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3:57 PM ET, 6/05/06
Ghosts of the WHA
Posted by Michael Farber
If the NHL really had soul, it would not just award the 113-year old Stanley Cup at the end of Carolina-Edmonton final.
It would also present the Avco Cup.
For those of you who came in late, the Avco Cup, named for an insurance company, was awarded to the champion of the World Hockey Association - the Rebel League, as Vancouver Province columnist Ed Willes dubbed it in his terrific, anecdotal 2004 book.
The start-up league of the 1970s - which enticed Bobby Hull to Winnipeg from Chicago, gave jobs to top players like Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg and housed more oddballs and reprobates than anyone could imagine. It lasted until 1979 when four of its teams were folded into the NHL, a merger of unequals. Of the four WHA teams - Edmonton, Hartford, Winnipeg and Quebec - the Oilers are the only one that has managed to stay in the same city. The Hurricanes are, of course, progeny of the New England/Hartford Whalers, making this the first Stanley Cup final pairing grounded in that wild and wacky time when hockey was more fun than it was corporate.
Although the Oilers and Hurricanes did not meet during the 2005-06 regular season, their forefathers actually played two playoff series in the WHA. In 1978, the Whalers beat the Oilers, four games to one, in the first round. The following year the Oilers won a seven-game semifinal against the Whalers, the coming-out party for someone you might have heard about: Wayne Gretzky. The Great One had 15 points in the series. But it wasn't only the playoffs that created a bizarre rivalry between these franchises.
During one star-crossed season when some WHA teams folded - not an uncommon occurrence in the seat-of-your-pants league - the Whalers and Oilers played each other more than 20 times, Skip Cunningham, the Hurricanes equipment manager, told me at the morning skate. "Our arch-rivals," he said. "For a rival team, that's a pretty good distance."
The games might not have all been memorable, but the travel certainly was. These were basically 13-hour days. The flights, all commercial, might go from Hartford/Springfield to Buffalo or Chicago, then to Minneapolis, then to Winnipeg and finally on to Edmonton. Middle Seats 'R Us.
"Basically there was two requests," Cunningham said. "That Gordie Howe had an aisle seat and Davey Keon had a window seat. For the rest of the boys, it was get there early and try to get something decent. Six across wasn't really pretty. Not all this first-class flights and gourmet meals that the guys have now. The planes weren't at your beck-and-call, ready to go when you were."
While Hartford would become the home of Howe, it would also become musically prominent within the hockey world for two reasons. One was the Whalers' theme song, a pernicious ditty called Brass Bonanza, which is to the musical canon what fingernails are to a chalkboard. When asked Sunday what he remembered from his days in Hartford, Oilers defenseman Chris Pronger, a former No. 1 draft choice of the Whalers, said, "Brass Bonanza." The players uniformly hated the song, played after every Whalers goal and before every period, but still it stuck in some crevice of the brain, wrapping itself around the axons like ivy.
Cunningham can't recall if the Whalers used the song when they played their first two seasons in Boston, but it definitely was the rage in Hartford. It actually was played at some point during the New Jersey series; Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos showed great restraint by not breaking the furniture in his suite.
The other was anthem singer Tony Harrington. He used to do a lounge-singer version of the Star-Spangled banner, unique to the game. The only thing that was missing from his rendition was a piano and a brandy snifter so players could shove dollar bills in it after the final note. Maybe it wasn't Roger Doucet illuminating the Montreal Forum with his voice, but Harrington in Hartford had unmistakable style.
Mark Messier's retirement was the NHL's last playing link to the WHA, but there are enough people around - CBC commentator Harry Neale, the coach of the Whalers team that beat Edmonton in 1978, and Sportsnet analyst John Garrett, the losing goalie in the seven-game series against the Oilers, to name two - that the Rebel League spirit looms over this improbable series. The very least NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman can do is round up the Avco Cup wherever it may be - there are rumors that there are actually three of the trophies - and hand it over to the winning team. For old, crazy time’s sake.