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On This Date in Sports May 6, 1973: WHAlers

The New England Whalers defeat the Winnipeg Jets 9-6 in Game 5 of a seven-game series at the Boston Garden to claim the first championship in the World Hockey Association. Leading the way for the Whalers is Larry Pleau, a Boston native, who nets a hat trick, scoring 12 goals in the postseason. Tommy Webster added two goals as the Whalers won the first AVCO Cup.

Looking to duplicate the formula of the ABA and its challenge to the NBA, the World Hockey Association began in 1972 looking to take on the NHL. The upstart league drew headlines right away, as it was able to lure away Bobby Hull from the Chicago Black Hawks, signing with the Winnipeg Jets. At the same time, Boston Bruins Goalie Gerry Cheevers left after winning the Stanley Cup to play with the Cleveland Crusaders.

The new league had its doubters, and the NHL aggressively tried to block it by expanding again, adding the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames. The Islanders were designed to prevent the WHA from making its mark in the New York area at the Nassau Coliseum, which had been successful for the New York Nets of the ABA.

The New England Whalers, coached by Jack Kelly, were the top team in the WHA’s first season, posting a record of 46-30-2, while the Winnipeg Jets, led by player-coach Bobby Hull were the top team in the Western Conference with a record of 43-31-4. Both teams were heads above the rest of the competition, dominating their respective divisions on the way to the AVCO Cup Finals. The Whalers needed five games in each of the first two rounds best of seven series beating the Ottawa Nationals and Cleveland Crusaders. The Jets, meanwhile, took out the Minnesota Fighting Saints in five games and swept the Houston Aeros in four straight games.

The Whalers jumped out early in the AVCO Cup Finals, winning the opener at home 7-2 on April 29th. After a two-day layoff, the teams would play four straight days due to arena scheduling conflicts. In Game 2 in Winnipeg, the Whalers had the scoring touch again, lighting the lamp seven times to win 7-4. After the Jets got back in the series with a 4-3 win at home in Game 3, the series shifted back to Boston, where the Whalers won 4-2 in Game 4 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.

 Game 5 would be a back-and-forth battle as both teams had the scoring touch. The Whalers started things early as Tommy Webster scored 21 seconds into the game. New England would eventually build a 5-2 lead in the first period with goals from Larry Pleau, Guy Smith, Rick Ley, and Tim Sheehy. With Danny Johnson and Norm Beaudin scoring for Winnipeg. Webster struck early again in the second period to make it 6-2 in favor of the Whalers before the Jets began to make a furious comeback. With goals from Beaudin, Milt Black, and Bob Woytowich, the Jets clawed to within one goal in the third period.  However, Larry Pleau scored twice in two minutes to complete the hat trick and finish off the Jets' hopes of extending the series. Tim Sheehy capped the scoring with an empty-net goal as the Whalers won the first AVCO Cup.

The WHA was mocked by some in hockey circles for selling the naming rights to its championship trophy. The AVCO Cup had a creative design with a free-floating etched crystal globe embedded in the stem of the cup. Sadly, the AVCO Cup was not finished in time for the Whalers to celebrate, and they were forced to skate around the ice with their Eastern Divisional trophy, earning more mockery for the WHA. After the Whalers' victory, team president Harold Baldwin issued a challenge to the NHL to play the winner of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Black Hawks.

Just for the Hell of it, Brass Bonanza.