Fresh off of kicking pro basketball’s establishment in the teeth with the launch of the upstart American Basketball Association in 1967, inveterate sports entrepreneurs Dennis Murphy (see also: World Team Tennis, Roller Hockey International) and Gary Davidson (World Football League) turned their attention to an even riper target of opportunity in 1971 – the monopolistic and monochromatic 12-team National Hockey League.
Their broadside against the NHL was the audaciously aspirational World Hockey Association – a seven-season 1970s-era wonder that brought a rollicking brand of ice hockey to no fewer than 27 markets across North America (not including four announced teams that relocated before even playing a game) – leaving in its wake a bevy of bounced checks, fractious lawsuits, and defunct franchises from San Diego to Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Amidst the league’s traveling circus of the weird (the Chicago Cougars’ 1974 playoff run ended by Peter Pan), and wonderful (the Houston Aeros’ Gordie, Mark and Marty Howe teaming for the first-ever father-son[-son!] combination in pro hockey), the WHA undeniably became the vanguard that dragged the sport kicking and screaming into the modern age by: ending the NHL’s monopoly grip on the pro game; freeing players from its reserve clause; allowing 18-year-old players to be drafted; introducing top-tier hockey to the US Sun Belt and the interior Canadian provinces; and opening up rosters to an exciting array of European talent in numbers previously unimagined.
And, by the end of its run in 1979, ushering four new clubs – the Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques, Edmonton Oilers, and Hartford Whalers – into a merger-expanded NHL.
Sportswriter Ed Willes (The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association) returns to the podcast to discuss the brief but impactful legacy of hockey’s “rebel league” that gave up-and-coming stars their big-league debuts, others their swan songs – and provided high-octane fuel for some of the most spectacularly memorable moments in the history of professional hockey.
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