The Summer of 2010 was the busiest ever for the WHA Hall of Fame, with more than 20,000 miles traveled throughout the U.S. and Canada. We kicked off the tour as a special guest at the Seventh Annual MeiGray Game Worn Jersey Expo on July 17 in North Branch, New Jersey.
Meigray Group co-founder Barry Meisel is a dedicated WHA fan, collecting the major league’s hockey jerseys since his days as a firsthand WHA fan in the 1970s. His collection of WHA game jerseys might be the finest in the world, and we were delighted to have this incredible collection as part of our WHA Hall of Fame exhibit.
Next stop for the WHA HOF was the Whalers FanFest in Hartford, Connecticut on August 14. More than 4,700 Whalers fans jammed the concourses of the Rentschler football stadium in an overwhelming show of support for the return of the Whalers and for the heritage of Whalers hockey.
We lost count how many times the Whalers’ bouncy theme song, “Brass Bonanza,” was played on the PA system. But it made me smile and think of Pucky The Whale each and every time!
Hartford marked the first WHA HOF induction ceremonies, and we were honored to present the official WHA Hall of Fame jersey to “Mr. Hockey”— the one and only Gordie Howe. The entire Howe family was inducted in to the WHA HOF, and we were privileged to have Marty & Mark Howe then join the induction ceremonies. All-time WHA scoring champ Andre Lacroix and Whalers founder Howard Baldwin were also inducted to the cheers of the massive throng of fans. Former Houston Aeros champion and team VP Jack Stanfield (also a WHA HOF Board member) was also on hand to help honor the Hall of Famers.
We headed straight to Winnipeg the following day, which was a week of media and fan exuberance. the WHA HOF induction event would be the first reunion in Winnipeg since 1978 of the famous “Hotline” — Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg & Ulf Nilsson — and Winnipeg was indeed excited! We started with an emotional press conference mid-week, resulting in the full front page of the next day’s newspaper and full TV coverage.
Bobby, Anders & Ulf were also kind in giving me an exclusive hour-long video interview about their time in Winnipeg & the WHA, which will be cut into a major video feature for future release. I had to shake my head in amazement — here I was with my boyhood hockey heroes, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Bobby Hull. Throughout the week I was able to sit down with them, get to know them as people, and explain the inspiration they game to me all those years ago. Anders & Ulf had come all the way from Sweden, Bobby from Florida, and I had trekked from Arizona — and here we all were, together in Winnipeg. I felt so blessed, so fortunate, so grateful.
The WHA HOF video premiere and honored member induction ceremonies that concluded the week in Winnipeg on August 20 were packed, and fans cheered heartily as All-Stars Pat Stapleton and Joe Daley were inducted in the WHA Hall of Fame.
The “Hotline” appeared onstage together for their induction, with Ulf Nilsson, Anders Hedberg and Bobby Hull each receiving their WHA HOF jerseys to thunderous ovations. Their former WHA Jets teammate Joe Daley joined them on stage, and together they hoisted the AVCO World Trophy they won together over their heads in front of the adoring, boisterous, thunderous crowd.
Predictably, after the film screening and induction ceremonies, the autograph line for Bobby & the boys took hours to complete. And there sat The Golden Jet — Bobby Hull — shaking every hand, signing every bit, flashing his smile and offering a kind word to every WHA Jets fan. As my fellow Superfan Dave Pickering said to me outside the Jets locker room in 1975, motioning to Bobby Hull, “now THAT is a superstar.”
Film premieres and hall-of-fame induction ceremonies are wonderful, but for the conclusion to our Summer 2010 WHA HOF tour we wanted to show some WHA stars once again as hockey players. That means they need to slip on the skates and play a game! And so the Andre Lacroix WHA Hall of Fame Day in Cleveland on August 28 was that special event.
We started the day with a screening of the new WHA HOF league documentary, then an autograph session, then the big moment — the first WHA HOF game. This all took place at The Pond in Chagrin Falls, the ice facility where Andre Lacroix is the director of hockey. Andre still skates each week with his adult men’s team, and that team wanted to honor the all-time WHA scorer with a special surprise at his game: they all wore WHA Hall of Fame game jerseys, each with “LACROIX” and his #7 on the back. While this was a nightmare for the scoring sheet, it was guaranteed that at the end of the day that “Lacroix” would remain the WHA all-time scorer!
Other WHA stars joining Andre for the game were WHA Hall of Famer Pat Stapleton, John Sheridan, Kim Clackson, Wayne Muloin and coach Bill Needham. Altogether the players represented the WHA Indianapolis Racers, Winnipeg Jets, Cleveland Crusaders, Edmonton Oilers, New York Raiders, New York Golden Blades, Jersey Knights, San Diego Mariners, Houston Aeros & New England Whalers.
All-Star Pat Stapleton has long been a favorite of mine, and as an adult he’s been an important mentor for me and the WHA Hall of Fame. He usually does not participate in these kinds of exhibition games, and actually hadn’t skated in a game for almost 20 years. Pat doesn’t care about his age, but I knew that he just turned 70, and I did keep a watchful eye on him. Would he be OK? Could he actually skate?
Pat started the game and took a long shift, and then headed to the bench for a well-deserved rest. He sat out a few shifts and I thought perhaps that was all we’d see of him skating that day. But of course I had it wrong. Whitey (as he is affectionately known) just took a few minutes to gauge the speed of the game, the style being played — then he took back to the ice.
Like a time machine, I saw once again that unique style Pat Stapleton always had on the ice as a WHA All-Star, that gliding & deceptive skating, that ability to find open ice and to control the pace of the game. He plucked pucks out of the air, sent tape-to-tape passes, joked on the bench and came within a whisker of finishing a hat trick. “I guess you never forget how to be a hockey player” he said to me with a wink.
Andre Lacroix never forgot, either, showing his elusive skating and masterful puck control throughout. He even scored on an intricate puck handling penalty shot, to the delight of the home crowd. Yes, there is nothing like seeing hockey players being hockey players, and then honoring their achievements. Of course, that is the mission of the WHA Hall of Fame.
20,000 miles later, I was finally asleep in my own Arizona bed at the conclusion of the 2010 Summer WHA HOF Tour. We had reached thousands of hockey fans eager to embrace the heritage of the major league World Hockey Association, and were able to honor many of its prominent players. I saw boyhood heroes inspire me all over again, and I felt the love and admiration they have for each other.
Now it’s time to bring it all home, to a location for the WHA Hall of Fame museum display. I’ve already put another 5,000 miles of travel on my shoes for negotiations for the WHA Hall of Fame location.
Stay tuned – the best is yet to come.