Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Rebel League by Ed Willes

Why I Read It: I was on skates at 3.

Summary: "The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association" - also the subtitle.

My Thoughts: I wish I was there.

Unfortunately, I was born just too late to truly appreciate the beauty of the WHA. It closed up shop when I was 8. As far as I knew when I started watching professional hockey religiously, the Hartford Whalers had just always been a part of the NHL. I had no idea that they had just merged into the league, or that they had been part of the upstart movement that was the WHA.

After reading this book, I'm left to wonder what impact a TV contract would have had on the league. Without it, the league still pulled in thousands of fans per game, somewhat akin to what Major League Lacrosse teams bring in today, perhaps a little higher on average. Had they had television in the markets where they played, outlying cities the NHL had not yet touched, like Houston, Quebec City and Winnipeg, and had they been able to deliver some of the one-of-a-kind entertainment that league provided, would they have drawn bigger crowds, increased their revenue and had a longer run?

So much of the reason for the league's existence was to buck the establishment, to free the players, and in essence, the fans. The NHL had its system. The rich got richer and the players got beat up, financially. The WHA imported the best European players and drafted kids considered "underage" by the NHL. They had started to create a greater product than the NHL was willing to produce. In time, it would have proven to be the more entertaining league (if it wasn't already by 1970s standards) and therefore would have grown.

It was, for instance, the league where Wayne Gretzky got his professional career started, and Gordie Howe played hockey with his two sons. It was where Bobby Hull made his last stand, reinvigorated by the arrival of two European players who helped revolutionize the North American game.

It was also the home of the players that would inspire the movie Slapshot, not to mention the harbor of refuge of some of the world's wackiest goalies. One claimed he was living several lives at once, essentially unstuck in time like the main character in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.

So yes, I wish I had seen it rolled out, though I wonder if I would have paid any more attention to it than I did the USFL or the XFL. Today, with the constant informational assault under which we daily stand, my guess is no. But in the '70s, in a town that didn't have an NHL club? I bet you I would have. And I'll tell you one thing - had the league had Ed Willes writing about it during its heyday, they would have had something else great going for them. If you get hockey, you will openly laugh at the story of the league as told through his words.

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