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The World Hockey Association (French: Association mondiale de hockey) was a professional ice hockey league that operated in North America from 1972 to 1979. It was the first major competition for the National Hockey League (NHL) since the collapse of the Western Hockey League in 1926. Although the WHA was not the first league since that time to attempt to challenge the NHL's supremacy, it was by far the most successful.

The WHA hoped to capitalize on the lack of hockey teams in a number of major cities, and it also hoped to attract the best players by paying more than NHL owners would. The WHA successfully challenged the reserve clause, which bound players to their NHL teams even without a valid contract, allowing players in both leagues greater freedom of movement. Sixty-seven players jumped from the NHL to the WHA in the first year, led by star forward Bobby Hull, whose ten-year, $2.75 million contract was a record at the time. The WHA signed European players, previously thought to be unsuited to the North American style of play.

The WHA had an acrimonious relationship with the NHL, resulting in numerous legal battles, as well as competition for control of players and markets. In spite of this, merger talks began almost immediately, as the WHA was constantly unstable, with franchises occasionally relocating, or folding, in the middle of the season. NHL owners voted down a 1977 plan to merge six WHA teams (the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, Cincinnati Stingers, Houston Aeros, and Winnipeg Jets) into the NHL before a 1979 merger was approved. As a result, four teams, the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets joined the NHL for the 1979–80 season, and the WHA ceased operations. The final WHA game was played on May 20, 1979, as the Jets defeated the Oilers to win their third AVCO World Trophy.



The World Hockey Association was founded in 1971 by Americanmarker promoters Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson. The pair had previously been the founder and first president of the American Basketball Association, respectively. They quickly recruited Bill Hunter, president of the junior Western Canada Hockey League. Hunter and Murphy traveled across North America recruiting potential owners, and by September 1971, had announced that the league would begin in 1972–73 with ten teams, each having paid $25,000 for their franchise.

The average NHL salary in 1972 was $25,000, the lowest of the four major sports, while players were bound by the reserve clause, a clause in every player's contract that automatically extended a player's contract by one year when it expired, tying them to their team for the life of their career. In October 1972, the WHA announced that it would not use the reserve clause, stating that "The reserve clause won't stand up to the scrutiny of ... players, players associations, the United States Congress, the public and the Supreme Court". The WHA also promised much higher salaries than the NHL offered, and by the time the league began play, it had lured 67 former NHL players to its league, including Bernie Parent, Gerry Cheevers, Derek Sanderson, J. C. Tremblay and Ted Green. The biggest name signed was former Chicago Black Hawks star Bobby Hull, who agreed to a 10-year, $2.7 million contract with the Winnipeg Jets, the largest in hockey history at the time, and one that lent the league instant credibility.

The NHL tried to block several of the defections. The Boston Bruins attempted to restrain Sanderson and Cheevers from joining the WHA, though a United States federal court refused to prohibit the signings. The Black Hawks were successful in having a restraining order filed against Hull and the Jets pending the outcome of legal action the Black Hawks were taking against the WHA. The new league was eager for the court action, intending to challenge the legality of the reserve clause. In November 1972, a Philadelphia district court placed an injunction against the NHL, preventing it from enforcing the reserve clause and freeing all players who had restraining orders against them, including Hull, to play with their WHA clubs. The decision effectively ended the NHL's monopoly on major league professional hockey talent.


In November 1971, twelve teams were formally announced. They included teams from cities without NHL teams such as the Miami Screaming Eagles – possibly the best known hockey franchise never actually to take the ice – as well as teams in cities where it was felt there was room for more than one team, such as the Los Angeles Aces, Chicago Cougars, and New York Raiders. Two of the original twelve teams, the Dayton Aeros and the San Francisco Sharks, relocated, citing arena troubles. They became the Houston Aeros and Quebec Nordiques, respectively, with the Los Angeles franchise then taking the nickname Sharks to replace Aces. Other franchises, such as the Calgary Broncos and the Screaming Eagles, folded outright. The Philadelphia Blazers and the Cleveland Crusaders would replace the Screaming Eagles and the Broncos.

