There is a theory abroad that North America has an insatiable appetite for anything called major league ice hockey. The events of last week, during which the National Hockey League stocked its two newest expansion teams with the usual castoffs while awarding two more franchises for 1974, and the fledgling World Hockey Association culled the majors, minors and countries overseas for anyone not patently 4-F, made it clear that that theory will be tested sharply, and soon.
The NHL governors conferred 42 marginal players upon their newest lodge brothers, the Atlanta Flames and the New York Islanders, and it took statisticians nothing flat to show that Boston's Phil Esposito scored as many goals last season (66) as all the new Islanders combined, 13 more than all the Flames. Then the governors paused to play a game of political puck with 10 applications for the franchises in a 1974-75 expansion before settling finally on Kansas City and, with a bow to Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R., Pa.), Washington, D.C.
Most of their private talks, though, centered anxiously on that star of stars, 33-year-old Bobby Hull (see cover), and on the WHA. Four months ago WHA might have meant Waukegan Harmonica Association for all they cared. But by last weekend the new league had signed 69 players, including 22 who performed in the NHL last season, and it is just about certain the WHA will start play as promised this October. And Hull may be with 'em.
Ben Hatskins, said to be the jukebox king of Canada, has offered Hull $2 million to sign a five-year contract as the player-coach of his Winnipeg Jets in the WHA. When and if Hatskins deposits a $1 million advance in Hull's bank account, the Golden Jet will indeed be the Golden Jet.
"I've made a verbal deal with Winnipeg and the WHA," Hull said last weekend. "If they make good on it, I'm gone. They will have themselves a hockey player. I would be a fool not to take advantage of an offer like this. But the money will have to be in the bank before I put my signature on the dotted line."
Hull's jump from Chicago to Winnipeg apparently hinges on the willingness of the 10 other WHA teams to contribute $100,000 apiece to a Get Hull fund reminiscent of the ABA kitty assembled in 1969 for Lew Alcindor—unsuccessfully. Hatskins would provide the other $1 million. Although all the WHA owners reportedly agreed to such an arrangement several weeks ago, some were said to be wavering, weighing Hull's prestige and gate appeal against the player strength available for $100,000.
If Hatskins and the WHA fail to produce the money soon, Hull probably will sign another contract with the Black Hawks for not much more than the reported $150,000 a year they have been paying him. There also is a possibility that Chicago will trade Hull to Jack Kent Cooke's Los Angeles Kings. Cooke desperately needs a man of Hull's caliber to create hockey interest in Los Angeles, one of the few NHL cities that doesn't draw very well, and he supposedly is willing to pay Hull as much as it will take to keep him happy in the NHL and away from the WHA.
Hull and the Black Hawks have not been on friendly terms the last three years. Hull believes he was humiliated in 1969 when the Hawks scheduled one of the few downtown press conferences in their history and forced him to apologize publicly for an extended holdout. "I can never forget what they did to me then," he has said.
The Hawks also required Hull to play a more controlled style of hockey, no longer permitting him to freewheel in the way that once enchanted his admirers. There is no doubt that he longs for the old days, although he does admit "this new style will lengthen my career by three or four years."
Hull's next move will either start a legal war between the NHL and the WHA over the reserve clause in Hull's contract with the Black Hawks, or it will enable the NHL to relax again until, say, someone like the young hotshot Gilbert Perreault, who prefers his native Quebec to Buffalo, jumps leagues.