CALGARY – The World Hockey Association lasted less than a decade and has been defunct for more than 30 years.
But the renegade league’s impact on professional hockey in North America then and now warranted recognition from Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame on Thursday.
With help from WHA alumni, the Hall unveiled an exhibit featuring jerseys, photos and pennants from such teams as the Cleveland Crusaders, San Francisco Sharks, Calgary Broncos and New York Raiders.
The conversation piece was a hockey stick that once belonged to a 17-year-old Wayne Gretzky who started his pro career with the Indianapolis Racers.
The stick bears his name incorrectly spelled “W. Gretsky.”
The Hall has scheduled an appreciation day for the WHA on Saturday. The Avco Cup, the championship trophy on loan from the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, will be on display. The public will have an opportunity to meet players.
“I’m actually quite surprised there is this recognition of the World Hockey Association,” former player Gerry Pinder said. “I don’t think I ever believed this was going to happen.”
The WHA operated from 1972 to 1979 and lured dozens of NHL players to its clubs by offering higher salaries and the ability to move between teams.
Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Derek Sanderson, Frank Mahovlich, Jacques Plante, Dave Keon, Pat Stapleton and Mark Messier are among the hockey luminaries who count themselves as WHA alumni.
The NHL saw the WHA as a threat and expanded rapidly to keep WHA teams out of markets. The NHL also absorbed four WHA clubs when the league ceased operations in 1979.
The WHA also aggressively recruited European players, of which there were few in the NHL at the time.
For players, the WHA offered a chance to revolt against what they saw as the tyrannical NHL and get paid a lot more to play hockey.
An NHL salary in 1972 was $25,000 and players’ restrictive contracts handcuffed them to one team for the duration of their career, according to “The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association” by Ed Willes.
When Pinder defected from the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks to the WHA’s Cleveland Crusaders “we were told in no uncertain terms by members of the National Hockey League executives, ‘If you go to the WHA, you’re not coming back to the National Hockey League.'”
Pinder didn’t test that vow as he ended his career with the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers in 1977-78, although Hull and Cheevers were absorbed back into the NHL.
“More pioneers I would say than rebels,” Pinder said. “When I left the National Hockey League, I wasn’t making very much money. I think in my first year I tripled my salary. It was a recognition the players were worth something.”
Stapleton, who played for Canada in the 1972 Summit Series, was another Blackhawk who jumped to the WHA. He says the league’s greatest legacy was providing more NHL job opportunities today.
“It exposed more players to it either from Europe, U.S. college, Canadian universities,” Stapleton pointed out. “Now, there’s 700 and some spots. At that time there was 240 spots, so you’ve tripled it right?”
The WHA exhibit will remain in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame until June 2014.