Even if NHL owners lock out players, new league not viable
By Evan Weiner
The Quebec Nordiks are history, teen-age phenom Sidney Crosby has said thanks but no thanks to the Hamilton franchise’s three-year, $7.5 million offer and WHA officials vehemently denied media reports that they are in negotiations with the NHL regarding a potential sale of the World Hockey Association to the NHL. Of course there isn’t very much to the WHA except the trademark World Hockey Association name that the NHL didn’t bother to buy when it “expanded” to four WHA cities — Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec City and Hartford — in 1979.
Now that we’ve reached September, the WHA appears to be far more of a dream than a reality. The league should be getting ready for training camps and its first game, but there is no evidence that the league has even signed contracts with any rinks for practice time. And the league’s first faceoff has been pushed back from an October start to sometime in November.
The WHA had some grand plans. The founders apparently did not bother to study wreckages of the XFL and the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA). Both the XFL and the WUSA had major television backing. The XFL had NBC and Viacom behind it; the WUSA had a consortium of cable television companies behind it.
The WHA apparently is soldiering on, but the grandiose plans of a 12-team North American league as well as a European division and a junior league are apparently just that … grandiose plans. At this point, with the NHL owners and players association heading toward a lockout, the WHA’s timing to fill the void left by labor strife is the only thing working in its favor.
The league has not sold a ticket, has no network or cable TV deals, no players, no referees, and apparently it has just one team employee. The Detroit Gladiators, who are scheduled to be playing in the Detroit Lions’ old Silverdome home field in Pontiac, Mich., have a coach, former NHL defenseman Moe Mantha.
The league could have teams in Halifax, Nova Scotia; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Dallas. The Toronto franchise has no place to play nor does the Hamilton team. It’s unclear whether or not the Halifax franchise has a lease agreement to use the city’s arena. The Gladiators have a Web site, the Dallas Americans have a lease agreement with the city to use Reunion Arena.
Dallas does have a team though, the Americans, and Vancouver will be known by its old WHA name, the Blazers. The NHL didn’t bother taking that name either in 1979.
Quebec City is just the latest franchise that has folded. In June, a Calgary, Alberta, company purchased two franchises, one in Jacksonville, Fla., and the other in Orlando, Fla., from David Waronker. Waronker’s teams had been in the WHA2, a low-level minor league that is now the Southern Professional Hockey League. Waronker claimed he never got the money for the teams and called off the deal. A few weeks later, Waronker was again thinking of placing his Orlando team in the WHA, but that fell through.
The WHA held its first, and more than likely it last, amateur and professional drafts in mid-July at a casino in Niagara Falls, Ontario. The league’s so-called commissioner, Bobby Hull, stormed out after getting questions from reporters about the league’s viability. Hull really isn’t the commissioner and seems to be available to the league in some sort of public relations deal a few times a month.
The WHA’s initial goal was to be a notch under the NHL, but better than the top hockey minor league, the American Hockey League. The founders wanted to put excitement back in hockey with rules designed to promote more scoring. Prices would bring more families into arenas, although the average ticket was going to be more than $30 per game.
The WHA made a number of mistakes. Hockey is growing quickly in the United States. USA Hockey has more members than ever before, the NHL has 24 U.S. teams, and the minor leagues continue to grow, particularly in the south. The United States has a successful national team now that is being fed by junior leagues that are sprouting up throughout the country.
There is really no need for an alternate “major league” in the United States. The WHA founders learned that the other cities that had a remote interest in the WHA were those with old and unused arenas like Dallas and Pontiac. The WHA was reduced to looking for those type of venues, but could not land Miami or Cincinnati or at basketball facilities in Phoenix or Minneapolis.
In Canada, the league may have landed Halifax, which is too small, and not economically robust enough to compete with say, Toronto, and failed in Quebec City. Toronto and Hamilton have various levels of hockey ranging from the NHL to the AHL to juniors. There really is no need for the WHA, even if NHL owners lock out their players, the American Hockey League will be playing, as will the ECHL, the United Hockey League, the Western Professional Hockey League and the Southern Professional Hockey League. Additionally, there is college hockey, and junior development leagues such as the United States Hockey League and the North American Hockey League. And a few U.S. cities have Canadian Junior A Hockey teams. There is plenty of hockey available in the lower 48 and Alaska even if the NHL does lock out its players.
In 1971, there was a need for the original WHA which opened southern markets, hired European players on a regular basis and gave hockey people jobs. The original WHA wasn’t the best hockey nor were its teams well financed, but it pushed the NHL into changing its business strategies just like the American Football League did to the NFL and the American Basketball Association did to the NBA. But in 1971, when the original WHA organizers started thinking about starting play in 1972, the NHL had 14 teams. Today it has 30, USA Hockey is an international force, there are minor leagues, development leagues and hockey programs from the ages of 5 to juniors. There just isn’t any need for the WHA as its organizers are finding out.
Evan Weiner is a radio commentator on “The Business of Sports.”