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When Hell Froze Over Twenty-five years after the renegade World Hockey Association first dropped the puck, players who jumped leagues for big bucks look back and laugh--or cry

April 06, 1998
April 06, 1998

Table of Contents
April 6, 1998

Leading 0ff

When Hell Froze Over Twenty-five years after the renegade World Hockey Association first dropped the puck, players who jumped leagues for big bucks look back and laugh--or cry

By Allen Abel

The WHA was like buying a motor home. There are only two great
days--the day you buy it and the day you sell it.
--Derek Sanderson

This is an article from the April 6, 1998 issue Original Layout

We are without merit. We are in free fall. We are a generation
of guys with no statistics--only stories. We are WHA guys living
in a WHA world.
--Al Smith

This is the hour to celebrate hockey's great pretender: a league
where Bobby Hull soared, Gordie Howe scored and Maurice Richard
coached (for a week). Where Wayne Gretzky arrived, Frank
Mahovlich thrived, and Derek Sanderson--when his team's first
home game was canceled because the Zamboni crashed through the
ice--was pelted with pucks by irate fans.

Mark Messier played here, and scored one goal all season. Harry
Neale coached a team, but it folded. Twice. (Another team went
under five times.) The league's championship trophy was
sponsored by a finance company. The Dayton and Miami franchises
never played a game. The Ottawa team, in its second incarnation,
lasted only two nights. The league's most memorable moment came
when a brawler yanked the toupee off the No. 1 star. Yet the
league endured--and, in places, flourished--for seven
unforgettable years.

This was the World Hockey Association, created in the Watergate
autumn of 1972 by a marriage of California confidence men and
giddy millionaires with major league dreams. The new league
didn't just change the face of hockey; it drew a mustache and
beard on the portrait of a fossilized sport. The WHA terrorized
the NHL's fraternity of plantation slaveholders, blithely
kidnapped teenage prospects, crusaded bravely into the Sun Belt,
enriched a few headliners and an underclass of ordinary puck
chasers beyond their wildest nightmares, and went head-to-head
with the NHL in every major North American city--and lost every
time.

In its brief and addled existence, the WHA spanned the continent
from Boston to Vancouver, from St. Paul to Birmingham. Its
rosters included many of the icons of the sport: Howe, Hull,
Mahovlich, Gerry Cheevers, Paul Henderson, Dave Keon, Bernie
Parent and Jacques Plante. The league sent its All-Stars to
Moscow as the proxies of Canada's national pride--and won one
game out of eight. It enlisted some of the fiercest goons in
hockey history, yet it embraced Europe's daintiest pros and
welcomed the U.S. collegians and Russian militiamen whose kind
would rise to rule the game today.

Twenty-five years after the first blue WHA pucks were dropped,
the Chicago Cougars and Minnesota Fighting Saints, the Michigan
Stags and New York Golden Blades are ancient history. (Only the
Edmonton Oilers endure, by a thread. The fact that the NHL has
planted teams in every U.S. city larger than Hope, Ark., keeps
the Oilers in Canada.) But the legacy of the WHA--from Gretzky
and Messier to the explosion of U.S. and European
players--remains vibrant even as the defunct circuit's bankers
search for dozens of former players who are entitled to small
pensions but have disappeared.

To WHA veterans, the league's bequest varies from riches to
rags. Some of its former stars remain prominent in pro hockey as
players, executives, scouts, commentators and coaches. The
luckiest of them glide through middle age in an Elysium of golf
and beer. Most, however, have returned to a less celestial
existence in the mortal grip of families and work. Several are
dead. Some live in poverty. One is in prison. Another, a
sportscaster, was murdered outside an Ottawa television studio
by a madman with a hatred of reporters.

As a charter member of the WHA press corps, I was assigned to
track down a few of the survivors. My search stretched across
the continent, around the clock and far beyond the arenas where,
for an instant, they found their fame.