Although the league had many players under contract by June 1972, including a few NHL stars such as Bernie Parent, many of its players were career minor leaguers and college players. The new league was not considered much of a threat, until Bobby Hull, arguably the NHL's top forward at the time, jumped to the new league. Hull, who considered moving to the WHA as part of a negotiation tactic with the Chicago Black Hawks, had jokingly told reporters that he would only move to the WHA for a million dollars, at that time a ridiculous amount of money for a hockey player. But, to everyone's surprise, the Winnipeg Jets offered him this sum. Hull accepted and moved to the WHA, signing a five-year, million-dollar contract, with a million-dollar signing bonus. Hull's signing attracted a few other top stars such as Cheevers, Sanderson, and Tremblay.

The WHA officially made its debut on October 11, 1972 in the Ottawa Civic Centremarker, when the Alberta Oilers defeated the Ottawa Nationals 7-4. Although the quality of hockey was predictably below that of the NHL, the WHA had indeed made stars out of many players that had little or no playing time in the NHL.

The New England Whalers would eventually win the WHA's inaugural championship, later renamed the Avco World Trophy when the Avco Financial Services Corporation became its main sponsor. However, the World Trophy had not yet been completed, and the Whalers were forced to "skate" their divisional championship trophy around the ice surface, much to the embarrassment of the WHA office.

Alternate WHA logo


Right from the start, the league was plagued with problems. Many teams often found themselves in financial difficulty, folding or moving from one city to another, often in mid-season. Two of the original twelve teams, the Dayton Aeros and the San Francisco Sharks, relocated citing arena troubles. These two franchises were moved to become the Houston Aeros and Quebec Nordiques, respectively. Other franchises, such as the Calgary Broncos and the Screaming Eagles, folded outright. The Philadelphia Blazers and the Cleveland Crusaders would replace the Screaming Eagles and the Broncos.

The New York Raiders, initially intended to be the WHA's flagship team, suffered from numerous problems. While they planned to play in the brand new Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseummarker, Nassau County did not consider the WHA a professional league and wanted nothing to do with the Raiders. The County hired William Shea, who worked with the NHL to quickly award a franchise to Long Island, the New York Islanders, who effectively locked up the Coliseum for their own use. The Raiders were first forced to rent space at Madison Square Gardenmarker, where they were tenants to their major competitor, the New York Rangers. The situation rapidly became untenable, with an onerous lease and poor attendance, so the three original owners defaulted and the league ended up taking control of the team midway through the season. The Raiders were sold after that season and renamed the New York Golden Blades, but were forced to revert to a Sundays-only home schedule due to the high price of rent and scheduling conflicts with other events at Madison Square Garden. This, however, was not enough to save the team, and the league was forced to take over the franchise again 24 games into the season. Realizing that it could not hope to compete with both the Rangers and the Islanders, the WHA moved the Golden Blades to New Jersey soon after taking control. Renamed the New Jersey Knights, they played at the Cherry Hill Arena which had a slope in the ice surface, causing pucks to shoot upward from results of a pass or shot, as well as chain link fencing inside the plexiglas surrounding the rink. The arena was also closely cramped, with players not having adequate changing and dressing facilities.

In another instance, Harold Ballard, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, deliberately made the Toronto Toros' lease terms at Maple Leaf Gardensmarker as onerous as possible after they moved from Ottawa. The Toros were owned by John F. Bassett, son of Canadian media mogul John Bassett. The older Bassett had formerly been part-owner of the Leafs with Ballard and Stafford Smythe before falling out with his two partners. The Toros' lease with Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. called for them to pay $15,000 per game, which was negotiated by Ballard's son Bill while the elder Ballard was in jail. However, by the time the Toros played their first game, Ballard had regained control of the Gardens. Much to Bassett's outrage, the arena was dim for the first game. It was then that Ballard demanded $3,500 for use of the lights. Ballard also denied the Toros access to the Leafs' locker room, forcing them to build their own at a cost of $55,000. He also removed the cushions from the home bench for Toros' games (he told an arena worker, "Let 'em buy their own cushions!"). It was obvious that Ballard was angered at the WHA being literally in his backyard, and took out his frustration with the renegade league on the Toros. These terms forced Bassett to move the team to Birmingham.

