By Timothy Gassen & Mikael Uhlin
Including “world” in the World Hockey Association’s name was always more than just an attention getter. The league’s interest in tapping a world market was discussed as soon as the WHA launched in 1972 – and a European division was a long-term goal for the WHA.
But keeping enough major league franchises alive in the U.S. and Canada would consume the WHA for all seven years of existence, so those “world” goals were instead manifested in more immediately feasible ways: playing games against top European and Eastern-block teams at home and abroad, and importing for the first time European talent for major league teams in North America.
The first major international enterprise for the WHA was the 1974 re-match between Canada and the USSR national team. The NHL wouldn’t allow their players to mix with the WHA talent, so Team Canada for the 1974 series was made up exclusively of WHA players. The most notable inclusion was Bobby Hull, who was left off the 1972 Canada squad solely because he had dared to sign with the WHA. Gordie Howe also had his shot at the Russians – he had been retired from the NHL when the 1972 series was played.
The 1974 series began as a huge public relations boost for the WHA, as they played to an even record with the USSR in the Canadian portion of the games. The move to Moscow for the remainder of the games, though, was disastrous, and the publicity turned sour. The shoddy treatment of the WHA Team Canada in Russia, both on and off the ice, was well documented. As one WHA player told the WHA Hall of Fame, “We could have scored 100 goals in Moscow and somehow they would have figured out how to make us lose the series.”
The WHA was undaunted by this first international exercise, and indeed increased its desire to compete with the Russians and other Europeans.
The Winnipeg Jets then began to mine European talent to stock their own roster. In 1974 Swedish stars Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson invaded the WHA, and teamed with Bobby Hull became the Jets’ “Hotline” – one of the most feared forward lines in major league hockey history. The Jets added more Swedes and Finns, and it would take three decades before an NHL team could match the number of Europeans on their roster.
As other WHA teams began to sign Czechs, Swedes and Finns, the WHA encouraged them to hold pre-season training camps and exhibitions games in Europe. In September 1975 the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Toros held their pre-season camps in Scandinavia. It was the first time that major league hockey teams played outside of North America during the preseason. The Jets and Toros played games in Sweden and Finland, and the Jets also visited Czechoslovakia.
The Toronto Toros' pre-season camp was held September 6 – 26, 1975 in Örnsköldsvik, hometown of the Modo hockey team. The team stayed at the Brux Hotel near the paper mill that once gave Modo its name, and practiced for 90 minutes a day at Kempehallen. Then they travelled to nearby towns in northern Sweden and Finland to play against the top league teams in the area.
When the Toros travelled to Finland during the weekend of September 12-14, 1975, Czechoslovakians Vaclav Nedomansky and Richard Farda stayed in Örnsköldsvik and practiced with Modo. Nedomansky and Farda had recently defected from communist Czechoslovakia to play for the Toros in Canada, and they were not certain if the Finns would extradite them back to Czechoslovakia.
The Winnipeg Jets trained in Finland, and also played in southern Sweden and Czechoslovakia on their way home. The Jets played better in Europe than the Toros, beating the Swedish National team 6-2 despite the Swedish doubts as to whether Anders Hedberg (who played in Modo 1967-72) and his new friends would be competitive. Hedberg, of course, grew to become a star in the WHA (286 games with the Winnipeg Jets 1974-78) and in the NHL (465 games with the New York Rangers 1978-85).
The 1976-77-season saw WHA Phoenix Roadrunners tour Finland in September 1976, while the Winnipeg Jets participated in the Izvestia Tournament in Moscow in December the same year. Simultaneously and well into January 1977, Czechoslovakian champions Poldi Kladno and the Soviet National team started the tradition of European top teams touring North America to play against WHA teams.
Most of the pre-season 1976-77 was spent in preparation for the first Canada Cup (Where both NHL and WHA players participated), but the Phoenix Roadrunners, with Finns Lauri Mononen, Seppo Repo, Juhani Tamminen and Pekka Rautakallio on the roster, played a few games in Finland in September.
Starting in 1976, the reigning WHA AVCO Cup Champions were also invited to the prestigious Izvestia Tournament, so the Winnipeg Jets went to Moscow in December 1976 to face the national teams of the Soviets, Czechoslovakia, Finland and Sweden.