OUTSIDE THE CHESHIRE INN, ST. LOUIS

At 2:45 a.m. on the silver anniversary of the day he signed the
contract that ignited hockey's most hilarious revolution, Bobby
Hull is roaring merrily in the parking lot of a mock-Tudor
tavern while a friend of one of his innumerable sons drives golf
balls into the heavily populated night. Dimpled spheres fly past
a distant Amoco sign toward the cars on Clayton Road as the rest
of Hull's entourage--a young handler from a hockey-card company
and I--gloomily prophesy the headline in the morning
Post-Dispatch: KILLER SOUGHT IN GOLF BALL DEATHS.

Meanwhile, the Cheshire Inn, at closing time, is extruding
dozens of tipsy twentysomething couples, and as they pause to
kiss under the street lamps right in the flight path of the golf
balls, they are counseled by an incorrigible frat boy of a Hall
of Famer. "Hey!" Hull calls out to them. "Get a room!"

It is June 27, 1997. Exactly a quarter century earlier, amid a
delirious throng in downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba, Hull endorsed
his $1 million bonus check. That was the ante collectively
coughed up by all the franchise holders of an upstart
association whose every hope was riding on the mile-wide
shoulders of hockey's Golden Jet.

After a decade as the NHL's most flamboyant, virile and
marketable superhero, Hull had first broached jumping from the
Chicago Blackhawks to the Winnipeg Jets as a canard, a gibe at
the Blackhawks' owners. After all, what lunatic would pay him 10
times what he was earning? But the WHA's offer proved valid, and
with sons Brett (the future NHL goal-scoring champion), Blake,
Bobby and Bart looking on, the man put pen to paper on that warm
June day. The prairie crowd went loco. Hull committed himself to
the Jets even though on another occasion his spouse, Joanne, not
knowing that she could be heard by Ben Hatskin, the 300-pound
jukebox magnate who owned the new team, had angrily demanded of
her mate, "Why would you ever want to live in Winnipeg and play
for that fat Jew?"

Twenty-five years later Joanne is another man's missus in
Vancouver, Hull's pockets are bulging with fistfuls of $20 bills
from a couple of autograph sessions, and his prodigious appetite
has been slaked by chicken wings and cabernet. He has finished
reciting, from memory, The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W.
Service. Dawn is fast approaching, and Hull recalls his tenure
as player-coach in Winnipeg with the following judgment: "I
couldn't coach a dog out of a doghouse with a T-bone steak."

He is wearing a rainbow seersucker shirt that barely contains
his Java man arms, blue trousers stretched over his lumberjack
thighs, a tousled blond rug glued above his gray temples and a
ring fitted with a gold coin that depicts the late shah of
Iran--a gift from some Persian-American fans of the Blackhawks,
who haven't won the Stanley Cup in the quarter century since
Hull departed. He has spent the evening signing his name in gold
ink for a generation of white boys who never saw him explode
across the blue line, grinning, head up, legs churning--and for
their fathers who did and will never forget it.

"Going to the WHA was not one bit about money," Hull says as we
sit quietly for a moment on the patio of another bar, toasting
the anniversary. "I had been at war with the Blackhawks'
management for years. We hated each other. I had held out for 18
games and called them everything but white men. Then Ben Hatskin
drew my name out of a hat when they were dividing up the players
the new league would go after.

"I met him in Vancouver, in secret. He offered me $250,000 a
year, plus $100,000 more as coach and general manager, plus $1
million to sign. I thought it was a joke. I pretended to go
along with it, just to scare Chicago. Then my agent, Harvey
Weinberg, said, 'Bobby, these guys are serious.'

"I told Harvey, 'I don't want to go to some frozen place I've
never been in my life in the middle of nowhere with an
extravagant wife and five kids.' Had I known they were serious,
I'd have asked for $20 million."

But one thing led to another, and by the fall of 1972 the
Blackhawks had called Hull's bluff, he had signed the
million-dollar contract, other NHL stars were jumping to the new
league for hallucinogenic amounts of money, and the Jets were in
training camp in the resort town of Kenora, Ont. Meanwhile,
thanks to a niggling injunction by the NHL, Hull could neither
suit up for nor even coach his embryonic team.