Part of the financial trouble was also attributed to the high player salaries. For instance, the Philadelphia Blazers signed Derek Sanderson for $2.6 million, which surpassed that of Brazilianmarker soccer star, Pelé, making him the highest-paid athlete in the world at the time. Unfortunately, his play did not live up to the expectations of his salary – nor, realistically, could it have – and between an early-season injury, intemperate remarks to the press, and Blazer financial troubles, Sanderson's contract was bought out before the end of the season.

As well, big stars lacked supporting players and the quality of the on-ice product suffered.

Talent competition

The WHA had won several key victories, including a court ruling which prevented the NHL from binding players to NHL teams via the reserve clause, and the signings of more NHL stars such as Marc Tardif and Gordie Howe, and in later years, Frank Mahovlich and Paul Henderson.

In 1974, to broaden a depleted talent pool, the WHA began employing European players – which the NHL had largely ignored up to that time – in serious numbers, including stars such as Swedish players Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson and Czech center Vaclav Nedomansky. Winnipeg especially loaded up with Scandinavian players and became the class of the league, with Hedberg and Nilsson combining with Bobby Hull to form one of hockey's most formidable forward lines. Along with the mass import of European stars, the Vancouver franchise attempted unsuccessfully to lure Phil Esposito away from the NHL by offering a contract similar to that of Bobby Hull, with a million dollars upfront.

International play

The 1972 Summit Series, which pitted Team Canada against the Soviets, did not permit WHA players, due to the decision of series organizer Alan Eagleson, an NHL agent who was influential in forming the Canadian team. Bobby Hull, one of the best WHA players, was ruled ineligible to play because of his defection from the NHL, despite being initially selected by coach Harry Sinden. Dennis Hull initially planned to boycott the event as well as a show of support for his older brother, but Bobby persuaded him to stay on Team Canada. Other WHA stars turned down included Gerry Cheevers and Derek Sanderson. Some NHL owners also threatened not to free their players to participate if WHA players were permitted.

The WHA organized the 1974 Summit Series against the Soviets, giving an opportunity for Hull and 46-year old Gordie Howe to play for Canada against the Soviet team, which the Soviets won 4-1-3.

In the 1976 Canada Cup, the NHL and NHLPA broaded the scope of the competition, inviting to the tournament a number of hockey countries and allowing each invited country to send the best possible team they could muster, so this time WHA players were permitted. WHA players played on four of the tournament's six teams.

Decline and merger

By 1976, it had become evident that many of the WHA's franchises were teetering on the verge of financial collapse, with stable teams few and far between, and that the (at one time) combined 30 teams of the NHL and WHA had badly strained the talent pool.

In 1977, merger discussions with the National Hockey League were first initiated, where six of the eight WHA teams would move to the NHL; as Houston, Cincinnati, Winnipeg, New England, Quebec, and Edmonton applied for entry. After a lengthy debate, the NHL voted the proposal down as it was never popular among NHL team owners.

Merger discussions resumed in 1978, but Houston was not part of the proposal this time, and as a result the Aeros elected to fold on July 6, 1978. During the final series of talks, Aeros owner Kenneth Schnitzer campaigned to the NHL that either his team be admitted as an expansion team independent of a merger, or he would attempt to purchase an existing club and relocate it to Houston. Neither came to fruition.

Another idea had the Edmonton Oilers and the New England Whalers moving to the NHL, with the Winnipeg Jets following a year later, but this was also not accepted by the NHL.

