As the hockey season opens with Bobby Orr limping in Boston, Bobby Hull skating in Winnipeg, Derek Sanderson spouting off in Philadelphia, Rocket Richard coaching in Quebec City and a dozen lawsuits simmering in the courts, let's all pause in a moment of silence for the National Hockey League. No league has ever lost so much in so little time. Indeed, although the world still breathlessly awaits such opening matchups this weekend as the one between the Atlanta Flames and the New York Islanders—latest creatures of rash expansion—it has already been a long, painful and expensive year for the Establishment.
There was the distressing Russian affair, of course, thrilling though the games themselves were. And then there was the World Hockey Association. It seems only yesterday that the NHL owners were snickering at these puny interlopers. But then the WHA's midnight raiders went to war with their checkbooks, and at last count the 12 WHA teams had pirated more than 50 players who performed in the NHL last season. In doing so they ripped deepest into the Stanley Cup champions, the Boston Bruins, and for that small favor the rival New York Rangers are deeply grateful.
True, the WHA has lured some NHL players and signed some college kids who could not have laced the Rocket's boots, but—apart from Orr—how many NHL players can match Bobby Hull as an electric performer on the ice or Derek Sanderson as a gate attraction off it? Not even Phil Esposito believes people pay money just to see him score a goal every night.
Hull provided the new league with its first touch of professional respectability and also ignited a profitable dollar war for all hockey players when he signed his huge contract to be player-coach at Winnipeg the next five years. "Getting Hull was our coup," says Gary Davidson, the WHA's president. "Once Bobby signed, we figured that a lot of big-name players would follow him pretty quickly." And so they did—Boston Goalie Gerry Cheevers to Cleveland, Montreal Defenseman J. C. Tremblay to Quebec City, Toronto Goalie Bernie Parent and Boston Wing Johnny McKenzie to Philadelphia. All signed long-term, six-figure contracts for more than double the sums they made last year in the NHL. Then Sanderson stunned the Bruins when he signed a 10-year contract with Philadelphia for a reported $2.3 million. "They used to call me flaky in the NHL," Sanderson says, "but now that I'm a millionaire they'll be calling me an eccentric."
The NHL owners at first refused to become involved in the kind of skirmishing that has made pro basketball players so wealthy. "Why be silly?" said Weston W. Adams Jr., president of the Bruins. "We simply got together and agreed not to compete dollarwise for any players." The NHL teams, however, did offer sizable wage hikes. "If a player told me the WHA offered him a $25,000 raise to jump, I offered maybe $7,500 above his normal increase and told him to take it or leave it," says Wren Blair, general manager of the Minnesota North Stars. "We lost maybe only one player we really wanted to keep, but now our per-man payroll is higher than the Minnesota Vikings'."
One day last June the NHL rejected an application by Cleveland's Nick Mileti for a franchise in the 1974 expansion. Instead, they gave one to a Kansas City group that included the son of Ranger President William M. Jennings. Mileti was miffed. Within a few weeks he had himself a WHA franchise for $250,000—at least $5.7 million less than it would have cost him for an NHL expansion team in 1974.
Mileti promptly set out to destroy the Rangers. He offered Brad Park, Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield long-term contracts for more than $300,000 a year. Time-out, said Ranger Coach Emile Francis, and he scurried off to huddle with Jennings and the rest of Madison Square Garden's upper echelon. After days of indecision the word finally came down: pay the players. So Francis signed Park for $250,000 a year, making him the highest-paid player in the NHL, although by no means the best, and then he also enriched Gilbert, Hadfield and Jean Ratelle. Naturally all the other Rangers soon learned about the bonanza, and they began to buzz Francis' office with long-distance phone calls. Collect. "Yes," Francis told them, "we'll renegotiate." As a result the Rangers' 20-man payroll will be over $1.5 million—more than double last season's. The Garden moved to raise some ticket prices, sold out the building for every game—and asked New York City for tax relief.
"The Rangers could not win the Stanley Cup on the ice, so they bought it," raged one NHL owner. "It was the first and last time we'll ever trust them. They lost only one player to the WHA and the rest of us got murdered."
The Rangers aside, what concerns the NHL owners most is the apparent staying power of enough WHA franchises to make the new league a viable operation in its first season. The immediate fate of the WHA undoubtedly rests with the courts. The NHL insists that the standard player contracts with their one-year reserve clauses are legally valid, while the WHA claims they are immoral and illegal. The WHA won the first big face-off last week when a Boston federal judge ruled that the Bruins could not detach Sanderson et al. from their WHA teams.
Obviously, the addition of a new league with 240 players and the expansion of the old one from 14 to 16 teams means that the real losers will be the fans who know major league hockey—and now will be paying up to $9.50 a seat to watch a heavily watered product.