Apollo astronauts were riding buggies on the moon, and George
McGovern was winning Massachusetts. Hull convened a clandestine
meeting of his former Blackhawks comrades and begged them to
join him in the outlaw league. Only a few dared to. In Winnipeg
the Golden Jet made numerous public appearances on behalf of the
corpulent Hatskin and his bare-bones enterprise. "I had some
great experiences," Hull says. "Not that I needed to build
character."

The Jets would endure for all seven WHA seasons--six of them
with Hull aboard--and would be one of four franchises in the
association (out of the 32 that existed at one time or another)
to be accepted into the NHL in 1979, after everyone on both
sides had been bled as dry as a kosher chicken. In the interim
the Jets would win the AVCO World Trophy three times, would
import several of the most creative and fluid Swedish and
Finnish athletes ever to play the sport, and would turn barren
Winnipeg, with its 11-month winters, into a major league city
(for a time). Hull would score 77 goals in one memorable season,
1974-75; one of his sons would marry his linemate's daughter;
the Jets would be the only WHA team to defeat the Soviet
nationals; Hull's rug would be ripped off in a fracas during a
game against the Birmingham Bulls in 1978; and his marriage
would end in one of the most raucous and profane dissolutions in
the annals of Canadian law. Joanne Hull would take the children
with her. Bobby wouldn't be close to Brett for more than seven
years.

"Do you ever regret going to the WHA?" the eternal youth is
asked at 3 a.m. in St. Louis, after the golf balls finally come
down to earth.

"My only regret is that I lost my family," he says. "Of course,
I should have lost my wife a long time before."

AUDREY'S RESTAURANT, SEEKONK, MASS.

White-haired, limping on artificial hips, desperate for a
cigarette in a nonsmoking universe, Derek Sanderson, once
hockey's Hugh Hefner, yawns as he enters the breakfast room at
7:15 a.m. on June 29, 1997. He is embraced by John (Pie)
McKenzie, another original WHA jumper. McKenzie, a Bruins hero
from Boston's Stanley Cup years of the early '70s, is smaller
and less ornery than memory held him: beaming and wrinkled, a
BMW salesman from the suburbs south of the Hub. "Look at us,"
Sanderson says proudly. "Both sober!"

They are on the outskirts of Providence for a charity tournament
in a dotage of endless golf. McKenzie played seven seasons for
five WHA teams, or maybe six; they folded so fast, he can't
remember. Sanderson, signed by the Philadelphia Blazers
(formerly the Miami Screaming Eagles, though they never touched
the ice in Florida), lasted seven games (he says) or eight
(quoth the WHA record book) before a more divine Providence
brought him back, begging, to the Bruins.

"We were in Sherbrooke, Quebec, for an exhibition," Sanderson
recalls of his ephemeral career as a Blazer. "There were 58
people in the stands, and 45 of them were on free tickets from
one of our players, Claude St. Sauveur, who came from there.
Bernie Parent, our goalie, looks around and says, 'What are
they? Politely late?' Then he disappears back into the dressing
room.

"Pie's the coach," Sanderson continues. "I'm the captain. Pie
calls me over and says, 'Go in the dressing room and get Bernie!
The game's gonna start!' So I go in there, and Bernie is taking
his equipment off. He says, 'I don't risk my life for no
people.' He talked me out of it, too! I didn't play either."

Blazers management couldn't demote Sanderson for being AWOL--his
contract gave him the right to veto any Philadelphia player's
relegation to the minors (including his own). It also permitted
him to skip all road games that he couldn't get to by train (he
was a nervous flier), to be team captain forever, to be on the
ice for all Blazers power plays and to earn $2.65 million, which
was exactly and deliberately $50,000 more than the soccer god
Pele was pulling down from Santos of Brazil.

