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HORNBY: Scrappy WHA earned spot in pro hockey history

John Garrett laughs about his World Hockey Association pension cheques that still trickle in.

“My beer money,” the 67-year-old former goaltender quips.

But oh, the memories whenever he sips a pint and thinks of those days when the upstarts submarine’d the National Hockey League and had so much fun at it.

And how 40 years ago this spring, peace was finally declared with a merger of 17 NHL clubs and the four WHA survivors — the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and Garrett’s last team, the New England/Hartford Whalers.

When the Jets skated off home ice celebrating their Avco Cup win on May 20, 1979 — a 7-3 series clincher over the Oilers — the WHA passed into history.

“The WHA wanted in the NHL so badly,” said Garrett, who played for three WHA teams in four cities and made the transition in 1979 with the Whalers.

“Though it kind of made people mad they only got to protect one goalie and two players. The WHA had just brought in the young kids (drafting 18-year-olds, in part to force the NHL’s hand on a merger) such as Rick Vaive and Michel Goulet. Imagine today how much drooling there would be if you could start teams with choices like those.”

WHA Birmingham Bulls goalie John Garrett trading card

But the peace terms were not generous.

“No one thought we could compete under such restrictive conditions in the NHL,” Garrett said.

“Yet we made the playoffs our first year in Hartford and in five years, the Oilers were vying with the New York Islanders as a dynasty.”

Garrett, now a Vancouver Canucks broadcaster, credits the WHA with inspiring a window of creativity in the 1980s before the dead puck era of trap hockey took hold.

“Glen Sather modelled the Oilers after the WHA Jets. We used to call it the ‘Winnipeg Weave,’ five guys circling the puck at centre ice looking for an opening. There was no dump-and-chase for them. They could get past those slow defencemen with their four-inch diameter lumber who were chopping away at them.”

The WHA was initially a minor irritant to the NHL in its 1971 inception.

“We felt their weakness was their arrogance and selfishness,” WHA co-founder Dennis Murphy told author Ed Willes in the 2004 retrospective, The Rebel League.

“The NHL thought they had it made and if they ignored us, we’d go away. They could have knocked us out of the box before we even started.”

There were some unusual deals and strange bedfellows in launching the WHA’s first season as they scrambled to find suitable rinks and financiers for 12 proposed franchises.

But 67 NHLers jumped to the new circuit its first year when the average NHL salary was about $25,000.

The biggest ruckus was created when Bobby Hull took the Jets’ $1 million dollar offer to bolt from the frugal Blackhawks, which cost Hull his place on Team Canada ‘72.

Toronto’s irascible owner Harold Ballard soon made it his stated goal to sink the WHA.

When NHL president Clarence Campbell assured him the new league would flop, Ballard bashed it at every turn, overcharged the Toronto Toros to use Maple Leaf Gardens and refused to match salaries when the WHA tried to lure some of his best players.

But as a result, Leafs such as Dave Keon, Norm Ullman and Paul Henderson and a number of youngsters slipped away.

Henderson and Frank Mahovlich wound up with the Toros.

Even when the NHL’s own struggles in weak markets spurred merger talks in the late ’70s, Ballard always rallied at least four other hawkish owners to deny the three-quarters majority needed for approval at the board of governors level.

The die-hards included Montreal, Boston, Vancouver and Los Angeles.

When a merger for 1977-78 and again in ‘78-79 was blocked, the WHA hit back by plucking teen talent before the NHL could draft them at age 20.

The WHA also played its Canadian content card, forcing debate all the way to Parliament Hill where many MPs demanded the NHL accept new teams in the north.

The eventual breakthrough came down to suds and skullduggery.

1974-1975 World Hockey Association (WHA) Houston Aeros, Gordie, Mark and Marty Howe trading card

Supporters for a team in Winnipeg urged a public boycott of NHL sponsor Molson’s products, which took root across the country.

And on the day after a key merger vote failed at a board meeting in Key Largo, Fla., Washington governor Peter O’Malley organized a secret gathering aboard Chicago owner Bill Wirtz’s yacht.

O’Malley isolated Canucks’ Frank Griffiths in a room with a few key pro-merger governors and Griffiths eventually changed his vote for concessions such as Toronto and Montreal continuing regular stops in his rink.

Today, the WHA mostly lives on in trivia questions. Only the Oilers remained in their original city.

Despite five Cups, they needed league help to survive at one stage.

During the mid-’90s, Winnipeg pulled up stakes but became the perennially impoverished Phoenix Coyotes.

Quebec moved to Colorado (winning a Cup its first year there,) while Hartford shifted to Carolina and also won in ‘06.

Mark Messier retired in 2004 — the last active WHAer.

“You still see WHA people in your travels; scouts, coaches, general managers and a few referees,” Garrett said.

“It’s funny when you a few of their sons also made it to the NHL.”

MAKING THE SQUAD: A brief history of WHA teams

We pause to mourn the New York Raiders, San Diego Mariners, Toronto Toros, Cleveland Crusaders, Minnesota Fighting Saints and Ottawa Civics.

And don’t forget the Miami Screaming Eagles and Dayton Arrows, though they never played a game in their intended home bases.

The Eagles became the Philadelphia Blazers and Dayton into the Houston Aeros.

Philly morphed into the Vancouver Blazers and later the Calgary Cowboys.

World Hockey Association (WHA) team logos

By now you’ve figured the list of teams in the WHA obit is a long walk through a cross-continental graveyard, but one with a legacy of colourful team names and coveted collector hockey sweaters.

From the WHA’s birth as a 12-team operation in 1971, there were seven name changes or city swaps by the spring of ‘74 alone.

Expansion to markets such as Indianapolis and Phoenix was eventually undermined by seven collapsed franchises amid other name changes and shifts to new locales.

Birmingham, Cincinnati and Indianapolis were still around in the final season, but not included in the ‘79 NHL merger.


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