Major league hockey, since 1968, has experienced attendance acceleration amounting to 113 per cent - more than any other major league sport.
In the past eight years, the number of major league teams in hockey has skyrocketed from six to an incredible 32. Canada, the world's premier producer of hockey livestock, serves as home for eight of them.
Most startling in this unprecedented growth of a single sport, to be sure, has been the emergence of the World Hockey Association. In a mere two winters, the league that “couldn't happen” has clearly established itself as an integral element in the world's hockey structure.
First it was Robert Marvin Hull.
Then came the incredible unretiring of Gordie Howe and the meteoric rise of his two sons, Marty and Mark.
And as the league enters Year III of its phenomenal journey into sports history, the newest magic name is William Francis (Frank) Mahovlich.
He joins six Swedish, two Czechoslovakian, and two Finnish imports, and the seizure of no fewer than 15 of the top graduating juniors in Canada.
“The magnitude of our growth over a mere two years is unchallenged in sports history,” said President Dennis A. Murphy of the league he, in concert with Edmonton's Bill Hunter and Winnipeg's Ben Hatskin, launched in the face of incredible odds in June of 1971. “We are no longer regarded as the other league, but rather an integral part of the world's hockey structure.”
“While our procurement of players of major league stature represented expectations, our greatest gain as we enter this third season was in the category of graduating juniors and the caliber thereof.”
“Franchise holders like Jimmy Pattison in Vancouver, Nick Mileti in Cleveland, Bert Getz in Phoenix, Bill DeWitt in Cincinnati, Jordon Kaiser in Chicago, Irv Kaplan in Houston, Bob Schmertz and Howard Baldwin in New England, Charles Nolton in Detroit, Richard Tinkham in Indianapolis and Wayne Belisle in Minnesota have hastened that day when it will be the WHA that has the abundance of super stars.”
The elite harvested from last season's amateur crop included the likes of Pat Price and Ron Chipperfield by Vancouver, Dennis Sobchuk, Jacques Locas, John Hughes and Dick Spannbauer by Cincinnati, Gary McGregor by Chicago, Cam Connor, Dave Gorman and Dennis Olmstead by Phoenix, Bill Reed, Bill Evo and Barry Legge by Michigan, Paul Baxter by Cleveland, Real Cloutier by Quebec, Kevin Devine by San Diego, Terry Ruskowski and Don Larway by Houston and Craig Hanmer by Indianapolis.
An examination of outstanding WHA rookies a season ago - like the Howe boys and Jim Sherritt (Houston), Wayne Dillon and Pat Hickey (Toronto), Frankie Rochon (Chicago), Tom Edur (Cleveland), Kevin Morrison (San Diego), Claude St. Sauveur (Vancouver), Michel Deguise and Richard Brodeur (Quebec) and John Garrett, Gord Gallant and Murray Heatley (Minnesota) - and it's readily apparent that the WHA, indeed, does have livestock of future super star quality.
“Our need for the established player has lessened considerably,” says Murphy. “We're starting to produce new stars for new fans. The future strength of this league is in its youth and the tapping of the vast European market.”
Exploration of that overseas reservoir, to be sure, has already commenced with New England's signing of the Abrahamsson twins, Thommy and Christer, while Winnipeg lured four Swedes - Curt Larsson, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Lars-Erik Sjoberg and two Finns Veli-Pekka Ketola and Heikki Riihiranta.
But it remained for Toronto's John Bassett, Jr. to generate international headlines with his capture of Czechoslovakian super star Vaclav Nedomansky and his teammate Richard Farda.
Nedomansky, 30, in known in Europe as “Big Ned,” but doubtless will become “The Big N” of the Toros where he'll fit nicely with the “Big M” (Mahovlich).
Murphy, a virtuoso in sports organization, was the WHA's first visionary. While hockey scientists the world over prophesied disaster, the Californian who earlier had fashioned the master plan for the establishment of the American Basketball Association approached his task with evangelistic fervor - preaching the gospel of a new league to men of uncommon means in two countries.
Elimination of the reserve and/or option clause in contracts, which freed athletes from lifelong bondage to a single team, irrefutably represented the single most important act in the league's formation.
The momentous decision, rendered Nov. 8, 1972, by U.S. District Court Judge A. Leon Higginbotham in Philadelphia, freed Robert Marvin Hull and other distinguished major leaguers to function in the league of their choice.
