The two pro hockey leagues held bury-the-hatchet talks last week amid speculation that the five-year-old World Hockey Association will soon be laid to rest, its strongest franchises absorbed by the National Hockey League. If that happens, posterity will remember the WHA's farewell as quite a show. On Thursday night, before a rollicking crowd of 11,461 in the Colisee, the hometown Quebec Nordiques bombed the defending champion Winnipeg Jets 8-2 in a seventh-game showdown to win the Avco World Trophy, emblematic of WHA supremacy. The Quebec victory ended a high-scoring seesaw series that posed a question for European history buffs: What did the French and Swedes have against one another, anyway?
The shoot-out started innocently enough when Winnipeg, with eight Swedes in the lineup, edged the predominantly French-Canadian Nordiques 2-1 in Quebec. That game gave no hint of the gyrations that would follow as the teams then traded wide-open 6-1 home-ice victories. After Quebec knotted the series at two games apiece with a 4-2 win in Winnipeg, events became wilder still. The Nordiques won Game Five at home by five goals (8-3) only to drop Game Six at Winnipeg by nine (12-3), a 14-goal swing that left the players muttering to themselves. Quebec's 8-2 win in the final represented a 15-goal swing in the other direction.
Off the ice, the struggle over a possible WHA-NHL get-together may be just as volatile. At issue is the desire by everybody to end the bidding war for young talent that contributed to financial losses totaling more than $15 million for each of the leagues this past season. No more than six of the 28 NHL and WHA clubs will finish this fiscal year in the black. Fact-finding committees from both leagues have been meeting regularly, and there are proposals whereby the NHL—now composed of 18 teams, four of which may not be solvent enough to start the 1977-78 season—would expand next season to admit as many as six WHA franchises, with the remaining four WHA clubs folding their tents. Some such arrangement will probably be acted upon at the annual meeting of the NHL governors beginning this weekend in Montreal.
Ed Snider, the board chairman of the Philadelphia Flyers, says that the two sides are "close to agreement" on a consolidation package. Four WHA teams with relatively strong ownerships—champion Quebec, New England, Cincinnati and Edmonton—seem ready to pay a $3 million expansion fee each to enter the NHL and another $2 million to settle any obligations to their old WHA partners. Other clubs that could be absorbed are Winnipeg, a publicly owned team that might have trouble raising the necessary cash, and Houston.
All the merger talk demonstrated anew the surprising resiliency of the WHA. which has had franchises in 24 cities—and 27 team names—in its brief but turbulent history. The Phoenix Roadrunners recently became the latest WHA club to pack it in, the San Diego Mariners want to take their burdens to Hollywood, Fla. and there are rumors that Winnipeg's Bobby Hull will redefect to the NHL Chicago Black Hawks. But just when the WHA seemed to be going under, the New England Whalers last week put together a multimillion-dollar deal and signed 49-year-old Gordie Howe and his sons Marty and Mark, whose Houston honeymoon soured this past season.
The coup for the Hartford-based Whalers was a blow to the Boston Bruins, who own the NHL rights to 22-year-old Mark Howe, a hard-shooting left wing-defenseman and one of hockey's bright young stars. Bruin General Manager Harry Sinden had offered Mark a fat contract but the Bruins' bid for 23-year-old Marty, a defenseman, was subject to Boston working out a deal with the Detroit Red Wings, who owned Marty's NHL rights. Or did they? The Red Wings had obtained Marty's rights from Montreal, but Canadien General Manager Sam Pollock apparently stipulated that Detroit could not deal Marty to another NHL club without Pollock's approval. And Boston was a definite thumbs-down.
All this uncertainty worried the Howes, who believe in family togetherness, and played into the hands of the Whalers, who even promised to come up with promotional duties for Momma Colleen Howe, who handles the family's business matters.
New England's bold stroke obviously fueled the merger-expansion-consolidation movement. But much as they covet NHL status, WHA clubs have to be concerned that their costly peace offerings might leave them without adequate operating capital. The consent of the NHL and WHA players associations has to be obtained, too. And there is stiff resistance from a handful of NHL owners, who fear that expansion will further dilute their product. "The NHL has about five clubs of its own that are in trouble," says Toronto Maple Leaf boss Harold Ballard. "We should solve that problem before we start hobnobbing with people who have cost us millions."
On the other hand, many financially strapped NHL clubs see the proposed WHA expansion fees as a windfall. And some onetime merger opponents have reversed themselves. They include the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens, who are now said to welcome Avco Trophy champion Quebec as a natural rival on the ice and a natural ally in any separatist upheaval in la belle province. "If we expand," says one opponent. "Sam Pollock will have a whole new list of general managers ready to be duped." At the same time, softliners like Philadelphia's Snider feel that elimination of at least four WHA franchises would actually amount to undilution. "It's been proven in every sport that nobody wins a war," Snider says. "And we have had a real bloodbath."
In any event, a new order appears to be coming in hockey. Last weekend a committee of NHL owners departed for meetings with player representatives in Bermuda, where they planned to serve notice that the days of runaway salaries—the NHL's average annual paycheck is almost $97,000—were over. The warning applied whether there is a WHA next year or not.