Introducing a feature that combines two of my loves — hockey and reading — into a neat little blog post! Reviews will be posted as I get through the mountain of titles that I have yet to read. I encourage everyone on IR to chime in with reviews of their own about whatever they’ve read! The more, the merrier.
“If you were looking for a metaphor for the WHA, you could do worse than a story about a bunch of naked hockey players running around like madmen while the rest of the world wondered just what the hell they were doing.”
So begins the unlikely tale of the World Hockey Association (WHA), a three-ring circus on ice. The “rebel league,” as the title refers to it, was colorful, daring, at times vicious — and it ultimately brought about changes in the game at the level of its rival, the NHL, that resonate even today.
Ed Willes puts together a well-written and fast-moving account of the most entertaining seven-year stretch in hockey history. It all started with four businessmen who knew little about hockey, and it ended with a merger that left many WHA vets cold. Along the way, teams moved and folded, stars were born (or stolen), checks bounced, and all the while the NHL stood watching, torn between shaking its head and trying to stomp out the pesky little competitor.
The book itself is less a play-by-play of the WHA’s tenure than a collection of funny, romantic and enlightening stories from around the rebel league (though it does try its best to stay within the chronology). The reader meets Bobby Hull, freshly picked from the NHL to be the WHA’s new face; “hockey’s first family,” the Howes — Gordie, Mark, and Marty — and the legacy they began in Houston; the Carlson brothers, Jack, Jeff, and Steve, who provided the inspiration for the Hansons in the movie Slap Shot; and countless others. The majority of these stories take on a “you had to be there” feel, but they are hilarious nonetheless.
It’s also impossible to overlook the contributions the WHA and its teams made to progressing the game itself. The Winnipeg Jets were responsible for bringing Europeans to the North American side of the game, integrating both styles to make a hybrid model that would win them two Avco Cups in three years. Swedes Lars-Erik Sjostrom and Ulf Nilsson teamed up with Bobby Hull to create the Jets’ “Hot Line,” a line that would cause controversy as well as execute complete beauty on the ice. The Hot Line is a crucial part of the Jets’ WHA success.
Despite their achievements, however, the Hot Line has not been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. This is one of quite a few slights the hockey world (and the NHL in particular) have delivered to the WHA’s veterans, even after the NHL acquired all of the rebel league’s teams as part of a merger in 1979. WHA contracts were not honored by the NHL, and all players were subject to a draft, losing many of their rights as players (exactly the thing that the WHA had tried to fix).
Even with all of that, however, the WHA left its mark on the NHL. From then on, the NHL’s reserve clause in a player’s contract (which basically shackled players on teams indefinitely thanks to its automatic one-year renewal process) was gone, and the drafting age was lowered from 20 to 18. The WHA also brought the game to as-of-yet unconventional markets like Houston, Phoenix, and San Diego. Basically, though the “rebel league” proved to be a nuisance to the established NHL monopoly, it also showed Big Brother what he was doing wrong — and helped make it right.
The Rebel League is an entertaining read that will amuse as well as inform its reader. It’s slightly out of date (it was written in 2004), but it still reads relatively fresh and quickly. Bottom line: if you’re looking for a great book about hockey, you’ll find one here.