That made Sanderson, a talented but unexceptional playmaker from
Niagara Falls, Ont., the highest-paid athlete in the world. Not
long before, the Bruins, having paid him $10,000 for an entire
season as the 1967-68 NHL rookie of the year, had offered him a
$1,000 raise. That's how the old league operated, until the new
one came along. "My first thought when the Blazers offered me
the contract," Sanderson says, "was, How do I turn this down
without them putting me in the Bridgewater state mental
institution?"

He didn't want to jump to the WHA--nobody did, really. He just
wanted to wake up the Boston management and to be a Bruin
forever; the penthouse playboy of mod-squad New England; Joe
Namath's partner in a chain of saloons; drunk and oversexed and
a walking Walgreen's, addicted to a variety of prescription
drugs. He would gladly have stayed in Boston had the Bruins
offered him a piddling 80 grand. But they didn't. They
concentrated on keeping Bobby Orr from leaping to the Fighting
Saints. The Bruins, like the Blackhawks, haven't won the Stanley
Cup since.

"I had always worked very hard," Sanderson says. "I was
aggressive. I was chippy. I loved to play. I loved to win. Then,
suddenly, all that money has an effect on you. You don't want to
suffer. You don't want to put up with the sweat, the bleeding,
the pain it takes to win. There's no reason to try harder.
There's no incentive to get better. All I could think was,
They're paying me $2 million, and I'm just a penalty killer. I
can't score seven goals a game. I can't carry the parade."

The Blazers' season was to open on an October evening at the
dilapidated Philadelphia Civic Center. The arena's elevator
could take only four players at a time down from the clubhouse,
leaving the others to clomp down three flights of stairs with
their skates on. The refrigeration piping stopped well short of
the boards, producing a ribbon of soggy black slush around the
edge of the rink. Captain Sanderson--"dressed in the most
hideous orange-and-black uniform in the world," he says--went to
the referee, Bill Friday, and begged him to call off the game.

"We can't cancel," Friday said. "It's opening night."

Then the Zamboni broke through a crack in the playing surface,
carving up great blocks of ice. Sanderson went back to Friday
and said, "I presume this is sufficient?"

It was. But thousands had come to witness this historic game and
had been given souvenir red Blazers pucks as they entered the
Civic Center. Sanderson felt it was his rightful duty to
apologize to the faithful. He headed for center ice, where a red
carpet and a microphone had been set up for the ceremonial first
face-off.

"Frank Rizzo, the mayor, was there," Sanderson recalls. "He
warned me, 'Derek, I'll teach you something about politics in
this town. Don't touch that microphone. Nobody can calm those
people down. Just get down that corridor and get out of the
building.' I didn't listen to him. I took the microphone and
began, 'I'd like to apologize on behalf of the team...' when
ping came the first puck, right at my head. Then, ping, ping.
Two more! Ping, ping, ping.

"I said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, remember that there was only one
entrance to the parking lot when you came in? Well, there's only
one exit going out. Good luck!' It was a complete debacle. There
were fights everywhere. We hid in our dressing room until 1 a.m."

Having survived that fiasco, the Blazers took to the road.
Playing the Crusaders in Cleveland, Sanderson scored two goals
against his old Boston netminder, Cheevers--another astonished
new millionaire--before suffering the injury that would, much to
his delight, end his WHA career. "I was in the penalty box, and
the fans were throwing stuff at me," Sanderson says. "I said, 'I
don't need this s---,' and I jumped out. I landed on a piece of
garbage and slipped a disk in my back."

"There was a crucial face-off in our end of the rink," McKenzie
says, continuing the tale, "and I wanted Derek to take it. I
went to him on our bench and said, 'Get out there for that
face-off!' But instead of going out, he starts barfing."

A week or so later, it was over. Sanderson went to the owners of
the Blazers, pleaded to be allowed to return to the Bruins and
made a settlement that, he says, is still tied up in legal
wrangling somewhere. The buyout might have been $1 million, or
half that; he isn't sure. What Sanderson is sure of is that he
eventually wound up broke and broken, once sleeping on a park
bench, and existing on the charity of friends, insensate, nearly
dead from the bottle and the pills. "I stopped drinking in
1980," he says, "but I didn't get sober until 1985." Now married
and the father of two children, he is a senior vice president at
an investment firm that caters primarily to athletes.