The final two seasons of the WHA saw the debut of many superstars, some of which became hockey legends in the NHL. They included Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Ken Linseman, and Mike Gartner. The Birmingham franchise alone would feature future NHLers Rick Vaive, Michel Goulet, Rob Ramage, Craig Hartsburg and Gaston Gingras.

However, by the end of the final season, only six teams remained. Facing financial difficulty and unable to meet payrolls, the WHA finally came to an agreement with the NHL in early 1979. Under the deal, four WHA clubs – the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers (renamed the Hartford Whalers), Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets – joined the NHL. The other two WHA teams, the Cincinnati Stingers and Birmingham Bulls, were paid $1.5 million apiece in compensation. The agreement was very tilted in the NHL's favour. The older league treated the new clubs' arrival as an expansion, not a merger, so the four WHA refugees thus had to pay a $6 million franchise fee. The NHL also refused to recognize any WHA records. While the new clubs were allowed to stock their rosters with an expansion draft, NHL teams were allowed to reclaim players who had jumped to the WHA.

The WHA was able to wrangle only two concessions. First, the WHA teams were allowed to protect two goaltenders and two skaters to keep their rosters from being completely stripped clean by the old-line NHL teams. Second, the NHL allowed all of the WHA's Canadian teams to be part of the deal. The NHL had originally only been willing to take the Oilers, Whalers and Jets, but the WHA insisted that the Nordiques be included as well.

The deal came up for a vote at the NHL Board of Governors meeting in Key Largo, Floridamarker on March 8. Despite the one-sided nature of the proposal, the final tally was 12-5, one vote short of passage, as a three-quarters majority was required to permit merger (13 teams out of 17 would have represented 76.5% of the league). The Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks all voted against the deal. The Bruins weren't pleased with having to share New Englandmarker with the Whalers. Los Angeles and Vancouver feared losing home dates with NHL teams from the East. Montreal and Toronto weren't enamored at the prospect of having to split revenue from Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts six ways rather than three. Maple Leafs owner Ballard had a personal grudge as well; he'd never forgiven the WHA for plundering his roster in the early 1970s.

When a second vote was held in Chicagomarker on March 22, however, Montreal and Vancouver changed their votes, allowing the deal to go forward. The Canadiens' hand was forced by a massive boycott of Molson products in Edmonton, Quebec City and Winnipeg. Vancouver was won over by the promise of a balanced schedule, with each team playing the others twice at home and twice on the road.

Legacy of the WHA

On the ice, the WHA teams had proven themselves to be the NHL's competitive equals, winning more games than they lost in interleague exhibition games.

The WHA had many lasting effects on NHL hockey. The NHL used to recruit virtually all players from Canada, but following the success of the Jets' Hedberg and Nilsson scouts began looking overseas for the best players that Europe could offer. Teams such as the Whalers and Fighting Saints also offered excellent opportunities for young American players, and several U.S.-born or -raised NHL stars of the early 1980s (such as Mark Howe, Rod Langway, Dave Langevin, Robbie Ftorek, and Paul Holmgren) began their pro careers in the WHA. As a result, the NHL evolved into a truly cosmopolitan league during the 1980s.

The WHA also ended the NHL policy of paying its players only a fraction of the league's profits and, combined with the abolition of the reserve clause, led to much higher player salaries. Many great stars began their careers in the WHA, including Mark Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mike Gartner, Mike Liut, and Mark Messier. Messier was the last WHA veteran to play in the NHL; he opened his professional career with 52 games with the Indianapolis Racers and Cincinnati Stingers in 1978–79, and played his last NHL game on April 3, 2004. The final active player and official in any on-ice capacity for the league was referee Don Koharski, a linesman for the WHA who retired at the end of the 2008–09 NHL season.

The WHA's success in Canada led the NHL to re-consider the other major Canadian cities without NHL teams. There were only three Canadian teams in the NHL prior to 1979. The Atlanta Flames would move to Calgary in 1980 to spark a fierce intra-Albertan rivalry with the Oilers, while the Ottawa Senators would join the NHL as an expansion team in 1992 and by the 2000s they enjoy a heated contest with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Both of these teams remain in their respective Canadian cities .

