The duel for dominance between the established National Hockey League (NHL) and the upstart World Hockey Association (WHA) lasted seven tumultuous seasons during the 1970s.
Toe-to-toe, the rival institutions used a variety of promotional tactics to gain a greater foothold with fans of professional hockey.
The NHL emerged victorious and has dominated the North American industry ever since.
The following is a brief history of the NHL-WHA merger.
How Long Did the WHA Last?
For more than four decades, the NHL was the only game in town. When the Western Canada Hockey League disbanded in 1926, it left the NHL as the continent’s lone major hockey league.
In 1942, the NHL was pared down to six franchises — the Original Six — and through the 1960s it remained a popular diversion for fans who lived in Eastern and Midwestern states, and, of course, Canada.
Fueled by the high-priced defection of former Chicago Black Hawks icon Bobby Hull, the WHA burst onto the scene in 1971.
The financially strapped WHA lasted until 1979, when the league’s remaining six franchises folded, freeing up four teams to be absorbed — or merged — into the NHL as expansion squads.
During its time, founders Gary Davidson and Dennis Murphy worked diligently to create the WHA’s identity as an aggressive, cutting-edge form of entertainment.
Sensing an opportunity to steal market share from the NHL, the WHA opened for business with 10 teams — and Hull, who served as a de facto pied piper, leading other players away from the NHL. After Hull inked a high-profile 10-year, $2.7 million contract with the Winnipeg Jets, others followed seeking bigger paydays. Hull’s deal included a $1 million signing bonus, which was unheard of at that time.
Executives from the NHL immediately responded by taking the WHA to court, earning an injunction to prevent Hull and other players from joining the new league. The WHA countered, citing the NHL’s talent monopoly. Attorneys for the WHA argued the legality of the NHL’s player contracts, which served as virtual lifetime deals.
A Philadelphia district court in 1972 sided with the WHA, unlocking the players’ playing rights. The ruling helped the new association gain instant credibility and prompted a march of players switching leagues. During the WHA’s initial season, 67 players were one-time NHLers.
As a direct challenge, the WHA also brazenly embedded the Philadelphia Blazers, Toronto Toros, and Chicago Cougars into longtime NHL markets.
In the end, as the old saying goes, the WHA bit off more than it could chew.
When Did the NHL and WHA Merge?
Former NHL President Clarence Campbell spearheaded the legal fight against the WHA. Initially resistant to discussing a merger, Campbell wanted to put the WHA out of business.
But after years of negotiations, the NHL-WHA merger became official on June 22, 1979.
Four former WHA franchises — the Jets, Edmonton Oilers, New England (Hartford) Whalers, and Quebec Nordiques — paid $6 million to join the NHL for the 1979-80 campaign. The remaining two franchises left out of the expansion wave, the Cincinnati Stingers and Birmingham Bulls, received $1.5 million and promptly folded.
While the team transactions were considered a merger, the ex-WHA teams were stripped of their rosters, sans two skaters and two goalies. Unlike modern expansion drafts, the new franchises selected first-year players from the backend of the NHL Entry Draft, not the front.
WHA Fiscal Faults
In the end, the WHA could not afford a prolonged confrontation versus the NHL. By the late 1970s, several teams struggled to make payroll. With expenses piling up and player salaries rising, the league failed financially.
In operation for seven seasons, the WHA lost over $50 million, partly because of its bloated payrolls, compiling more than $120 million in salaries. The Hull deal seeded a rapid escalation in both leagues.
One deal epitomized the failures of the WHA’s financial strategy.
Departing the Boston Bruins to become the world’s highest-paid athlete, Derek Sanderson, a flamboyant two-time Stanley Cup champion, signed a record deal with the Blazers. For the Blazers’ $2.65 million investment, the oft-injured Sanderson dressed for just eight matches, collecting six points and 69 penalty minutes.
Within months of signing, the Blazers paid Sanderson, the 1967-68 Calder Memorial Trophy recipient as the NHL’s top rookie, $1 million not to play for the franchise.
The WHA created a three-tier legacy:
- It drove up players’ salaries.
- It introduced North American hockey fans to European talent.
- It created a free-agent system for the players.
Along with the WHA’s financial failures, the introduction of European talent will be another part of its legacy. Top players from Finland and Sweden, headlined by Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, and Lars-Erik Sjoberg, signed with the Jets in 1974 and sparked the franchise to three Avco Cups.
The league also played a part in one of the great ironies of professional hockey: Why was Gretzky not drafted?
Considered by many insiders to be the best player of all time, Gretzky was still a teenager when he decided to go pro. At the time, however, the NHL had a rule preventing clubs from signing a player younger than 20 years old, so Gretzky in 1978 signed with the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers and was soon traded to the Oilers. The next year, the Oilers joined the NHL. The rest is history.
Adding to the WHA’s historical lure, the Avco Cup, which was awarded to the league champion, bounced around for years — at times, getting stuffed in a series of closets — before it finally found a home. Also known as the Avco World Trophy, it currently resides in a showcase at the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.
In the end, the WHA’s biggest contribution to hockey was its competition with the NHL at a time when the sport grew from an injection of fan interest outside of its traditional footprints.
The rivalry pushed the NHL to evolve into a better product internationally, and ultimately the WHA helped shape the professional hockey game as we know it today.