"It worked out well for both of us," McKenzie says. "I got him
into the WHA. He got me into Alcoholics Anonymous."

IN BECK'S TAXI NO. 364, TORONTO

At 5:15 a.m., emerging from the early twilight in a garish
green-and-orange cab, the former All-Star goalie hauls up in
front of my apartment building and opens the car door. We ride
off together. Allan Robert Smith--an original New England
Whaler; an original, period--has spent the past 14 years at the
wheel of a Toronto hack and, in the off hours, at a keyboard,
hacking out the first novel that, like the WHA, will leave him
neither rich nor understood.

Smith went end to end (except for a brief return to the NHL) in
the revolting league--from the first whispers in Detroit, when
rumors of a challenge to the NHL began to swirl, all the way to
the WHA's termination in the "merger" of 1979. He was, at the
start, a brash, long-haired netminder who had played a little
with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Detroit Red Wings and the
Toronto Maple Leafs before leaping to the Whalers. He is, at the
end (for he sees this as his end), a portly, bald, mad, funny,
jittery, divorced, streetwise cabbie, working dawn to dusk to
support his writing habit, having blown his WHA signing bonus on
a newsletter for lacrosse enthusiasts.

He turns off his dispatch radio, cruises north on Spadina, east
on Bloor, south on Yonge, west on Front, around and around and
around. Fourteen years. "Nothing I ever did in the WHA put me in
the cab," he says. "Trying to be a writer put me in the cab."

He calls the league "the Waaah," sounding like a Peanuts
character bawling. He talks of "being a Waaah guy in a Waaah
world." He says, "Every Waaah player understands it. We're in
this free fall. Ken Dryden has merit--he won the Stanley Cup all
those times in Montreal. We are without merit. I'm not a
writer--I'm just an old Waaah player."

"Did you ever think you were as good as a Dryden or a Plante or
a Terry Sawchuk?" I ask him.

"I was always gonna be," he replies, "but I never was."

The Waaah, he says, was Valhalla for the superstars and the
burial ground of the ordinary pro. "It left a lost generation
who'll never know how good they really were," Smith says. "We
had a guy named Terry Caffery who was the best passer I ever
saw. He came to me once and said, 'Al, if it wasn't for the WHA,
I'd be nothing.' And I told him, 'No--if it wasn't for the WHA,
you might be in the Hall of Fame. You'd be in the NHL; you'd
have to push yourself; you'd have to try.'"

The novel that took Smith 20 years to write is called The Parade
Has Passed. A star forward in the Waaah--Lonnie (Lahdee Dahdee)
Daniels--hitchhikes north from Toronto to attend the funeral of
his former coach, Red Eastman, who has been murdered by a
pick-swinging man:

Sylvester Collins was out of breath and trembling from the
amount of violence needed to cause this much devastation. He
looked down at Red slumped on the ground below, but Sylvester
wavered on the second floor because he was being blinded by a
resplendent deflection of light that was propensitizing off the
hallowed remains of Red's body. The light was blinding him and
he tried to shield his eyes from it. He tried to see what was
causing this blinding light and, sure enough, that's what it
was. Red had put the Stanley Cup ring on to show him....

Fifty copies of The Parade Has Passed have been printed; two,
including mine, have been sold. The back cover defines the work
as "picaresque" and proclaims, "Faulkner faces off with Howe."
Smith wrote those blurbs himself.

There was a time when Smith considered himself a rebel, a
power-play flower child, the Jerry Rubin of a hidebound sport
controlled by half a dozen old, old men. But now, Rubensesque
and defeated, he says, "It wasn't us, it was the owners; rich
young men with money who wanted to buy things. The Baldwins, the
Pocklingtons--the capitalists shook up the system." And again,
disbelievingly: "It was the capitalists who made the revolution."

LEWIS & WOOD LAW OFFICES, TRENTON, N.J.

