The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

From out of nowhere, Bobby Hull has emerged as the commissioner of a reconstituted, latter-day revival of the World Hockey Association.

I had to check my calendar when I read this item--not to see if I had been magically transported back to the 1970s, but to make sure that April Fool's Day hadn't crept up on me somehow.

I mean, this has to be a total joke, right? A rival, poaching league, setting up shop in 2004? Formed largely around the assumption of a work stoppage in the NHL after this coming season? I'm not convinced, and I'll believe it when I see it.

I know one thing: If this becomes real, the NHL can forget about "cost certainty". The one sure thing a rival league means, even if it lasts only a few years, is escalating salaries for players, since outlets for their services automatically increase. In fact, for this reason, it wouldn't surprise me much to find out that the NHLPA might be behind this whole thing.

The Hockey News also reports that Hull will lobby for WHA franchises building new arenas to make the ice surface 200 feet by 100 feet - international size - as opposed to the NHL's 200 by 85.

No kidding, they'll need new arenas. But not really for the stated purpose of fitting in bigger ice surfaces. It's because of the biggest reason why a rival league in hockey--or any major sport, really--faces a tremendous uphill battle from day one: Established teams, for all practical purposes, control their sports facilities, de facto if not always de jure. It stands to reason that they aren't going to let a competing league set up shop in their own house (which was the case for many NHL teams during the first WHA's heyday). That translates into some very, very well-heeled backers for these teams and this league, which really makes me doubt the credibility of this whole story. We'll see, right?

Any mention of the ol' W reminds me of a wire story I read years ago, and that I didn't have the foresight to save. It was an alternate-history speculation, about how things might have been different for hockey if the WHA had never taken off--specifically, if Bobby Hull hadn't bolted to the upstart league in 1972. The highlights I recall are the later introduction of European players (as the WHA's Jets wouldn't have been around to jump-start the process), and Wayne Gretzky getting drafted by the Maple Leafs in the second round of the NHL draft (versus never being drafted by either league, rather simply signing a contract with the old WHA Indianapolis Racers).