1972 two California investors, Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, founded
a league to rival the stale, but still powerful National Hockey League.
Placing teams throughout previously untapped markets like Cincinnati,
Houston, and Oakland, as well as some Canadian cities, the World Hockey
Association was born.
Though famous (or infamous according the some purists) for quirks such as orange colored pucks and gaudy uniforms, the WHA posed more of a threat to the NHL than many would have openly admitted. The first big blow came when the league offered NHL superstar Bobby Hull of the Chicago Blackhawks a $1 million contract to switch leagues. That kind of figure may seem paltry now, but consider that the average salary in the NHL of the 1970’s stood at about five figures. The WHA began to offer rival players larger salaries, and soon enticed many top players, most notably the legendary Gordie Howe and an 18 year old prodigy named Wayne Gretzky.
The WHA brought many innovations to the game of hockey, the creation of overtime play and the incorporation of European talent prime examples, but none more important to the future than free agency. Before this, players for NHL teams were bound to one franchise for their entire career. The WHA allowed players to play for whoever offered them a contract at the expiration of their current deal. Though this idea took a while to adopt in the NHL, the foundation for a completely different tier of business was formed.
When the league finally collapsed in 1979, the NHL adopted four of the WHA’s clubs into their league, the Quebec Nordiques (now the Colorado Avalanche), Winnipeg Jets (Phoenix Coyotes), Edmonton Oilers, and the Hartford Whalers (Carolina Hurricanes).
A new version of the WHA is scheduled to begin play in 2004. The current league will carry a minimum of 12 teams, with each having a salary cap of $10 million. As an addendum to this figure, each club will be permitted to sign up to two “marquee players” to deals that will not count against the original cap.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘compete’, says WHA co-founder Allan Howell. "We want to provide a sound, economic alternative to the NHL. Right now, their economic model is broken and it has to be fixed. Our business model shows we’re going to have 12 franchises across North America regardless of what happens to the NHL. But whatever happens-a strike, a lockout-would be a bonus. A nice bonus.”
The WHA is considering placing franchises in many established NHL cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Pittsburgh. Many WHA cities from the 1970’s, such as Indianapolis, Hartford, and Quebec are also on the short list. If the WHA is able to lure disgruntled players and fans during a prolonged NHL lockout, their chances of survival could be stronger than many originally expected of both incarnations.