In the maelstrom of memories associated with the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Canada-USSR series, not a lot was made of another significant event, one that many see as a more important milestone in hockey history than a mere eight-game competition. On October 11th, 1972, the puck dropped for the first games played in the WHA.
While the upstart league was portrayed widely as a slightly better than bush league loop with big league pretentions for its seven-season lifetime, it did change a number of almost universal fundamental practices that had seriously slanted the off-ice part of the game in the favour of them that owned the dozen teams then forming the NHL.
If not for the WHA there is no telling how long it would have taken players to be compensated in a manner a little more congruent with the revenue they generate. When they set up shop it almost immediately meant huge increases in pay for virtually everyone in the pro game, from GMs all the way down to trainers and stick boys. It also meant that 18-year-olds were no longer barred from offering their services to employers, a right to which they were entitled in just about every field of endeavour than the NHL. And then there was the flood of European players that crossed the Atlantic to star in the WHA, their success causing NHL doors to finally be opened to large numbers of foreign players.
The World Hockey Association Hall of Fame has released a book that covers the history of the league, largely through visual means. Compiled and edited by Timothy Gassen, the driving force behind the WHAhof, A Photographic History of the Rebel League, is a book that ought to make it onto more Christmas gift lists than it probably will.
Those that buy it, either to give away or for less altruistic purposes, will be treated to a well-organized, hard-covered volume with the bulk of its pages devoted to images from the 1970s. After opening with a forward by former loop President, Howard Baldwin, an introduction by Gassen and a year-by-year listing of results, the book gets down to business with a series of team photos featuring 21 teams that took to the ice in the seven seasons the WHA was a going concern as well as some international squads and the All-Star team that beat Moscow Dynamo three times in the same week in January, 1979.
Next come a section devoted to on-ice photos taken from throughout the years the WHA was active. We see promo shots of the three Howes kicking up snow in Houston Aeros colours, Bobby Hull and his Swedish linemates, Anders Hedberg and a young, slim Jacques Demers, possibly nurturing his first mustache among the staged shots.
The action shots cover a variety of subject matter including the tough guys that roamed WHA surfaces and a number of the men who made a name for themselves in That Other League, either before or after lacing them up in the WHA, among them defenceman, Pat Stapleton and Andy Brown, the last man to defend a net in high-level competition without benefit of facial protection. The bulk of the candid shots are of men less well-known in fan circles – guys like Gary Kurt, Michel Parizeau, Ted Taylor and Rusty Patenaude.
Next up come a few pages devoted to the Avco Cup, the WHA championship trophy that, in the impish opinion of many wags and detractors, was well-named for a finance company best known at the time as a short-term, personal loans concern patronized by those unable to qualify for more inexpensive bank credit.
Next up is a section devoted to Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and Wayne Gretzky, all of whom appeared in WHA sweaters and all of whom are generally included on most top 20 lists of the greatest players in the game.
This scribbler’s favorite chapter was the one devoted to the cards and posters produced during the league’s lifetime with many familiar names being pictured in their WHA togs. Gerry Cheevers in Cleveland Crusaders gear, Stapleton in Chicago green and yellow, Marc Tardif in LA Sharks red, white and black and JC Tremblay in the powder blue of the Nordiques team he led to respectability are among the larger images that open the chapter. Among the smaller cards reproduced are those featuring scoring sensation Ron Ward, an NHL journeyman nicknamed Magic during his tenure as a WHA sniper, Larry Pleau, who went on to have some success in NHL management functions and Bobby Sheehan, rates as being as fast a skater as Yvan Cournoyer during his time in the Canadiens organization.
The final chapters of the book are devoted to reproductions of the covers of league and team publications and game-used WHA pucks and sweaters. While the sweaters are great to revisit, with many of them in pretty good condition and some of them awfully gaudy compared to the patterns and hues of the day, the pucks are a little more scuffed and scraped than the uniforms are and are all black with none of the innovatively coloured pucks that the league experimented with being reproduced.
All in all, Gassen’s most recent publication is a wonderful reminder of things gone by and book that ought to be appreciated and enjoyed by anyone with an interest in the history of hockey or a personal link to the WHA adventure. While it fits well on a coffee table, its smaller than most coffee table book size also makes it a natural for end tables, bookshelves and the top of the tank in that smallest room.
As it states in the final sentence, “This book is not associated with the National Hockey League”.
A Photographic History of the Rebel League, 1972-1979
116 pages. Extensively illustrated
St Johann Press
$39.99 (US) $33.00 through WHAHof.com