- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

After the Chicago Blackhawks’ Bobby Hull scored 50 goals in 1972, he demanded a salary befitting a true star, not the pocket change offered by stingy owners.

Otherwise, the 33-year-old said, he was joining this new thing called the World Hockey Association (WHA).

The NHL establishment laughed at the thought, all but daring the scoring star to leave. So “the Golden Jet” did, and not long thereafter that laughter was replaced by an all-too-serious bidding war for talent.

Flash forward 32 years. The WHA is back, just in time to take advantage of what may be a disastrous situation for the NHL. And once again, Hull will be at the forefront, this time as the league’s commissioner.

The resurrected WHA says it will open a 76-game season on Oct.29 in six cities: Halifax, Nova Scotia; Quebec; Dallas; Detroit; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Orlando, Fla. Two other cities — Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario — could be in the fold once arena contracts are finalized, and four unannounced locations remain under consideration.

The timing for a second league is opportune. The NHL’s eight-year collective-bargaining agreement with the players union will expire Sept.15. The league says it must have “cost certainty” — that is, a salary cap — and will lock out the players otherwise. The NHL Players Association says it will not discuss a cap, soft or hard.

What the two sides do agree on is this: If there is a lockout, it will be lengthy — long enough, perhaps, to wipe out one season and maybe even two.

Enter the reincarnation of the World Hockey Association. Hundreds of unrestricted free agents will be looking for work if a lockout takes place, and thousands of hockey fans will be searching for a fix. The proposed league plans to satisfy both.

The WHA will operate with team payrolls of $10million, not counting a maximum $5 million salary for one marquee player. The plan calls for rosters of five NHL veterans, five players from the American Hockey League and the remainder prospects from junior hockey, although those figures appear flexible.

“There was a lot of skepticism back in 1972, too,” Hull said at a press conference last week.

The original WHA lasted seven seasons with, at various times, 24 cities playing host to a total of 32 teams. There were six teams when the league folded in 1979. Four of those teams — Quebec (now the Colorado Avalanche), Winnipeg (Phoenix Coyotes), Edmonton and Hartford (Carolina Hurricanes) — were absorbed by the NHL.

Hull won three WHA titles playing for the Jets. Houston (and later Hartford) had the Howe family — Gordie and sons Mark and Marty. A young player named Wayne Gretzky started with Indianapolis. Mark Messier and Bengt Gustafsson started with Edmonton and Mike Gartner with Cincinnati.

Hull signed for figures that seemed unreal 32 years ago: a $2.75million salary and a $1million signing bonus. Big bucks were offered to dozens of NHL veterans, some of whom accepted.

But the WHA could not compete even against a lesser version of the NHL. Fans ignored the teams in most markets, resulting in a massive turnover in ownership in a never-ending search for checks that didn’t bounce.

The new WHA is proposing something radically different. It plans to target families and blue-collar markets, fans who follow the game but cannot afford to pay NHL ticket prices.

Hence, the $15 million salary cap for each team (less than what Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang made combined last season). That would allow ticket prices to be set as low as $15 in some cities and no higher than $80 even in hockey-mad Toronto.

The league is the brainchild of businessman Allan Howell and chiropractor Nick Vaccaro, both of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Reportedly a third of the down payments on the $1.5million franchise fees have been received from eight teams.

Howell first announced plans for the league more than a year ago, saying Pittsburgh and Minneapolis were “confirmed teams.” Neither of those cities is in the picture today.

There are reports of ownership problems already in Orlando. The arena contract in Halifax is being questioned, and some venues must make massive structural changes before ice can be laid. Plus, there is no TV contract of any kind.

The lockout — if there is a lockout — might make all those problems go away. There will be a demand for some kind of hockey, and even a smattering of NHL mainstays will be a better draw than what the minors have to offer.

“Even so, I don’t know if it would be viable,” one NHL official said this week, asking not to be identified. “To be honest, I haven’t given it a lot of thought, and I don’t think anybody else has, either.”

Even player agents, who might have a lot of hungry clients on their hands in the near future, seem cool to the idea. They haven’t been approached by WHA officials and have questions about owners, money, management and coaches.

But, they add, the WHA would be an alternative should there be a lockout. The European leagues can offer only a limited number of jobs, and those will come with severe restrictions in most cases. North American minor league teams are expected to be stocked heavily with young prospects under contract to NHL clubs, leaving minor league veterans jobless.

In 1972, Hull created a market for athletes that did not exist previously in a labor setting locked into feudal times. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, transpires this time.

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