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WHEN Hell FROZE OVER
Allen Abel
April 06, 1998
Twenty-five years after the renegade World Hockey Association first dropped the puck, players who jumped leagues for big bucks look back and laugh—or cry
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April 06, 1998

When Hell Froze Over

Twenty-five years after the renegade World Hockey Association first dropped the puck, players who jumped leagues for big bucks look back and laugh—or cry

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Apollo astronauts were riding buggies on the moon, and George McGovern was winning Massachusetts. Hull convened a clandestine meeting of his former Blackhawks comrades and begged them to join him in the outlaw league. Only a few dared to. In Winnipeg the Golden Jet made numerous public appearances on behalf of the corpulent Hatskin and his bare-bones enterprise. "I had some great experiences," Hull says. "Not that I needed to build character."

The Jets would endure for all seven WHA seasons—six of them with Hull aboard—and would be one of four franchises in the association (out of the 32 that existed at one time or another) to be accepted into the NHL in 1979, after everyone on both sides had been bled as dry as a kosher chicken. In the interim the Jets would win the AVCO World Trophy three times, would import several of the most creative and fluid Swedish and Finnish athletes ever to play the sport, and would turn barren Winnipeg, with its 11-month winters, into a major league city (for a time). Hull would score 77 goals in one memorable season, 1974-75; one of his sons would marry his linemate's daughter; the Jets would be the only WHA team to defeat the Soviet nationals; Hull's rug would be ripped off in a fracas during a game against the Birmingham Bulls in 1978; and his marriage would end in one of the most raucous and profane dissolutions in the annals of Canadian law. Joanne Hull would take the children with her. Bobby wouldn't be close to Brett for more than seven years.

"Do you ever regret going to the WHA?" the eternal youth is asked at 3 a.m. in St. Louis, after the golf balls finally come down to earth.

"My only regret is that I lost my family," he says. "Of course, I should have lost my wife a long time before."

AUDREY'S RESTAURANT, SEEKONK, MASS.

White-haired, limping on artificial hips, desperate for a cigarette in a nonsmoking universe, Derek Sanderson, once hockey's Hugh Hefner, yawns as he enters the breakfast room at 7:15 a.m. on June 29, 1997. He is embraced by John (Pie) McKenzie, another original WHA jumper. McKenzie, a Bruins hero from Boston's Stanley Cup years of the early '70s, is smaller and less ornery than memory held him: beaming and wrinkled, a BMW salesman from the suburbs south of the Hub. "Look at us," Sanderson says proudly. "Both sober!"

They are on the outskirts of Providence for a charity tournament in a dotage of endless golf. McKenzie played seven seasons for five WHA teams, or maybe six; they folded so fast, he can't remember. Sanderson, signed by the Philadelphia Blazers (formerly the Miami Screaming Eagles, though they never touched the ice in Florida), lasted seven games (he says) or eight (quoth the WHA record book) before a more divine Providence brought him back, begging, to the Bruins.

"We were in Sherbrooke, Quebec, for an exhibition," Sanderson recalls of his ephemeral career as a Blazer. "There were 58 people in the stands, and 45 of them were on free tickets from one of our players, Claude St. Sauveur, who came from there. Bernie Parent, our goalie, looks around and says, 'What are they? Politely late?' Then he disappears back into the dressing room.

"Pie's the coach," Sanderson continues. "I'm the captain. Pie calls me over and says, 'Go in the dressing room and get Bernie! The game's gonna start!' So I go in there, and Bernie is taking his equipment off. He says, 'I don't risk my life for no people.' He talked me out of it, too! I didn't play either."

Blazers management couldn't demote Sanderson for being AWOL—his contract gave him the right to veto any Philadelphia player's relegation to the minors (including his own). It also permitted him to skip all road games that he couldn't get to by train (he was a nervous flier), to be team captain forever, to be on the ice for all Blazers power plays and to earn $2.65 million, which was exactly and deliberately $50,000 more than the soccer god Pelé was pulling clown from Santos of Brazil.

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