Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Whale, the WHA and a Renegade Cowboy

By Evan Weiner

September 21, 2010


(New York, N. Y.) -- There was an announcement in Hartford, Connecticut that former New England-Hartford Whalers owner Howard Baldwin has taken over the day-to-day business operations of the American Hockey League's Hartford Wolf Pack and the team will be renamed the Connecticut Whale. The Hartford team will still be owned by the New York Rangers and Madison Square Garden but Baldwin would like to bring the NHL back to Hartford. Baldwin brought the World Hockey Association to Hartford in 1974 after two years in Boston and his team joined the NHL in 1979. The team was moved to Carolina in 1997 playing first in Greensboro and finally in Raleigh.

There is significance in Baldwin’s return. Nearly 40 years ago, Baldwin became a pioneer in hockey by joining with owners to form the World Hockey Association. The National Hockey league took notice and tried to cut off viable markets for the new league by expanding to Uniondale, New York and Atlanta, Georgia.

Baldwin helped altered the course of the business of hockey.

Baldwin has been involved in hockey on and off for four decades and was one of the original owners in the WHA back in 1972. The WHA changed the face of pro hockey and in a sense freed NHL players from being tied their entire careers to one team unless they were traded.

A lot has been written about Curt Flood's attempt to control his career in baseball but Flood never did see free agency. Major League Baseball's reserve clause was broken in 1975, three years after NHL players jumped to the WHA after completing NHL contracts. Hockey and basketball players were more successful at getting free agency than their baseball counterparts. The hockey and basketball players had another league to use for negotiating leverage. New leagues are difference makers. Eventually basketball and hockey players would win free agency even though the ABA and WHA leftovers were gobbled up by the older leagues. The American Football league, the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association shook up the established leagues and the newspapers reporters who acted an a public relations arm for the old guard.

Bobby Hull became the first player to make a million dollars a season in hockey. In 1972, the 33-year-old Chicago Blackhawk all-star jumped from the National Hockey League to the upstart World Hockey Association and in the process began a salary escalation in a sport that was notorious for keeping salaries suppressed.

Hull left Chicago for Winnipeg, Manitoba after owner Ben Hatskin agreed to give Hull the money.

"1972, yes you are right, it seems like yesterday," said Hull in a 1990
interview about becoming hockey's first million-dollar player. "That was just by accident. They kept badgering me and badgering me, the WHA, and I told them that I didn't want to go to Winnipeg and I wanted to stay in Chicago and that was the only place I was going to play. Finally, I told them I wanted a million bucks to get rid of me because they wanted to know what it would take to get me to Winnipeg. I told them a million bucks just to get rid of them. Had I known that they were even going to try and raise money, I would have told them ten million bucks or something like that."

Bobby Hull grew up in an age where loyalty meant more than a paycheck, when the National Hockey League had six teams, Boston, Chicago, Detroit and New York in the United States, Montreal and Toronto in Canada. The
National Hockey League didn't even pay its players as well as those in the "minor pro" Western Hockey League. But it was the top league in the world and players literally fought to stay in it.

Hull would eventually sign after the 11 other WHA owners chipped into and gave Ben Hatskin the money to sign the Golden Jet.

"Had I known they that were even going to think about raising a million
dollars," Hull continued. "Who did I think was worth a million dollars back then? I was the first one. I thought if I threw a million bucks at them, they would say who is this renegade cowboy wanting a million dollars and they would leave me alone.

"In all sports, that was it, that's why I thought it was so astronomical, I thought they'd say get lost. Who was this guy? They gave me a million dollars and then I got $250,000 a year to play. That was a bonus. That was the first million dollars, I don't know anybody else who made it. I know none of the boxers made it at that time, the riders, the jockeys; I know none of the golfers had ever made that.

"Right now, knowing what I know now, I would have said 10 and I am sure they would have balked at that."

Bobby Hull had to win a court battle to go to Winnipeg. So did Boston Bruins winger John Mc Kenzie in order to jump to Philadelphia. His contract, as was Hull's contract was done and the NHL was under the impression it had perpetual rights to players. They didn't, at least according to Judge Leon Higginbotham upheld the WHA's legal claim to NHL players who had signed their contractual obligations.

"The NHL is merely sustaining the fate which monopolists must face when they can no longer continue their prior total dominance of the market," Higginbotham wrote on an action filed by McKenzie.

The WHA was never fiscally stable and a lot of franchises moved or simply went out of business. Players didn't get paid on time or never were paid. But the
World Hockey Association was a good thing for players despite its franchise movement and bankruptcies.

"It allowed a player a choice of playing in the NHL or somewhere else," said Senator and Hockey Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich, who left Detroit for the WHA in 1973. "Up to that particular time, it was a monopoly and you never had an opportunity to increase your salary, and it wasn't that great for the players. In 1972, when the WHA started, it gave us that chance.

"I think Bobby Hull was the first one to go over to the WHA and gave credibility to the league. It increased our salaries and as time went on and we got competitive with baseball."

The World Hockey Association went after 18 year old players and signed them. There is a list of NHL elite players who began in the WHA in the mid to late 1970s that included Rod Langway, Rob Ramage, Ken Linseman,
Mike Gartner, Mark Messier and a 17 year old named Wayne Gretzky.
It was Linseman who would force the NHL to change its draft rules in 1976. Linseman, who was 19 years old at the time, sued the WHA who would not allow him to join the league as players 20 and younger were not eligible to play in either the NHL or WHA. Linseman won his case and opened the door for "underaged" hockey players. Gretzky would sign with Indianapolis. He was traded after a handful of games in 1978 because the team was broke.

After the Indianapolis Racers folded, the WHA was left with Birmingham, Cincinnati, Edmonton, New England (Hartford), Quebec and Winnipeg. The financially ailing league did get a deal done to merge with the NHL, but the Montreal Canadiens owner the Molson Breweries said no and blocked the agreement. Hockey fans and beer drinkers in Edmonton, Quebec and Winnipeg threatened a boycott of Molson's products and ultimately the beer drinkers and Molson's bottom line won out. Edmonton, New England, Quebec City and Winnipeg were admitted into the league.

The NHL owners picked up an expansion fee, Gretzky stayed in Edmonton, Gordie Howe in Hartford and that ended the player war. The WHA changed hockey in numerous ways. The league went to American Sun Belt Cities, signed European talent and Baldwin's Hartford team had a hand in what eventually became the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, ESPN. The Whale is back in Hartford after the team helped transformed hockey and sports.

Evan Weiner is an award winning author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Business and Politics of Sports." He can be reached at evanjweiner@yahoo.com

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