Wood claims the Raiders and the WHA offer the paying spectators a more exciting game than the NHL right now. "I've talked to the ushers and the fans at the Garden," Wood says, "and they all tell me it is nice to see close games once again. Now I'm not saying that our brand of hockey is comparable to the NHL's at this time, but at least all our teams are pretty evenly matched."
Actually, there has been very little difference in the closeness of competition in both leagues this year. In the WHA 65% of the games have been decided by two goals or fewer, 80% by three goals or fewer and the average winning margin has been 2.3 goals. On the whole, WHA teams have produced an average of 6.89 goals a game. In the NHL, 55% of the games have been decided by two goals or fewer and the average winning margin has been 2.6 goals, with an average production of 6.63 goals a game.
The major difference in relative excitement concerns tie games, and here the WHA gets five stars. There have been 33 tie games in the NHL this year but only six in the WHA, thanks to the new league's decision to play a 10-minute, sudden-death overtime period in an attempt to eliminate deadlocks. Of the 24 regulation-game ties played so far in the WHA, 18 have been decided in overtime. In the old days the NHL argued that overtime periods would prevent teams from making train connections; now, in the age of the jet, that argument is no longer valid.
While the WHA's on-ice statistics rival the NHL's, the attendance figures do not. Last year the 14 NHL teams played to 90.8% of capacity. That percentage probably will drop a point or two this season because of the unhealthy franchise situation in Oakland and a surprising lack of response to the New York Islanders, who have been drawing some 4,000 fewer fans a game than had been expected.
The WHA's 12 teams have been playing to 48.7% of capacity, with an average crowd of 5,092. The New England Whalers (7,768) and the Quebec Nordiques (7,099) are easily the soundest and most successful operations, while the Raiders, with an average crowd of only 28.3% of capacity, and the Ottawa Nationals, only 24.8%, have not made enough money to cover their bills. (In Winnipeg, Hull, the WHA's No. 1 attraction, is playing to 50% of capacity in an 11,300-seat building.)
The dollar problems, however, have been of relatively small concern to the WHA players. "Our paychecks have not bounced," Ron Ward says, "and we still travel by jet and stay in the best hotels. Everything will work out."
For Ward, the WHA admittedly represents his last chance to play in any league with a major-league label. The WHA's rosters are a conglomerate of college graduates, minor-league retreads, NHL bench warmers and NHL stars, and Ward fits two categories: retread and bench warmer. "My problem," he says, "is that I've never been a good skater." Indeed, Ward sort of steers himself around the ice, using his stick as a balance wheel. "I'm not very graceful," he says, "but I get there."
Ward was the property of the Toronto Maple Leafs when he turned professional in 1965, but he played only 18 games for them in the next four years, spending most of his time in road stops such as Phoenix, Tulsa and Rochester. "I always thought I could help the Leafs in certain areas if they ever gave me the chance," he says. "I need a couple of good wingers—one to back-check, one to dig the puck from the corners—then I'm all set. In Toronto I never got them." The Vancouver Canucks drafted Ward in the NHL's 1970 expansion, but they soon dispatched him to Rochester. "That was the low point," he says. "They didn't think I could help them." After a strong finish at Rochester, though, Ward was brought back to Vancouver last season. "I figured they were going to give me my shot at last, but all I did was kill penalties and take the odd shift when a game was hopelessly lost."
When the WHA phoned Ward last January, he indicated immediately that he was willing to jump leagues. "The Raiders made me a generous offer," he says. "As a matter of courtesy, I told the Vancouver people what it was. Now you would think the Canucks would try to persuade you to stay. Hah! Bud Poile, the general manager, told me I probably would not even make the club. So I was gone. You know, if Poile had said I had a chance to be their third center this year, I most likely would have stayed. But he told me I was no good."
The day after Ward's meeting with Poile, Vancouver Coach Hal Laycoe did try to persuade him to stay in the NHL. "What did they offer you?" he asked Ward. "Maybe we can match it." Ward looked at Laycoe. "No, Hal, you can't. The Raiders offered me a chance to play hockey."