a deal with the WHA.

Beer boycott

There were a lot of sticking points in the negotiations, including how many players each of the four WHA teams to be absorbed would get to keep on their rosters. 

In a previous vote, one of the NHL holdouts who said no to a merger deal with the WHA was Montreal, which was owned by Molson.

Close-up of man's face
"I think the CBC has been certainly exposed as a puppet of the NHL," said a Winnipeg fan who didn't support the merger. (The National/CBC Archives)

Fans in three of the WHA cities — Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Quebec City — responded by boycotting Molson's beer in hopes of forcing a different result.

"How much Molson's have you sold so far tonight?" Matte asked beer vendor Oswald Hornung at a Winnipeg Jets game.

"Five bottles," Hornung replied, adding that on a typical night the number would be three cases, or 72 bottles.     

Others directed their hostility at the CBC for not airing WHA games.

"The CBC is a people's network. We're paying taxes for it and they should at least give us a chance and show our product," said a fan.

Hockey fans discuss 1979 WHA-NHL merger

44 years ago
Duration 2:52
Edmonton fans at an Oilers game are leery of losing the best players in their winning team.

Fears of a Wayne drain

Montreal and Vancouver had both reversed their positions at the March 22 vote, virtually guaranteeing that the merger would proceed. 

The three Canadian WHA teams, as well as the Hartford Whalers, were to become NHL teams. The other two — in Cincinnati and Birmingham, Alabama — would get a payment for folding and releasing their players.   

Hockey player seen from behind with 99 on jersey
Edmonton fans didn't want a merger if it meant losing their best players, like 18-year-old Wayne Gretzky. (The National/CBC Archives)

But fans at the Edmonton Coliseum watching the Oilers take on the Jets were hesitant to support a merger if it meant losing their best players.

"I'm against it," one man told reporter Arthur Kent. "I don't think we're going to have any players left, and I think we're just being taken to the cleaners." 

"We sat through six or seven years of bad hockey. Now that we're starting to see good hockey, we're going back to where we started from."

Another fan was skeptical about the merger's benefits.

"Now we're in first place ... and now the large team wants to swallow up and take all our players? No."

In the end, the merger — or expansion, as the two leagues agreed to call it — went ahead for the 1979-80 season.

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