There is a theory abroad that North America has an insatiable appetite for anything called major league ice hockey. The events of last week, during which the National Hockey League stocked its two newest expansion teams with the usual castoffs while awarding two more franchises for 1974, and the fledgling World Hockey Association culled the majors, minors and countries overseas for anyone not patently 4-F, made it clear that that theory will be tested sharply, and soon.
The NHL governors conferred 42 marginal players upon their newest lodge brothers, the Atlanta Flames and the New York Islanders, and it took statisticians nothing flat to show that Boston's Phil Esposito scored as many goals last season (66) as all the new Islanders combined, 13 more than all the Flames. Then the governors paused to play a game of political puck with 10 applications for the franchises in a 1974-75 expansion before settling finally on Kansas City and, with a bow to Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R., Pa.), Washington, D.C.
Most of their private talks, though, centered anxiously on that star of stars, 33-year-old Bobby Hull (see cover), and on the WHA. Four months ago WHA might have meant Waukegan Harmonica Association for all they cared. But by last weekend the new league had signed 69 players, including 22 who performed in the NHL last season, and it is just about certain the WHA will start play as promised this October. And Hull may be with 'em.
Ben Hatskins, said to be the jukebox king of Canada, has offered Hull $2 million to sign a five-year contract as the player-coach of his Winnipeg Jets in the WHA. When and if Hatskins deposits a $1 million advance in Hull's bank account, the Golden Jet will indeed be the Golden Jet.
"I've made a verbal deal with Winnipeg and the WHA," Hull said last weekend. "If they make good on it, I'm gone. They will have themselves a hockey player. I would be a fool not to take advantage of an offer like this. But the money will have to be in the bank before I put my signature on the dotted line."
Hull's jump from Chicago to Winnipeg apparently hinges on the willingness of the 10 other WHA teams to contribute $100,000 apiece to a Get Hull fund reminiscent of the ABA kitty assembled in 1969 for Lew Alcindor—unsuccessfully. Hatskins would provide the other $1 million. Although all the WHA owners reportedly agreed to such an arrangement several weeks ago, some were said to be wavering, weighing Hull's prestige and gate appeal against the player strength available for $100,000.
If Hatskins and the WHA fail to produce the money soon, Hull probably will sign another contract with the Black Hawks for not much more than the reported $150,000 a year they have been paying him. There also is a possibility that Chicago will trade Hull to Jack Kent Cooke's Los Angeles Kings. Cooke desperately needs a man of Hull's caliber to create hockey interest in Los Angeles, one of the few NHL cities that doesn't draw very well, and he supposedly is willing to pay Hull as much as it will take to keep him happy in the NHL and away from the WHA.
Hull and the Black Hawks have not been on friendly terms the last three years. Hull believes he was humiliated in 1969 when the Hawks scheduled one of the few downtown press conferences in their history and forced him to apologize publicly for an extended holdout. "I can never forget what they did to me then," he has said.
The Hawks also required Hull to play a more controlled style of hockey, no longer permitting him to freewheel in the way that once enchanted his admirers. There is no doubt that he longs for the old days, although he does admit "this new style will lengthen my career by three or four years."
Hull's next move will either start a legal war between the NHL and the WHA over the reserve clause in Hull's contract with the Black Hawks, or it will enable the NHL to relax again until, say, someone like the young hotshot Gilbert Perreault, who prefers his native Quebec to Buffalo, jumps leagues.
Of the 22 players who have jumped so far, the NHL considers only one, Goaltender Bernie Parent, a major loss. The nonhousehold names in the chart below plus the gaps at the coaching level graphically demonstrate how far the WHA has to go. (Ratings of the teams' staying qualities reflect potential spectator support, arenas and club bankrolls.) Parent bolted the Toronto Maple Leafs and signed a five-year, $750,000 contract with the Miami Screaming Eagles of the WHA, who subsequently became the Philadelphia Blazers. As of now the NHL owners do not plan to sue players who have already agreed to terms with the WHA. But if Hull goes, or Perreault, they will.
What the NHL wants to do least of all is engage in a costly fight with the WHA over Hull or any other player. "Two of our owners [Cooke of the Kings and Roy Boe of the New York Islanders] also own professional basketball teams," said Weston W. Adams Jr., the 27-year-old president of the Boston Bruins, "and they keep getting up at our meetings and telling us to learn from the mistakes they made, not to get involved in endless money wars."
Obviously the NHL has some fast learners, particularly in politics. As the owners met to discuss the 1974 expansion, the Kansas City application (actually for the well-to-do Johnson County, Kans. suburban area) was practically guaranteed a favorable reception. One of the prospective owners happened to be the son of William M. Jennings, president of the New York Rangers and the most powerful voice in the league. The leading candidates for the second franchise were, in order, Cincinnati, Phoenix and Cleveland. Then politics skated into play.
Senator Scott dispatched a long telegram to the governors. He mentioned that President Nixon was behind the proposed Eisenhower Sports Center in Washington and that an NHL franchise would be most welcome. Scott, as the governors knew, is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has an Antitrust Subcommittee. "After Senator Scott's telegram," Adams said, "we received a lot of pressure from Washington through phone calls. They all said the same thing: Washington should have a franchise. Well, why not? It will never hurt us to have a team in the nation's capital." Now Washington will have a hockey team and it may get the Baltimore Bullets, too, since Abe Pollin owns both franchises.
What worries the NHL, however, is that some of the rejected applicants, particularly Cleveland, Cincinnati, Phoenix and San Diego, will bid for WHA franchises rather than wait for the next NHL expansion in, perhaps, 1976. The NHL plans to have 24 teams in North America by the 1980s. Joining the WHA might be a wiser proposition, financially as well as competitively.
For his franchise Roy Boe of the Islanders paid $6 million to the NHL and $4 million to the New York Rangers (for infringing upon their territory). Including interest payments, Boe projects a total cost of more than $19 million over the next 10 years. On the ice his prospects are hardly bright. Indeed, only one of the existing eight expansion teams in the NHL had a winning record last season. The parity gap between the old and new teams has widened, not narrowed, since the first expansion in 1967.
By contrast a WHA franchise cost only $25,000 when the league was formed and now the price is about $200,000. Expenses fluctuate with the initiative of the team. The New England Whalers spent freely to sign 14 players and easily have the strongest team in the WHA. But Quebec, Ottawa and Chicago, reluctant to splurge, had signed only three players among them.
One major hurdle for all WHA teams will be the availability of adequate playing facilities with prime scheduling dates. Alberta, Ottawa, Chicago and probably Philadelphia will play most of their home games in buildings with capacities under 10,000. The New York Raiders, who are up against the Rangers and the Islanders for Fun City's hockey dollar, will play all their games in Madison Square Garden and the Whalers will play about half theirs in Boston Garden, but both teams have been offered mostly unattractive dates, such as Christmas and New Year's Eve as well as Saturday and Sunday afternoons and Monday nights opposite the pro-football telecasts.
Well, at least The Boom is back in the spotlight. Boom-Boom Geoffrion, the former Montreal gunner, is in Atlanta, coaching the Flames and telling all his Montreal cronies in his heavy, French-accented voice, "Y'all come down and see us now, heah."
Meanwhile Winnipeg pleads with Hull to come on up. And he's listening. "The name of the game now," Hull says, "is money."