The lights went dim on the rogue World Hockey Association more than 30 years ago. But the builders and stars from the rival professional league are getting some time in the spotlight this season thanks to the creation of the WHA Hall of Fame.
Lasting seven tumultuous seasons in the 1970s, the WHA “changed the way the NHL did business,” said Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider. It forced NHL teams to offer competitive salaries to its top players, open the door to European talent and underaged whiz kids, consider and implement overtime.
But the WHA also struggled miserably in the accounting ledgers of 25 venues across North America, ranging from the Miami Screaming Eagles, who never played a game, to the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and New England Whalers, who were swallowed up by the NHL in 1979.
Along the way, a lot of proven NHL stars sought opportunity or refuge in the WHA, Bobby Hull and Bernie Parent among the first to jump. The WHA was also a proving grounds for teenage phenoms not old enough to play in the NHL, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Rick Vaive and Michel Goulet among them.
But since the door closed on the WHA, the league is hardly mentioned in NHL circles. And when it is, it’s rarely in a good way. It’s as though it’s hockey’s version of Christmas Vacation’s cousin Eddie.
“Like many hockey fans and journalists, I had waited for decades for other institutions to honor the WHA and the people in it who helped evolve major league hockey in North America,” said Timothy Gassen, a filmmaker and journalist who spearheaded the creation of the WHA Hall of Fame.
Gassen grew up in Indianapolis watching the Racers play the final five seasons in the WHA. In 2005, he started researching the defunct team for a book project and Gretzky DVD and soon realized an opportunity.
“I was accumulating all the right people to give an accurate, historical overview of this league,” Gassen said. “No one else had talked about establishing a WHA Hall of Fame. The more I talked about it, the more people got excited by it.”
Gassen put together a panel of retired hockey players, builders and journalists, including yours truly, who worked to establish a one-time list of WHA Hall of Famers. They include six builders, four coaches, 12 forwards, eight defensemen, six goalies, seven legends of the game and the Howe family (Gordie, Mark, Marty and Colleen).
“People talk about the WHA for everything but hockey,” Gassen said. “Once I started to interview players, they realized I didn’t want to talk about the sensationalism. Players realized this was a serious attempt at recognizing their career. Some players spent their entire career in the WHA. This project really gained momentum quickly.”
Gassen has also done film documentaries on the Winnipeg Jets and Houston Aeros and said he was inspired by phone calls from Jacques Demers, Anders Hedberg and Pat Stapleton to pursue the Hall of Fame project.
WHA Hall of Fame inductees include:
FORWARDS Serge Bernier, Real Cloutier, Robbie Ftorek, Anders Hedberg, Bobby Hull,â€¨Andre Lacroix, Danny Lawson, Ulf Nilsson, Kent Nilsson, Terry Ruskowski, Marc Tardif and Mike Walton.
DEFENSEMEN Ted Green, Al Hamilton, Ron Plumb, Rick Ley, Paul Shmyr, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Pat Stapleton and J.C. Tremblay.
GOALTENDERS Richard Brodeur, Gerry Cheevers, Joe Daley, Ron Grahame, Al Smith and Ernie Wakely.
COACHES Jacques Demers, Bill Dineen, Jack Kelley and Harry Neale.
BUILDERS Howard Baldwin, John Bassett, Gary Davidson, Ben Hatskin, Bill Hunter and Dennis Murphy.
LEGENDS OF THE GAME (Players or coaches who performed to Hall of Fame levels in the NHL and who also deserve recognition for their significant contributions or career start in the WHA.)Wayne Gretzky, Dave Keon, Frank Mahovlich, John McKenzie, Mark Messier, Jacques Plante and Glen Sather.
Profiles of the Hall of Famers can be viewed at www.whahof.com. As part of the Jets documentary screening later this year, Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Hull will be reunited in Winnipeg for the first time since 1978.
“People are coming forward with all these great (WHA) artifacts they’ve been wanting to show,” said Gassen, who will also soon announce where the physical Hall of Fame exhibit will be displayed.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can find his blog each weekend.
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