"What was the legacy of the WHA?" I ask, trying to brighten the mood.
"I think we gave entertainment to a lot of people," Hull says. "And the year after the leagues merged, 10 of the top 20 scorers in the NHL had come from the WHA."
On the silver anniversary, there have been no parades. Dennis Murphy, the Orange County entrepreneur who helped to create the WHA—and who more recently turned a $1 million profit on Roller Hockey International—hopes to stage a gala reunion in September to honor Hull, Howe, Gretzky and Messier. "We've got the champagne on ice," Murphy says on the phone.
A few men cherish the memory of what happened to their lives when the hockey world split in two. Joe Daley, the maskless Winnipeg goalie from the league's start to its finish, tells of a "true brotherhood" of teammates who cared for each other and their city, and still do. Sitting in a doughnut shop in Kenora, Ont., the town where those infant Jets once trained, we scroll down the roster of the '72 team and see Danny Johnson, dead of Lou Gehrig's disease; Bob Woytowich, dead of a heart attack at the wheel of his car; Norm Beaudin, struggling in Florida to meet the medical bills for his bedridden daughter, Carrie, who was once married to Hull's son Blake.
It was long ago, in a fairy tale. The WHA's pioneers, opportunists, puck chasers and playboys opened the portal to everything that has come to characterize hockey: the international cavalcade of stars, the carpetbagging franchises, the power of the players' union, the ascent of U.S. hockey.
One man's signature, a quarter of a century ago, made it happen.
"Only one guy ever thanked me," the pathfinder says, shaking his phony hair. "In 1972 I was out in Vancouver to do a department-store commercial with Arte Johnson from Laugh-In. The Bruins were in town. Wayne Cashman came up, all misty-eyed, and he started going, 'Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I got my salary tripled thanks to you.'
"He was the only one who ever thanked me," says the Golden Jet. "The only one."