The WHA is also responsible for overtime to attempt to settle regular season tie games. When the WHA was founded, there was no overtime for regular season NHL games. The WHA however, instituted a 10 minute sudden death overtime for regular season games. The first team to score would win the game, and if nobody scored in 10 minutes, it would then be declared a tie. This reduced the number of ties considerably (the largest number of ties in a WHA season was 9, while in the NHL teams routinely had 15-20 ties per season).

After the NHL-WHA merger, the NHL tried to adopt the same format, but the players wanted increased revenues for playing more minutes. Finally, after contentious negotiations, the NHL adopted a 5 minute sudden death overtime.

Fate of surviving teams

The former WHA clubs were expected to struggle after joining the NHL since the terms of the expansion allowed the incoming WHA teams to protect only two goalies and two skaters each in the player dispersal draft. Instead, though, some did respectably well in their first year, with the Whalers and Oilers earning playoff berths. The Whalers' Gordie Howe and the Oilers' Wayne Gretzky were selected to the midseason All-Star Game, respectively the oldest and second-youngest ever to play in such a match. The Jets, however, posted a dismal 9 wins that first season, still a NHL record.

The 1980s was considered a successful period for the former WHA teams. The Oilers, led by Wayne Gretzky, shattered numerous NHL records and amassed a Stanley Cup dynasty. The Jets were decimated by the dispersal draft but went on to develop a solid nucleus of star players who helped the club achieve respectable regular-season finishes. However, the Jets managed only two postseason series wins (in 1984-85 and 1986-87), due to the playoff structure of the time that had them regularly face their dominant Smythe Division rivals, the Oilers and Calgary Flames. The Nordiques developed a rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens and captured the Adams Division title in 1985-86. The Whalers had similar rivalries with the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, attracting many Bruins and Rangers fans to their home games at the Hartford Civic Centermarker, and skating to the 1986–87 Adams Division title.

In the 1990s, the on-ice performances of the former WHA clubs declined, as they usually missed the playoffs or exited in the first round. Furthermore, like other recently-added expansion NHL teams, they suffered from escalating player salaries and restricted revenue because of smaller fanbases compared to the large-market franchises. The ex-WHA clubs based in Canada (plus Calgary, Ottawa, and Vancouver) were also hit hard by the declining value of the Canadian dollar, as these teams' revenues are earned in Canadian dollars but salaries are paid in U.S. dollars. The Nordiques finished what would be their last year in Quebec (the lockout-shortened 1994–95 season) at the top of their conference, but went on to a first-round playoff exit. Both the Oilers and Nordiques had asked for bailouts from Alberta and Quebec, respectively, but both provincial governments ultimately declined, as it would be perceived by voters as government subsidization of a hockey club that paid multi-million dollar salaries. (federal Industry Minister John Manley also unveiled a multi-million dollar rescue package for the cash-strapped Ottawa Senators, being a friend of owner Rod Bryden, but later withdrew the aid after critics argued that there were better uses for public funds).

The Nordiques moved to Denvermarker in 1995 and became the Colorado Avalanche, the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenixmarker in 1996 and became the Phoenix Coyotes, and the Hartford Whalers moved to North Carolinamarker in 1997 and became the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes played temporarily in Greensboromarker, then in Raleighmarker from 1999 onwards. In 1998, Oilers owner Peter Pocklington nearly sold the team to Leslie Alexander, who sought to move the team to Houstonmarker. However, at the sale deadline, a consortium of local investors came up with the funds necessary to keep the Oilers in Edmonton, so it remains the last WHA team still in its original city. The Edmonton investors were supported by the NHL, which did not want to see a third Canadian (and ex-WHA) team relocate after the Nordiques and Jets, as this would have put the league's lucrative Canadian television contracts in jeopardy.

