The Birmingham Bulls, who seemed to be goners, are back, the Houston Aeros are goners, and consolidation with the NHL seems as unlikely as Gordie Howe's retirement. Still another merger fling—No. 7, in case you are keeping count—fizzled last June, so the Incredible Shrinking League, which started with 12 teams in 1972 and has had franchises in 28 different cities, opens its seventh season with seven teams, five new coaches and a lot of rich teeny-boppers. Howard Baldwin, who wears two hats as the WHA president and managing general partner of the New England Whalers, is, as always, semi-optimistic. "I'd be a liar if I said the league is where I want it to be financially," he says, "but the franchises have finally begun to stabilize. We're in much better shape this year than we've ever been. Things have started to change."
The major change for the 1978 AVCO Cup champion WINNIPEG Jets is the loss of most of its Swedish contingent. Forwards Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg jumped to the New York Rangers; Wing Dan Labraaten defected to Detroit; and Defenseman Mike Ford went to Stockholm. The Jets will also miss Goaltender Gary Bromley, who split to Vancouver of the NHL. To plug holes, Winnipeg purchased the rights to many of the defunct Houston Aeros, including the forward line of Rich Preston (25 goals), playmaker Terry Ruskowski (15 goals) and Morris Lukowich (40 goals). From the junior ranks, the Jets signed Center Dale Yakiwchuk, a second-round Montreal pick, and Defenseman Paul MacKinnon, who preferred Winnipeg to Washington. Joe Daley's 3.30 goals-against average was second best in the WHA, but understudy Markus Mattsson is erratic.
Winnipeg co-owner and Left Wing Bobby Hull lost one set of Swedish linemates, Nilsson and Hedberg, but now may work with another Swedish tandem—Center Kent Nilsson (no relation to Ulf), the WHA's rookie of the year with 42 goals and 65 assists, and Right Wing Willy Lindstrom, a 30-goal scorer.
New England Whaler Gordie Howe was told he would have a spot on the team 'till the roof caves in.' So when the Hartford Civic Center's roof collapsed last January, Baldwin received a frantic phone call from Howe: "Howard, we must renegotiate!" The Whalers, who should be the best team in the league, will play in nearby Springfield, Mass. this season while awaiting the reconstruction of the Hartford arena.
The 50-year-old Howe is coming off a 34-goal, 96-point 30th major league season, sons Mark and Marty return for another showing of All in the Family, and the team has further improved the stingiest defense in the league (269 goals allowed) with the addition of John Garrett from Birmingham. Garrett, who will share goaltending with Al Smith, almost singlehandedly led the Bulls into the playoffs last year, and has 12 WHA career shutouts. New Coach Bill Dineen arrived from Houston with Center Andrè Lacroix, the WHA's alltime leading scorer (219 goals, 491 assists). An adroit playmaker, Lacroix (see page 58) will work between Gordie and Mark. New England's weakness may be on the right wing. Gordie has shifted there from center to help out, but the Whalers will need big scoring seasons from Johnny (Pie) McKenzie and Warren Miller, an acquisition from Quebec.
In the storm-tossed financial waters of the WHA, the EDMONTON Oilers are a calm sea: they've never missed a payday. Edmonton lost a mere $1 million in 1977-78 while leading the league in attendance (average: 10,235). The Oilers are so confident of an overture from the other league, their ticket office promises season subscribers that they can renew their seats next year "either in the WHA or the NHL." Coach Glen Sather's club spent the off-season training in Europe; acquired NHL veterans such as Jim Neilson, Stan Weir and Claire Alexander; and signed high NHL draft selections such as Left Wing Dave Hunter, a first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens. If Dennis Sobchuk isn't injured again, Ron Chipperfield (33 goals) won't be the only dependable center on the roster. Paul Shmyr anchors a defense that Neilson should help stabilize with his experience, and Dave Dryden and Ed Walsh should provide efficiency, if not brilliance, in the goal.
The WHA's major coup of the off-season was the signing by QUEBEC of Right Wing Danny Geoffrion, Montreal's No. 1 draft pick—and Boom-Boom's little boy—who got a $1 million, five-year contract. Left Wing Richard David also bypassed the rouge, blanc et bleu for the Nordiques' plain bleu. WHA scoring champ Marc Tardif (65 goals, 89 assists) and linemate Real Cloutier (56 goals, 73 assists) provide firepower up front. Dale Hoganson, back after a brief stay in Birmingham, will try to caulk the Nordiques' leaky defense, which allowed 347 goals, just two fewer than the Nordiques scored. New Coach Jacques Demers must do something about his team's dismal record away from the Coliseum: Quebec had a WHA-high 29 wins on home ice last season but had only 11 triumphs on the road.
The CINCINNATI Stingers nearly went kaput over the summer. Only a strong response to a season-ticket campaign (2,100 new subscriptions) kept the Stingers going. Super Center Robbie Ftorek (59 goals, 50 assists), Wing Rick Dudley (30 goals, 41 assists) and 18-year-old rookie Right Wing Mike Gartner provide the offense for new Coach Floyd Smith, but the defense is so weak that Goaltender Michel Dion once again will suffer from shell shock.
Indianapolis has Center Wayne Gretzky, but not much more. The Racers signed "Great Grits" to a seven-year, $1.7 million pact after the 17-year-old flash scored 70 goals last season for the amateur Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Whatever he does for the Racers, Gretzky cannot possibly do enough to cover up the WHA's worst defense.
The WHA got into the teen-age flesh market when BIRMINGHAM signed 19-year-old Ken Linseman last season. Although the WHA prohibits the signing of so-called underage players—those who have not reached the age of 20—a U.S. court has ruled that the league cannot prevent teams from using players below that age. Linseman has been sold to Philadelphia, but Bulls owner John Bassett and Coach John Brophy have added seven more players from the teenage pool, including Keith Crowder and Craig Hartsburg. With tough guys Steve Durbano and Frank Beaton and scorers Linseman and Mark Napier having moved to the NHL, these untried youngsters will have to produce—or else.
Will all seven teams survive the season? Will someone start a franchise in Hawaii? Can the WHA find happiness—and solvency—while playing second fiddle to the NHL? Says Baldwin, "We've got seven teams. That's one more than the NHL had 11 years ago."
Ex-Bull John Garrett should have a Whaler of a time.