Dayton drafted minor leaguer Billy Orr before Bobby, no kin either by blood or ability. Minnesota picked a former U.S. Olympic hockey player named Wendell Anderson and carefully explained that "he has the type of job where he might become available at any time." Anderson is the Governor of Minnesota. Miami's Lester Patrick kept it all in the family by claiming his brothers Glenn and Craig. Calgary apparently drafted every hockey player in Russia, Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Finland. New England filled its roster with every college player who had won a letter, except perhaps Love Story's Oliver Barrett IV. And Quebec picked all the players who could say bonjour.
It was that kind of weekend in a hotel room down the street from Fantasyland in Anaheim, Calif., as the World Hockey Association stocked its 12 franchises with a total of 1,082 players, their names ranging from Jeff Ablett to Wayne Zuk. So now hockey players and governors everywhere await the start of another Great Checkbook War. The lines are drawn. On one side: the established National Hockey League. On the other: the fledgling WHA. In the middle: the 1,082 players. The weapons will be cool green dollars.
So far, however, the WHA has been much talk and little action. Some of the talk has been rich. According to reports from Miami, the Screaming Eagles—yes, that's the name—have offered Boston's Derek Sanderson and Toronto's Bernie Parent the 79th Street Causeway, two hotels on the Beach, 10 seats on the 50-yard line for all football games in the Orange Bowl and more than $500,000 apiece to jump from the NHL to the WHA. Chicago's Bobby Hull supposedly has been guaranteed $1 million to play for the Winnipeg Jets, who presumably would throw in a few dozen snowblowers as a bonus. Toronto's Norm Ullman is rumored off to Edmonton for $125,000 a year, Vancouver's Dale Tallon to Minnesota for $100,000 and Goaltender Ken Dryden from the Montreal Canadiens to the Los Angeles Sharks for $600,000 over four years, 5% of the club's stock and a partnership in the law firm of former California Governor Pat Brown, who is the team's legal counsel but never played Olympic hockey. "I've heard the same story," Dryden says.
The WHA has been in verbal contact with most of the players in the NHL. That means Steve Arnold, the WHA's director of player personnel, drops by the hotels where NHL teams stay on their trips to California and arranges for private chats with as many players as possible. "We'd be crazy not to listen," says one Montreal player. "Besides, if the Canadiens even think I've talked to the WHA, it puts me in a much better bargaining position at contract time."
February 28, 1972
Converting conversation into WHA dollars is another matter. "Your men can talk all they want," Alan Eagleson, the executive director of the NHL Players Association, told the WHA's owners after the draft. "If your money is green, I'll get you all the NHL players you want. If it isn't, well, forget it." The owners all nodded.
"We welcome such a businesslike approach," said Wild Bill Hunter of the Edmonton Oil Kings.
"Yeah, as long as the players don't ask too much money," Eagleson countered.
"I think the Edmonton branch of the Bank of Montreal is pretty solid," Hunter replied.
"I'm sure the bank is solid," Eagleson said. "I just hope the accounts are solid, too."
Eagleson was laughing then, but he was in an angry mood when he arrived at the draft the night before. "Can you believe it?" he said. "Dennis Murphy [a co-founder of the WHA] has threatened me with an antitrust action. I've told all the players not to sign anything unless they get the money in advance. Hell, the NHL has good credit and always pays its bills. We all know that. But we don't know anything about the WHA."
The WHA is the brainchild of Murphy and Gary Davidson, two Californians who also were instrumental in founding the American Basketball Association. While both men lost money on the ABA venture, they already have made a heavy profit on the WHA. Murphy and Davidson charged a finder's fee of $25,000 apiece for 10 of the WHA franchises and also kept two franchises for themselves and some partners. That is $250,000 for openers. Then, just before the draft meeting, Davidson and his two partners sold their San Francisco franchise to a group from Quebec for $215,000. Davidson neatly stays on as president of the WHA.
Murphy spent most of the draft weekend running about and telling people: "We're gonna make it, we're gonna make it, don't you worry.
"What we may lack in quality next season we'll make up for with parity among the teams and some exciting rules innovations," he added. "We won't have very many of those 7-1 and 9-2 routs that I see here in Los Angeles all the time. Our teams will be pretty evenly matched. And our rules will keep the fans in the building."
The WHA will play sudden-death overtime to break tie scores—10 minutes of overtime, that is, which may not break much. "We'll let them fight, too," Murphy said. The WHA may also eliminate the red line at center ice, to open up the offense. It was even toying with the idea of having goals scored during the last two minutes of a game count double, and maybe using orange pucks. "Hockey has been too blasé for too long," Murphy said. "The game needs some life. And some parity."
Even Clarence Campbell, the president of the NHL, will admit that. In a secret letter to NHL owners last summer that was leaked to Sports Editor Red Fisher of the Montreal Star, Campbell wrote, "Our progress towards parity in the NHL has been very scanty. Indeed...the trend has been in the opposite direction." Consider the bare statistics. In 1967-68, when the NHL first expanded, the new teams won one of every 3.6 games against the Establishment. However, in the first half of this 1971-72 season, the new teams won only one of every 6.6 games against the old clubs. "Who wants to see his team lose every night?" Murphy said.
Despite Murphy's optimism, there are still serious hurdles confronting the WHA. For one thing, as the week ended, the league had not talked even one player—NHL, minor league or amateur—into signing a contract. For another, many NHL players are skeptical about the WHA's financial staying power. "Most people don't give us credit for having too many brains," one said, "but when it comes to money, to the green stuff, we're all wizards." Then there is the question of what happens if the WHA starts play in October, as it intends to, but folds in November. "Say you leave Boston or New York to play for Miami and then the WHA collapses," a player said. "The NHL will take you back, sure, but you'll end up in Pittsburgh or Oakland. And that's something to worry about."
Still, the WHA seems certain to operate in October, although it may not be able to count on all 12 franchises that drafted players in Anaheim. Not surprisingly, the soundest operations appear to be in Canada. Hardened hockey men well schooled in the way of pinching pennies control those franchises. "We've got an operating budget of about $1.4 million for the first year," said Wild Bill Hunter, "and we expect to have a deficit of about $300,000."
Minnesota, New England and Dayton all seem likely to survive in the United States, but the Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and New York franchises appear to be shaky. In Chicago, the Cougars have not found a suitable arena for their games and may be moving to Indianapolis or Louisville. Los Angeles could end up where Chicago doesn't. In Miami the new rink right now has only two walls. In New York the WHA team has contracted to play its 40-game schedule at Madison Square Garden. To break even, considering the reported $25,000 minimum nightly rental for the Garden, the New York team will have to draw at least 10,000 fans a game. And there will be two NHL teams—the Rangers and the new Islanders—in the New York area for competition.
Maybe New York should have drafted Nelson Rockefeller. He's the governor—and a man of means. And with his job, he might become available at any time.