WHA One Step Closer to Its Goal; But Is It All For Naught?

As reported in this week’s edition of the Hockey News, the WHA has officially announced that the league will start with 10 franchises and play its first game in December of this year. And to distinguish the league from others, one of those teams will consist entirely of Russian players, based in a Canadian city.Now there’s a couple of things that HN mentions in its story that I found interesting. The first is that the press conference finished before it was supposed to start. The writer, Wayne Karl, even went so far as to say that the press conference, “was all very entertaining, but it falls short of the kind of professional and well-presented package that will be necessary to convince people this WHA is for real.”

The second thing that caught my attention is that they didn’t announce exactly where the WHA would play, even though they said they had commitments from 10 cities. Karl mentioned possible cities like Quebec City, Toronto, Hamilton, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Portland, OR, St. Louis, Chicago and Orlando. But they didn’t actually name cities, team names, ownership groups. And if those details weren’t finalized, then why bother to annouce anything at all at a press conference.

So here’s how I see this new WHA going down based on this story. This league could be the XFL of pro hockey. First of all, I don’t see a WHA franchise in Toronto, for two reasons. First, they have no place to play. The Leafs won’t let them anywhere near the ACC, and even so, the Raptors take up enough dates where it would be next to impossible to get any kind of home stand going. There’s always the Ricoh Coliseum, but I don’t think they’ll get to play there either. I would assume that the Roadrunners have proprietary rights there, which means that they could legally prevent the team from playing their games there. And both the Maple Leafs and the parent Oilers would both strongly suggest that the Roadrunners do just that. That leaves just one place to play; Maple Leaf Gardens. And if MLSE won’t sell the Gardens to a junior team owner, you can damn near guarantee that they won’t sell it to the owner of a competing team in a competing league. And second, Toronto has one team when it comes to hockey. The Roadrunners draw their best crowds when the St. John’s Maple Leafs come to town (gee, I wonder why). Other than that, they don’t draw very large crowds.

But the real reason I see this becoming hockey’s XFL is because the XFL had more hype behind it than the current WHA does, but it fell flat on its face. Vince McMahon had a captive audience to market to, but he couldn’t get them to watch. People didn’t know who the players were, and the rules changes didn’t add to the game. The big names give the game some novelty, but at some point the product has to stand on its own. It almost looks like the league’s organizers are using Bobby Hull to launch the league the way it was done in the 70s. How is Bobby Hull going to launch this league from an office in Toronto or New York or wherever it’s going to be? Bobby Hull made the first WHA work because his talent, and the talents of Gordie Howe, Gerry Cheevers, and Wayne Gretzky made it a comparable game. How many players like that are going to be in this WHA? Do you think Sidney Crosby will play in this league as a 17-year old like Wayne did? Hull will try his best to sign him, but I don’t think he’ll get Crosby to play there. I think they’ve set their sights too high, and it will become a shaodw of what the initial WHA was. Only the NHL won’t be absorbing teams this time around.