The capitalist who took the Waaah into the capital of the world
sits under a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte and ponders what
might have been. Richard I. (Dick) Wood, owner of the New York
Raiders in the first year of the WHA, wasn't the only wealthy
young man to take a flier on the new league, but he might have
been the only one who made a profit. The Raiders, a dreadful
hockey team, went on to become the New York Golden Blades, the
Jersey Knights and the San Diego Mariners before being
euthanized, but by that time Wood was long gone.

In 1972 the 32-year-old Wood was commuting from Sea Girt on the
Jersey shore to his office in Trenton when he read that another
man had sagely let his option on the WHA rights to the New York
metropolitan area expire. "It was a long trip every day," Wood
recalls. "I had time to think it over and over. I was never a
hockey player, just a fan--a Rangers fan. But the more I thought
about it, the more I told myself, 'I could do that.'"

He could, and he couldn't. For $50,000, the young lawyer bought
the franchise rights and signed a lease with the vultures who
ran Madison Square Garden. He hired a baseball man, Marvin
Milkes, to run the operation, and the two geniuses brought in a
group of fringe NHL players without a Hull or even an Al Smith
in the bunch. Wood says he thought about trying to lure
43-year-old Gordie Howe out of retirement--the old man, of
course, would return to play with his sons Mark and Marty in
1973, for the WHA's Houston Aeros--but the Red Wings, who
controlled Howe's rights, never returned his phone calls. Hull,
whose presence in New York might have changed everything, was
the property of Hatskin, and no one had the nerve to ask Hatskin
to relinquish his prize for the good of the league. "I wasn't
going to poach," Wood says. "Even though having Bobby in New
York would have been more synergistic, everybody wanted to win
for himself."

The Raiders did sign the hairy Cowboy Bill Flett and the
horrific Dave (the Hammer) Schultz from the Philadelphia Flyers,
but the two men immediately came to their senses and jumped back
to the NHL before ever wearing a Raiders uniform, a
blue-and-orange creation that featured a lefthanded player in a
twin-horned Viking helmet skating between skyscrapers.

Wood knew after only a handful of home games that the Raiders
were doomed. The cost of the unionized Garden ushers and
concessionaires was murdering him. The Raiders' coach, Camille
Henry, was a former Rangers star embittered by the wealth and
nonchalance of his athletes. The faceless players--Ron Ward,
Norm Ferguson, Bobby Sheehan, some Minnesota collegians, even a
black man named Alton White--were out of their depth against
Hull and Cheevers and the tight, well-coached Whalers and Quebec
Nordiques.

Wood went to the Garden and asked the unions to give him a
break. They said, "We have to have a full staff every night in
case the game is a sellout." (The Raiders were averaging 5,868
customers in an 18,000-seat building.) Wood sold the Raiders to
an investment group for a good profit. He bought a restaurant
and a Texas oil well and went back to lawyering.

While we are admiring the Napoleon, a man named Barry Rednor
comes into Wood's office with a carton of junk. Rednor, an old
friend of Wood's and a former member of the Raiders' board of
directors, unloads Raiders pucks, Golden Blades pennants and
posters, and a giant frosted brandy snifter autographed by
several members of the long-dead team.

"They only made 10 of these," Rednor announces, holding up the
vessel. "I've got a basement full of this stuff--and a lot of
autographed sticks."

"They must be worth a lot of money," I venture.

"Not around here," Rednor replies.

ROOM B3-542, HOPITAL DE SAINT-FRANCOIS D'ASSISE, QUEBEC CITY

In maroon pajamas and hand-knit slippers, sallow, shrunken,
defeated: Camille Henry.

In the 1950s and early '60s, Henry was a darting, darling
Rangers forward. He scored nearly 300 goals when goals were hard
to come by. In '57-58 he won the Lady Byng Trophy as the most
gentlemanly barracuda in the NHL. His wife, in those golden
years, was Dominique Michel, then (and still) the most popular
comedienne in French Canada, the Carol Burnett of Quebec.

