It’s been more than 35 years since the fall of the World Hockey Association, but the WHA Hall of Fame’s documentary collection,
Best of the World Hockey Association Hall of Fame, does its best to make sure hockey fans and historians never forget about the rival North American league that gave the NHL a run for its money. With five documentaries, there’s no shortage of history to be had in the series, and that’s without including the highlight films and bonus features. Among the features are highlights from Wayne Gretzky’s WHA debut, wearing No. 17 in an Indianapolis Racers intrasquad game, team bonus footage and team fight reels – seriously, there are fight reels for the Houston Aeros and Racers. Altogether, there’s roughly five hours of footage on the BluRay collection. DVDs of the collection are also available through the
WHA Hall of Fame. The documentaries themselves recount the history of the league, ranging from an overarching history of the WHA to team-centric pieces, which focus on the Aeros, Racers and Winnipeg Jets. Each documentary runs between 22 to 35 minutes and the footage is ported over from 2010 productions. Even still, while the star isn’t crystal clear video, the content holds up. Hearing tales about the upstart league that challenged the NHL for several years in the mid-1970s is entertaining and it couldn’t start with a bigger punch.
Mere minutes into the ‘
Remembering The WHA’ documentary, Ted McCasskill, who suited up for just four NHL games, recalls how players finally felt free once the WHA came into existence. “The WHA was the greatest thing that happened to hockey players, in my opinion,” recounts McCasskill. “Before that we were kind of a slave market for the NHL. They told you what to do, where to go, what time to get up, what time to go to bed, and if you didn’t like it, they’d send you to South Africa or some place. There was nothing you could do about it.” With that, it’s not hard to see the running theme throughout the documentary series is how much lasting impact the league has had on the present day NHL. “Where the games is today, we made a lot of that happen,” says Reg Thomas, who played 428 WHA games. To be sure, Thomas, McCasskill and the others who speak throughout the series certainly make valid points. The WHA made some major changes to professional hockey, including inking the first big-money contract, signing Bobby Hull away from the Chicago Black Hawks with a $1 million signing bonus, which forever changed salaries. The WHA also introduced overtime, brought over a number of European players and lowered the draft age to bring stars such as Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier into the league earlier than the NHL could offer, all things that are touched on throughout the collection’s main documentary. While the big names from the WHA days, players such as Hull, Gretzky and Gordie Howe, aren’t interviewed in the WHA-centric documentary, they’re often the focus of stories, especially pertaining to the histories of each of the Jets (Hull), Aeros (Howe) and Racers (Gretzky). Arguably the biggest name interviewed is Pat Stapleton, the longtime Chicago Black Hawks defenseman who suited up with the WHA’s Racers, Chicago Cougars and Cincinnati Stingers. That said, an interview with Hull, along with linemates Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg, does make an appearance in the collection's Jets documentary regarding the "Hotline," which all three were members of. Even without the big name players, though, the stars of the documentary series are the stories. As former WHA broadcaster Jerry Trupiano says, the WHA was so entertaining because it, “could be a combination of
Saturday Night Live,
The Dead End Kids and
Hee Haw.” Coincidentally,
Slap Shot drew inspiration for the character of Ogi Ogilthorpe, the film’s biggest goon, from real life WHA enforcer Bill Goldthorpe, which is touched on and makes for a lighthearted story in the documentary. But, like any failing venture, the WHA had its faults. The financial disparity between the teams is briefly highlighted, such as one instance in which former Phoenix Roadrunner Jim Boyd talks about players pooling credit cards to fuel a flight to San Diego. Overall, however, there could have been more focus on shortcomings the league had, such as starting with 12 teams and trying to make hockey work in some non-traditional markets, which made it difficult to find success and led to numerous clubs folding and/or relocating. That said, each of the documentaries still provide the bulk of the history. Those alive during the WHA era will learn things they hadn’t known before and those who were born after the WHA’s existence are met with an intriguing history of a rebel league that iced some incredible teams and, truthfully, did change the future of professional hockey.