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Reyn Davis
May 28, 1979
That could well be the epitaph for the late World Hockey Association, which for seven years was always one step from bankruptcy
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May 28, 1979

A Nowhere Ride

That could well be the epitaph for the late World Hockey Association, which for seven years was always one step from bankruptcy

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One warm night in June of 1972, Ben Hatskin was walking back to his room in a Denver motel after having spent the day deep in meetings with Gary Davidson, Dennis Murphy and the other founding figures of the World Hockey Association. Suddenly, Hatskin heard two familiar voices shouting back and forth, and he grinned and shook his head. If Bobby Hull and his wife, Joanne, wanted to argue, Hatskin thought, let them argue. But as Hatskin opened his door, he heard a remark he has never forgotten.

Joanne Hull was screaming at her husband: "Why would you ever want to live in Winnipeg and play for that fat Jew?"

If Hatskin's hide had been thinner, he might have checked out of the motel that night and caught the next flight back home to Winnipeg. But Hatskin, a tough-minded businessman who had made millions in the jukebox trade, stayed in Denver, and the next day he and Bobby Hull shook hands on a $3 million deal that put the hockey world in turmoil—and kept it there until last Sunday night, when the WHA packed it in for good.

By signing Hull, who at the time was the No. 1 box-office attraction of the Chicago Black Hawks, the WHA robbed the haughty National Hockey League of one of its greatest properties and also served notice that the fledgling league wasn't just someone's pipe dream. Indeed, once Hull signed a five-year contract to play for Hatskin's Winnipeg Jets, hockey's checkbook war broke out on all fronts. NHL players either signed new contracts with their old teams for megabucks or jumped to WHA teams for megabucks.

"Everybody got rich," says Hatskin, "except the owners."

The WHA functioned for seven hilariously funny, terribly transient, admirably competitive and regrettably expensive years, and in one small way it will live again next season when New England, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebec—the four hearty survivors of the 32 teams that at one time or another belonged to the "other" league—join the NHL. But when Winnipeg—without Hatskin, who has retired to Palm Springs, Calif., and without Hull, who retired to his Elm Creek, Manitoba farm last fall when his marriage broke up—beat Edmonton 7-3 Sunday in Game 6 and won the last Avco Cup, the WHA officially closed its books.

So let's pause for a moment of silence for the defunct franchises: the New York Raiders, the New York Golden Blades, the New Jersey Knights, the San Diego Mariners, the Houston Aeros, the Philadelphia Blazers, the Vancouver Blazers, the Alberta Oilers, the Calgary Cowboys, the Minnesota Fighting Saints, the Chicago Cougars, the Denver Spurs, the Ottawa Civics, the Ottawa Nationals, the Toronto Toros, the Los Angeles Sharks, the Michigan Stags, the Baltimore Blades, the Cleveland Crusaders, the Minnesota New Fighting Saints, the Phoenix Roadrunners, the Cincinnati Stingers, the Birmingham Bulls, the Indianapolis Racers—plus the Calgary Broncos and the Miami Screaming Eagles, who never got on the ice, and San Francisco and Dayton, which were not around long enough even to get nicknames.

All told, the owners of those 32 teams lost an estimated $50 million, while the 803 players who performed in the WHA earned some $120 million, of which about $12 million passed to the lawyers, accountants, fathers, wives and friends who negotiated their contracts. "But the guy who made the most money off the WHA had to be Alan Eagleson," says Dennis Murphy. "He was the president of the NHL's players' association, and he kept saying that we'd never get off the ground or that we were going to fold. He also represented a lot of players, though, and he kept signing his players to WHA contracts."

The one player who made the easiest money in the WHA was Derek Sanderson. Lured from the Boston Bruins by a $2.7 million contract with the Philadelphia Blazers, Sanderson played just six games for Philly before he became persona non grata because of his frequent disappearances. The Blazers settled Sanderson's contract with an outright payment of $1 million, and Derek Rolls-Royced back to Boston.

The WHA was a league on the lam, hopping from city to city, wearing out welcomes and breaking hearts. One team had four names—New York Raiders, New York Golden Blades, New Jersey Knights and San Diego Mariners. Norm Ferguson was the captain and player representative of all four clubs. "I remember the day I signed with the Raiders," Ferguson says. "It was April Fools' Day of 1972."

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