Meanwhile, the reigning Czechoslovakian champions Poldi Kladno played several WHA teams in their first North American tour. During the tour Poldi was reinforced with national team level players like goaltender Vladimir Dzurilla and forwards Miroslav Pouzar and Stastny brothers Marian and Peter.
The Soviet National Team also played against WHA teams on a similar tour. This started a short but intensive tradition of various top European teams touring the WHA. In the 1977-1978 season some of these games were even counted in the WHA league standings – another first for a North American major hockey league – which of course made the games even more important. (To date the WHA is the only North American major hockey league to ever have games against European teams count in their league standings.)
September 11, 1977 was an important day in the hockey history of Modo and Örnsköldsvik because superstar Anders Hedberg was back in town with his new team the Winnipeg Jets, at the time one of the best major league teams in the world. The WHA Jets had visited Sweden in September 1975 as well but this time around they mostly played their games in northern Sweden. They also participated in the Volkswagen Cup in the Stockholm area (with one game played in Finland).
Before and on the New Year 1978 the Jets also played three games in Tokyo, Japan at the Yoyogi Arena against the Soviets. (You can see highlights from this Japanese series in our WHA Hall of Fame DVD series.)
With games against the mighty USSR being played in Japan there was no doubt that the WHA Jets were living up to their 1977-1978 team slogan: “Playing Hockey The World Over.” After the stay in Japan, the Soviets travelled east to play six games against WHA-teams in North America. The WHA highlight was the Jets’ 5-3 victory over the USSR in Winnipeg only a few weeks after their games in Japan.
The WHA Cincinnati Stingers also played in Finland and participated in the Rude Pravo Cup in Czechoslovakia, while the reigning WHA champion Quebec Nordiques played in the 1977 Izvestia Tournament in Moscow. Cincinnati coach Jacques Demers later said it was a waste of time going, since it deprived the Stingers from having an actual pre-season training camp. After leaving Prague the WHA Stingers played three games in Finland and Demers said those games were more useful.
Several European teams visited North America during the 1977-1978 season – both the Soviet National Team and Soviet All-Stars played in WHA cities. Additionally, teams from Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Finland also toured the WHA. (Footage from the 1978 Finland-Houston Aeros game is also featured in our WHA Hall of Fame DVD series.)
In December 1977, Czechoslovakia sent a team to play eight games against WHA teams in North America. Despite star players such as Frantisek Cernik, Pavel Richter and goalie Vladimir Dzurilla, the Czechs won only one game, tied one, and lost six. The Soviet All-Stars, (which was either a developmental national team or an augmented CSKA Moscow), also played eight games – three wins, four losses, one tie – which went into the league standings. They also won two additional exhibition games against Indianapolis and Houston.
In March 1978 Sweden and Finland sent their developmental teams to tour the WHA. The Sisu Team (the Finnish development team) included Henry Saleva, who played in Modo 1983-84. Saleva gained respect during the North American tour with his seven goals and three assists. The Sisu Team played five games and won three while the Swedish development team Vikingarna (The Vikings) played four games and lost three. The team included former Modo player Anders Kallur (who had participated in the 1976 Izvestia Tournament).
1978-79 was the last season before the WHA merged with the NHL, and the international games continued like the previous years with the top European nations sending various selects to tour in North America. In December 1978 and January 1979 the Swedish and Czechoslovakian development national teams toured the WHA, as did the Soviet All-Stars and Moscow Dynamo. The Finnish development team followed suit in March.
The WHA Edmonton Oilers headed the international efforts this season – they went to Scandinavia in September and played most of the European selects on their Canada home ice later in the season. Edmonton also hosted the three-game 1979 WHA All-Star event, which saw the WHA stars facing the touring Moscow Dynamo. The series is best remembered for Gordie Howe and rookie Wayne Gretzky skating together on the same line for the WHA All-Stars.
The ongoing 1978 merger talks with the NHL were not fully supported by all the WHA teams and players, especially those left out of the merger talks. If the merger with the NHL failed, the WHA was discussing the idea of finally creating their European Division for the 1979-80 season. The idea was a six-team North American WHA and a six-team European WHA. Stockholm was mentioned as a potential WHA European city, as were cities in Finland, West Germany and France.
The merger with the NHL did happen in the spring of 1979, and the idea of a fully-realized World Hockey Association was laid to rest. But we see the WHA’s contributions to the evolution of the major league hockey each day we now see a talented Swede, Russian or Finn take the ice in North America.