In '72, retired from playing right wing and hired by the Raiders
as a drawing card in a bow to Rangers glory, Henry coached
Wood's team into last place. I walked in on him in his
semiprivate hospital room in la Belle Province last summer, and
he barely looked up. He was sitting in a chair, having his blood
drawn. "I would like to talk about your WHA memories," I say.

"I have only bad ones," he replied.

In the 1972-73 New York Raiders Inaugural Edition Souvenir Book,
an advertisement for a hair-replacement system called Henry "a
young man of action." But that day, at 64, after decades of
diabetic crises, odd jobs as a watchman and janitor, two
divorces and estrangement from his nation's game, his melancholy
hung in the air as heavily as disinfectant. He would be dead
within three months.

"I was disgusted with the whole WHA," he said in a low voice.
"The players I had made it even worse. Some of them were making
four and five times what I was making as coach, and they didn't
try, they didn't care. That's all they cared about, the money. I
can't blame them. The owners offered them the big money--they
didn't ask for it. I had one player, he was drunk after every
game. He was an alcoholic."

He lowered his voice even further. "And I was an alcoholic, too."

Henry had been sober since 1985--and in and out of diabetic
comas for almost as long. He had been in the hospital this time,
he said, for eight months, although the exact dates escaped him,
as did so many of his memories. He said, "I'm not crazy yet, but
I'm almost there." He tried to smile.

I told him that I had been in St. Louis with Bobby Hull and in
Providence with Derek Sanderson and John McKenzie, and that
these men were earning good money for doing nothing more than
playing golf, shaking hands and signing their names. This
astounded him. For the previous few years he had received a few
autograph requests every day in the mail--"I've moved five
times, I don't know how they find me," he said--but he had
always signed for free, "not to disappoint the kids."

We proceeded to the past. He told me how when it became clear
early in the second WHA season that the Golden Blades, ne
Raiders, were doomed, he and the Blades' trainer hurriedly piled
all the team's equipment into a truck and drove it through the
Lincoln Tunnel to New Jersey, where New York authorities
couldn't impound it. That was his swan song in hockey.

"Nobody wants to make contact with me," Henry said. "It's not my
choice, it's their choice. I don't get no offers. I believe it
is because I went to the WHA. I wanted to believe that. I needed
to believe that, so I'd have no more excuses why people didn't
ask for me."

"Bobby Hull went to the WHA, and they still call him," I said.

"Bobby Hull was a good hockey player," Henry responded.

DEVOUS BANQUET CENTER, MARYLAND HEIGHTS, MO.

A woman pays her five dollars and comes up to Bobby Hull with a
color photograph of the Golden Jet in a Blackhawks sweater and
asks not only for his autograph but also for his thumbprint on
the picture. "The last time I did that, it had ink on it," her
hero says. "You know, those guys who make you go like this"--he
holds his tree-trunk wrists together and laughs.

"You still look tough," another woman tells him.

"Tougher than a night in jail," Hull says chortling.

"I wouldn't know about a night in jail," the fan shrugs.

"Believe me," Hull says.

Twenty-five years after he overturned his sport, dragged it to
corners of an uninterested continent, made many ordinary men
rich and a few rich men much poorer, only Hull remains
unchanged. And this is a man who, as he says, "was only smart
enough to talk back to my wife."

"There are still things I want to do," Hull says. "I want to go
to Italy and help my nephew crush grapes and drink some Chianti.
I want to go to places where they don't know where Chicago is. I
want to see Brett in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and I want to see
one of my grandsons follow suit."

Now we are in a quiet bar called Massa's, reflecting. "I came
from an old-fashioned home," says Hull, one of 11 children and
the father of eight, five by Joanne, who was his second wife.
They were married in 1960 and divorced in 1980. Hull says he has
regrets, not about Joanne but about what they destroyed.
Suddenly, at 58, it is family that matters to him.

"I never dreamed that a man could live with a woman for so many
years and raise a family with her and then break up," he says.
"The two older boys understood, but Brett was right on the cusp
when we split...."

"What was the legacy of the WHA?" I ask, trying to brighten the
mood.