Until then, of course, it was the Hull signing itself, on June 27m 1972, that skyrocketed the WHA into sports page prominence.
Hatskin, chairman of the league's board of trustees and an instrumental force in bringing about the historic WHA series with the Soviet Union, engineered the phenomenal coup with a $2.75 million contract for hockey's greatest left winger. The Golden Jet was now a Winnipeg Jet.
“Certainly that was the play that altered our early image,” reflected Murphy. “The skeptics developed nervous disorders when Bobby came aboard.”
The Hull acquisition, aside from the image impact, also touched off an avalanche of fresh signings, 28 with a period of a week. They included the likes of Gerry Cheevers with Cleveland, Ted Green with New England and Bobby Sheehan, now on the roster of the Edmonton Oilers.
With the signings came a number of nuisance litigations, none of which had any significant bearing on curtaining the league's growth.
Then there was the WHA's $50 million anti-trust damage suit against the 57-year-old National League. It, to be sure, was not to be confused with nuisance.
It climaxed February 19, 1974, in an out of court settlement, 32 months from when the league filed articles of incorporation in June of 1971, with the NHL picking up the tab for WHA legal costs in the amount of $1.75 million. More importantly, the settlement represented recognition of the WHA by the NHL, with both leagues agreeing to a series of exhibition games honoring each other's contracts, etc.
“This a major step to the co-existence of the two leagues,” said Murphy, a graduate of the University of Southern California, who had taken over the presidency two months prior following the abdication of Gary Davidson. The latter had collaborated with Murphy, Hunter and Hatskin in the WHA's birth plans.
“It had been our position from the beginning that we can co-exist with the NHL, and that both leagues can retain their individuality,” added Murphy. “Elimination of what was a perpetual reserve clause without having to go to trial represents total victory over what we started.”
By now, of course, the WHA's sovereignty was no longer a matter of conjecture.
The incomparable Gordie Howe, along with his two sons, Mark and Marty, had joined the ranks of the Houston Aeros to mark the first time in history of any major league sport that a father had played alongside of two sons.
“Howe's signing alone was a coup rivaling that of the Hull signing,” reflected Edmonton's Hunter. “But for his two boys to join him, two future super stars, today stands as the most monumental event in the history of hockey. The chances of it happening again are a million to one.”
Proclaiming that while there's a little snow on the roof, there's still fire in the furnace, hockey's living legend - 21 months in retirement to the contrary - orchestrated the Aeros to the Avco World Trophy.
And like Hull in the WHA's baptismal year, Gordie emerged the MVP and a first team all-star. Not even son Mark, rookie of the year at 19, is convinced that his ol' man is 46.
A testimony to Howe's greatness was evident at the annual Charley Conacher Memorial Dinner in Toronto this past May when he modestly captured the audience with two standing ovations.
Announcing that hockey had become so much fun again that he would play another season, he attributed his MVP honors to the fact that he had sired two sons to cover up his mistakes.
Mistakes? All he did was score 31 goals and contribute 69 assists.
While it would be a friendly exaggeration to suggest that the WHA, in two seasons, has attained the stability representative of long established leagues, there are unmistakable signs for the unwavering belief of success exhibited by the league's 15 franchise holders.
Of monumental significance this season is the fact that the WHA has established an all-Canadian division of Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Quebec. In essence, Canada now has it's own major hockey league for the first time in history.
The WHA's Western Division is comprised of Houston, Michigan, Phoenix, Minnesota and San Diego, while in the East it's New England, Chicago, Cleveland and Indianapolis, with Cincinnati taking up residence a year from now.
Meanwhile the Stingers, headed up by the aggressive Bill DeWitt, Jr. have assigned their signed players to other clubs in the league.
Indianapolis and Phoenix, plus the shifting of the New Jersey franchise to San Diego and Los Angeles to Detroit, represents the league's new look this season. Not to be overlooked, of course, is the new look in playing facilities, too.
Certainly Edmonton's new 16,000 capacity Coliseum will enhance the WHA's image, as will Cleveland's new Coliseum and Hartford's new arena which will become the home of the New England Whalers, who won it all in the first historic season.
“Our potential now is limitless,” says Murphy, who first teamed with Hunter and the Canadian contingent five months into the league's talking stages. Thereafter, it was a story of perpetual motion.
“Funny, how a lot of critics, people who should know better, said we'd never hit the ice. But the only critics that really count are the guys and gals who pay the shot.”
“Our credibility is of their doing.”