In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
After years of negotiations, the NHL absorbs four teams from the rival WHA, ending a seven-year battle for talent. Given the green light to move to the NHL was the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets. The two other WHA teams (Birmingham Bulls and Cincinnati Stingers) were given a buyout and allowed and played in the Central Hockey League a minor league that was operated by the NHL.
Born in the same tradition as the ABA which rivaled the NBA, the World Hockey Association took on the established NHL begin in 1972. The WHA looked to achieve equal footing with the NHL and made a big splash luring Bobby Hull and Gerry Cheevers with big contracts in its first season. A year later they lured Gordie Howe out of retirement to play with his sons on the Houston Aeros. The WHA challenged the NHL while it was in a stage of rapid expansion growing from six teams in 1967 to 18 teams in 1977.
By 1978, both leagues were struggling. The Pittsburgh Penguins had declared bankruptcy and nearly moved to Seattle before they were purchased by Edward DeBartolo Sr. The Minnesota North Stars and Cleveland Barons both struggled to survive and were merged, with the Barons ceasing operation. In its last move to remain relevant, the WHA removed its age limits, which allowed them to sign future stars Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier as teenagers as players had to be 20 to play in the NHL.
The leagues were close to merging in 1977, but several established owners in the NHL blocked the move. However, as the WHA played its seventh season, it had reached the 11th hour as the Indianapolis Racers were forced to fold in December despite having a rookie named Gretzky on their roster. The Great One would eventually end up on the Edmonton Oilers, as talks for a merged heated up again. Still, five major owners stood in the way, as Harold Ballard never forgave the league for causing salaries to increase. The owners of the Montreal Canadiens the Molson Brewing company did not want to share the Province of Quebec, with the Nordiques. The Boston Bruins did not want to share New England with the Whalers. In addition, the Vancouver Canucks did not want to split television money six ways, a similar feeling also motivated the Leafs and Canadiens to say no. The Los Angeles Kings, meanwhile, did not want to lose home games against eastern powerhouses.
One way or another there was not going to be another season in the WHA. The Houston Aeros a team once thought a lock for the NHL had ceased operations after 1978 as the league expressed reluctance to add another sunbelt team. This led them to send Gordie Howe and sons Mark and Marty to the New England Whalers. The NHL had planned to add just four teams, and like the Aeros, the Birmingham Bulls were not considered for inclusion, while the Cincinnati Stingers were on the outside looking in due to the failures of the Cleveland Barons.
When news that the Montreal Canadiens were acting as a major impediment to the merger plan, fans across Canada became outraged. The House of Commons had asked the NHL to reconsider, as the merger had always insisted on the adoption of the WHA’s three Canadian teams. However, with five owners entrenched it seemed impossible. The NHL would need just two owners to change their mind to bring in the WHA teams as a unanimous vote was required. Thus began the great beer boycott. The Canadiens owned by Molson had been one of the more vocal opponents to adopting the WHA teams. This led fans in Canada to call for a boycott of Molson products. To silence the criticism the Canadiens reversed their vote, as would the Canucks upon the promise of a balanced schedule. With now, just three owners voting no the league had the 75% needed for passage.
The Winnipeg Jets would go on to defeat the Edmonton Oilers two months later in the final AVCO Cup Playoffs. It was the Jets third title in four years. While the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, and New England Whalers were permitted to join the NHL, there were strings attached. The Whalers were forced to abandon the New England name and became the Hartford Whalers to alleviate the concerns of the Bruins. The WHA teams were not allowed to keep their rosters intact, as they were allowed to keep four players from their current roster with the rest of the team being subject to the NHL re-entry draft. This allowed the Whalers to hold on to the Howes and the Oilers to hold on to Wayne Gretzky, but left the WHA teams considerably disadvantaged, especially as they were also forced to draft last.
The Oilers with Wayne Gretzky became the only of the four WHA teams to have any success in the NHL, as they went on to build a dynasty winning the Stanley Cup five times in seven years. However, the other three teams would all eventually fail and relocate within 20 years. The Quebec Nordiques would become the Colorado Avalanche in 1995. The Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes a year later, and the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997.
The Winnipeg Jets would be resurrected in 2011 when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated after a decade of struggling to draw fans. There have been similar movements to bring back the Nordiques as they have a new arena in Quebec City and attempted to land an expansion team. Though with Seattle and Vegas getting the 31st and 32nd the focus has shifted to getting a struggling team to relocate, most likely the Arizona Coyotes who still can’t get a foothold in the desert. Meanwhile, fans in Hartford still long for Brass Bonanza, especially when the Hurricanes were put up for sale a few years ago.