"I think we gave entertainment to a lot of people," Hull says.
"And the year after the leagues merged, 10 of the top 20 scorers
in the NHL had come from the WHA."

On the silver anniversary, there have been no parades. Dennis
Murphy, the Orange County entrepreneur who helped to create the
WHA--and who more recently turned a $1 million profit on Roller
Hockey International--hopes to stage a gala reunion in September
to honor Hull, Howe, Gretzky and Messier. "We've got the
champagne on ice," Murphy says on the phone.

A few men cherish the memory of what happened to their lives
when the hockey world split in two. Joe Daley, the maskless
Winnipeg goalie from the league's start to its finish, tells of
a "true brotherhood" of teammates who cared for each other and
their city, and still do. Sitting in a doughnut shop in Kenora,
Ont., the town where those infant Jets once trained, we scroll
down the roster of the '72 team and see Danny Johnson, dead of
Lou Gehrig's disease; Bob Woytowich, dead of a heart attack at
the wheel of his car; Norm Beaudin, struggling in Florida to
meet the medical bills for his bedridden daughter, Carrie, who
was once married to Hull's son Blake.

It was long ago, in a fairy tale. The WHA's pioneers,
opportunists, puck chasers and playboys opened the portal to
everything that has come to characterize hockey: the
international cavalcade of stars, the carpetbagging franchises,
the power of the players' union, the ascent of U.S. hockey.

One man's signature, a quarter of a century ago, made it happen.
"Only one guy ever thanked me," the pathfinder says, shaking his
phony hair. "In 1972 I was out in Vancouver to do a
department-store commercial with Arte Johnson from Laugh-In. The
Bruins were in town. Wayne Cashman came up, all misty-eyed, and
he started going, 'Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I got my
salary tripled thanks to you.'

"He was the only one who ever thanked me," says the Golden Jet.
"The only one."

COLOR PHOTO: MELCHIOR DIGIACOMO/B. BENNETT STUDIOS NET PROFIT Extravagantly paid stars such as goalkeeper Cheevers gave the WHA what little credibility it had early on. [Gerry Cheevers in game]COLOR PHOTO: MELCHIOR DIGIACOMO THE PRIZE CATCH Hull simply couldn't pass up hockey's first million-dollar signing bonus. [Bobby Hull in game]COLOR PHOTO: RALF-FINN HESTOFT/SABA THE GOLDEN YEARS The irrepressible Hull now swings a golf club more than a hockey stick, and his favorite wings come from chickens. [Bobby Hull swinging hockey stick]COLOR PHOTO: TONY TRIOLO HELLO, I MUST BE GOING Sanderson was in the WHA barely long enough to slip a disk, one of many injuries that plagued his career. [Derek Sanderson in game]COLOR PHOTO: ALLAN TANNENBAUM/SYGMA [See caption above--Derek Sanderson]COLOR PHOTO: DICK RAPHAEL HE WENT THE DISTANCE Smith, who was present at the WHA's creation and at its demise, now drives a cab in Toronto to finance his writing. [Allan Robert Smith in game]COLOR PHOTO: PETER SIBBALD [See caption above--Allan Robert Smith in taxi cab]COLOR PHOTO: MELCHIOR DIGIACOMO/B. BENNETT STUDIOS TRAVEL EXPERT McKenzie moved from city to city during seven years in the WHA and now moves cars for a living as a BMW salesman. [John (Pie) McKenzie in game]COLOR PHOTO: ALLAN TANNENBAUM/SYGMA [See caption above--John (Pie) McKenzie]COLOR PHOTO: DAVE SANFORD/HOCKEY HALL OF FAME [Hockey puck with WHA logo]COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER NEWS FLASH Women, too, took the ice for the Fighting Saints but strictly to deliver critical information. [Woman skating and holding up sign announcing next home game]
The league's most memorable moment came when a brawler yanked
the toupee off the No. 1 star.
The Waaah, Smith says, was Valhalla for the stars and the burial
ground of the ordinary pro.