- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2004

The help-wanted ad could read something like this: Upstart hockey league seeks motivated people to serve as team owners, general managers, head and assistant coaches, on-ice talent, game officials, equipment managers, head trainers and other key roles as needed. Time is of the essence. Apply to World Hockey Association, Niagara Falls, Ontario.

The WHA has not actually taken out such an ad. But the league, which was defined by pluckiness during its first incarnation in the 1970s and has the sports industry watching the current attempt at revival, is under significant pressure.

With the puck scheduled to drop in mid-November — a date already delayed from prior schedules — the WHA still does not know how many teams it will field, who will play on them, who will own all the franchises, what its game schedule for the season is, who will staff all the support positions or who will televise the games.

League officials are not concerned about all the uncertainty, saying important announcements to address many of those questions could arrive as soon as this week. But the current state of the WHA was hardly envisioned when Hall of Famer Bobby Hull announced the venture last year.

Hull — who almost single-handedly legitimized the original renegade WHA in 1972 by defecting from the Chicago Blackhawks — aimed to create a viable and much more affordable alternative to the NHL, which has an average ticket price that now exceeds $43. Team salary caps in the WHA will be set at $15million, with no player earning more than $5million. Many WHA tickets will sell for as low as $15.

What has happened since last year, however, is a constant shuffling of prospective franchises, missed deadlines and a marked lack of clarity as to what exactly will be on the ice this fall.

“Everyone’s going to be a skeptic. We know that,” said Peter Young, WHA president of hockey operations. “The NHL certainly hopes we’re not viable. But we’re not trying to be the NHL. We’re simply trying to provide a different product, a level of play above the American [Hockey] League that is much more accessible to the average fan.”

The WHA situation is particularly interesting because it is one of the major attempts at a new sports league since poor planning, overspending and the economic recession killed the XFL and Women’s United Soccer Association in 2001 and 2003, respectively. The other two leading sports creations of the go-go ‘90s, the WNBA and Major League Soccer, still operate unprofitably and rely on the financial support of their key benefactors.

The WHA, conversely, has no such sugar daddy and no real sales hook besides a lower ticket price than the NHL. And even that advantage is being blunted. Nearly all NHL teams have lowered prices this spring and summer to prepare for a lockout-driven falloff at the turnstiles.

“The WHA is an absolute paper tiger until they demonstrate a real infrastructure behind them,” said David Carter, a Los Angeles sports industry consultant and university lecturer. “All these startups have a lot of difficulty getting going, even when there is a defined hook and viable financial model. And what’s the hook for the WHA? Affordable hockey? That hardly seems a recipe to break into the news cycle that’s going to be dominated by the NFL, baseball and everything else going on.”

Even Hull himself is not much more than a figurehead for the WHA. The hockey legend has no operational role, and Young says the league’s access to Hull is limited to several days a month

“Bobby is very busy, doing more than 250 speaking engagements a year,” Young said. “What he is for us is an ambassador, a person who can drop the puck, sign a few autographs and give us a face.”

While the WHA has attempted to position itself as completely independent from the NHL, the league last month selected 40 NHL players in its draft, including stars like Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk. It’s highly doubtful more than a handful of those elite players will jump to the WHA. But the league is hoping for a solid crew of NHL journeymen who actually could get a raise in the new venture and at least one or two stars to serve as marquee draws for fans.

And, of course, the WHA stands as a willing outlet for NHL players and minor league veterans likely to be locked out this fall. The NHL and its players are embroiled in a bitter labor dispute over the league’s desire to implement “cost certainty” on the sport. But NHL officials already have gone to some lengths to point out that the WHA is using the type of restrictive salary cap bitterly opposed by the NHL Players Association.

“Players are not going to be a problem,” Young said. “We know we can get players. The problem is that they’re all not going to be able to get the $5million [maximum] salary. We’re reserving that for some special guys who really have a defined ticket impact.”

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