The financial status of most small-market NHL teams, including former WHA teams, has since largely stabilized. The Avalanche were an instant success in their new home of Denver and now rank among the wealthiest franchises, enjoying 487 consecutive home sellouts, winning nine straight division titles, and being a mainstay in the Western Conference playoff picture. League commissioner Gary Bettman implemented the Canadian assistance plan, a revenue sharing agreement that saw American teams give money to help support the four smallest-market Canadian teams. The 2004–05 NHL lockout resulted in a hard salary cap, player salary rollbacks, and revenue sharing, which enabled small-market teams to be more competitive. The Oilers have enjoyed strong fan support ever since, selling out all but one home game in the 2005–06 season.

The Coyotes were initially popular upon their move to Phoenix, as they posted six consecutive .500 or better seasons; however, they were plagued by financial problems and low attendance after their last playoff appearance in 2002. In 2009, they declared bankruptcy and a buyer attempted to move it to Southern Ontario (likely Hamiltonmarker), but the NHL challenged the court filing and halted the relocation efforts.

Stanley Cup Playoffs

Since 1979, three of the four former WHA teams have won the Stanley Cup: the Oilers have played in the finals seven times, winning five; the Avalanche have played for it twice, winning on both occasions; the Hurricanes have played for it twice, winning once. The 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs marked the first time two former WHA teams played for the Cup, with the Hurricanes defeating the Oilers in seven games. At least one of the former WHA teams had qualified for the NHL playoffs in every season from the merger, save for the 1994 and 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Only the Jets, despite winning the most WHA championships, have not managed much success in the NHL, nor have they come close to making the Cup finals. Unlike the Whalers and Nordiques who won championships since they relocated, the Jets have not won a playoff series since becoming the Phoenix Coyotes, even with the seeding changed, and have not qualified for the playoffs since 2002.

Hockey Hall of Famers

List of WHA players and executives inducted into the Hockey Hall of Famemarker, for achievements in their hockey career.

Trophies and awards

This is a list of the trophies and awards handed out annually by the World Hockey Association.

Timeline of teams

Teams in bold were absorbed into the NHL.

WHA All-Star Game

Every season of the World Hockey Association had an All-Star game, but the format had changed with regularity.

  • 1972–73 Eastern Division 6, Western Division 2 @ Quebec
  • 1973–74 Eastern Division 8, Western Division 4 @ St. Paul
  • 1974–75 Western Division 6, Eastern Division 4 @ Edmonton
  • 1975–76 Canadian-based teams (5) 6, US-based teams (9)1 @ Cleveland
  • 1976–77 Eastern Division 4, Western Division 2 @ Hartford
  • 1977–78 AVCO Cup champion Quebec Nordiques 5, WHA All-Star team 4 @ Quebec
  • 1978–79 WHA All-Star team vs Dynamo Moscow in a three game series @ Edmonton. WHA won all 3 games 4-2, 4-2, 4-3

See also


  1. Willes, 2004, pp. 8–9
  2. Willes, 2004, p. 14
  3. Willes, 2004, p. 18
  4. Willes, 2004, pp. 11–12
  5. Willes, 2004, p. 17
  6. Pincus, 2006, p. 139
  7. Willes, 2004, p. 33
  8. McFarlane, 1990, p. 132
  9. McFarlane, 1990, p. 133
  10. Hockey Trade Rumors - NHL Rumors from around the league - 37 Year Cup Drought - The Legacy of Harold Ballard
  11. Thunder and Lightning: a No-B.S. Hockey Memoir, Phil Esposito and Peter Golenbock, ISBN 978-0771030864
  12. Bill Boyd, All Roads Lead to Hockey, 2004, Key Porter Books, 1-55263-618-6
  13. Scott Adam Surgent, The Complete Historical and Statistical Reference to the World Hockey Association, 1972-1979, 1995, Xaler Press, 0-9644774-0-8
  14. The Canadian Encyclopedia
  15. [1]
  16. A to Z Encyclopaedia of Ice Hockey - Wh


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