Montreal, non. Indianapolis, oui. Left at the altar by the NHL, the World Hockey Association starts its sixth season with a Dear John letter, eight teams and Gilles Marotte. For six months the WHA owners promised ticket buyers that merger with the NHL was as certain as snow in Edmonton, that Guy Lafleur of Les Canadiens and Bobby Clarke of the Philadelphia Flyers would be coming to town this season. Then came the bad news: no merger.
So, in quick order, the WHA resurrected the Birmingham and Indianapolis franchises, rescued Edmonton from limbo by promising the Oilers the pick of the player litter from the defunct Calgary, Phoenix and San Diego clubs—and launched what may well be a hopeless struggle for financial survival. In the past 12 months four WHA teams have folded, and the league has lost some $10 million.
Worse, the WHA now has a severe identity crisis. New President Howard Baldwin, the Managing General Partner of the New England Whalers, promised major raids on the NHL's talent pool, but so far the only recognizable names among the jumpers are Garry Inness, who was Philadelphia's third-string goaltender, and the 32-year-old Marotte, a defenseman who last season flunked trials with the New York Rangers and the St. Louis Blues and spent most of his time screening goaltenders in the minor Central League. And the WHA signed only one NHL first-round pick, Houston outbidding St. Louis for Defenseman Scott Campbell at a time when the Blues were on the verge of bankruptcy.
The QUEBEC Nordiques, who won the Avco Cup championship last season by defeating the Winnipeg Jets four games to three, again seem to be the WHA's best team. Scoring champion Real Cloutier (66 goals, 75 assists) rejected overtures from the NHL to remain with the Nordiques, and he combines with Winger Marc Tardif (49 goals, 60 assists) for a potent attack. Coach Marc Boileau has more than enough hatchet men to keep the goons away from Cloutier and Tardif, and the Nordiques' only glaring weakness of recent seasons—lack of a dependable goaltender—seems to have been corrected by the addition of Smokey McLeod from the late Calgary Cowboys.
Stockholm West, a.k.a. the WINNIPEG Jets, returns practically intact, meaning that the Avco final probably will be another Quebec- Winnipeg matchup. Swede Anders Hedberg scored a pro-record 51 goals in his first 49 games last season and finished with 70. Hedberg and Center Ulf Nilsson (85 assists) have made hockey life so easy for linemate Bobby Hull that Hull has forgotten he is 38 years old and starting his 21st pro season. Other key Swedes include Right Wings Willy Lindstrom (44 goals) and Dan Labraaten, Defensemen Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Thommie Bergman and rookie Center Kent Nilsson.
New England and Cincinnati are the WHA's two U.S. teams most likely to join the NHL when a merger does occur. The Whalers have added the family Howe—Mom Colleen, Dad Gordie, Sons Mark and Marty—along with Goaltenders AJ Smith and Louie Levasseur. Cincinnati had the best group of forwards in the league last season, and now the Stingers have added Boston-born Robbie Ftorek, who was MVP last year when he scored 117 points for the late Phoenix Roadrunners, to the likes of Rick Dudley (41 goals), Dennis Sobchuck (44), Richie Leduc (52) and gunner Blaine Stoughton (52).
Houston may not miss Colleen, but it will miss the other Howes and also Goaltender Ron Grahame, who defected to the Boston Bruins. EDMONTON spent big bucks to keep Defenseman Paul Shmyr, obtained from San Diego, away from the NHL's Cleveland Barons and also signed more than a dozen other players left unemployed when their WHA teams collapsed. Trouble is, even Coach Glen Sather will need a scorecard to remember all the new names. BIRMINGHAM signed University of New Hampshire Defenseman Rod Langway, a Montreal draft pick, and underage Junior Center Ken Linesman from Kingston, Ontario. But the Bulls will still depend on 20-year-old Mark Napier, who had 60 goals last season, and Goaltender John Garrett. INDIANAPOLIS is reject city, saddled with all the players that none of the other teams wanted.
Will the WHA survive? "It looks bad," says Quebec's Tardif. "It looks good," says Baldwin.