Surgent, Scott. The Complete World Hockey Association 11th Edition. CreateSpace, 2018. Pp. 536. Photos (black & white). $29 softcover.
Reviewed by Richard A. Macales
“Well, pioneers always suffer. I don’t care [who has] been the first to embark upon things… but it had to be done.” –Bobby Hull, 82, Hall of Fame hockey player
Scott Surgent, a mathematician and sports historian, has dedicated many years to meticulous preservation and correction of professional hockey statistics. A stickler for detail, he relishes tracking down hard-to-find records — always difficult to locate and accurately compile following the folding of rival leagues in their final season. Surgent’s thoroughness clearly shows in his impressive reference work, The Complete World Hockey Association 11th Edition. Surgent, who is a principal lecturer and associate director of first-year mathematics at Arizona State University provides an excellent written history to contextualize his fascination with hockey data.
Of paramount interest to Surgent is what happened — and why — almost a half century ago in professional hockey. He describes the mid- to late-1970s as the “golden age” of the ice sport. That is when Surgent, a native of Southern California—not known for being fertile hockey “territory”—began following the National Hockey League’s Los Angeles Kings. Though Surgent was a youngster when the rival World Hockey Association existed (1972 to 1979), it was precisely the scant press coverage given the WHA that piqued Surgent’s youthful curiosity. So began what evolved into a lifelong search for one of the best mysteries in major league sports history — the boisterous founding and muted folding of the WHA. Surgent writes, “I was curious about this other league…In 1979 the WHA merged into the NHL, and you never heard another peep about the WHA after that. It was like the WHA never existed.”
Back then, there were two WHA player names that Surgent had periodically read about, buried inside of L.A.’s sports pages — Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe. Thanks to Hull and Howe, both former NHL superstars, Surgent’s initial hockey research project began in his adolescence. Looking at old newspapers on microfilm in libraries in the pre-digitalized publication age, he struck “gold.” His initial investigation discovered that on June 28, 1972 the largest contract ever in North American team sports history was awarded to then-age 33Bobby Hull, one of the best and most popular athletes of the era. In a binational deal between the USA and Canada, Hull signed a 10-year deal for $1.75 million — plus a $1-million bonus — to bring his trademark slap shot and double-knit plaid coat to a “hip” new sports league. Staid NHL officialdom bristly accused Hull and the WHA of contributing to the “Self-Indulgent” Seventies.
While playing in the NHL for Chicago, from 1957 to 1972, Hull was nicknamed “The Golden Jet” for his (helmetless) striking blond hair and that blazing left-handed slap shot (timed at an estimated 118 miles an hour). In Winnipeg, he never had a chance to complete the 10 years of his WHA contract. The WHA’s seven seasons were tumultuous and severely financially distressed from beginning to end. In his book’s latest edition, author Surgent provides the reader with all of the drama and history of each team in a rich narrative and revised statistical analysis. Line scores of all WHA regular season and playoff games are included in the book, as well as more detailed summaries of milestone games for individual players and teams.
In Hull’s case, it was not only the large sum of money he was given in 1972 (which has an inflation- adjusted rate of some 522% in 2021 purchasing power). Hull’s move to the WHA became a precedent-setting legal case in both Canadian and American courts. A prominent African-American civil rights activist-turned-U.S. Federal Court Judge, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., temporarily disallowed the NHL’s reserve clause to be enforced, thereby freeing Hull to play in the WHA. Because of the landmark 124-page ruling by Judge Higginbotham on Nov. 8, 1972, Hull became the cause celebre for all pro hockey players. Initially, “The Golden Jet” and selected other NHL stars were court-ordered to not suit up for their respective WHA teams at the beginning of the season. About 70 other ex-NHLers who had signed WHA player contracts skated for their respective new clubs from the beginning of the league’s first season, without delay… and with visibly longer hair to signify the rebelliousness of the WHA.
Given a chance to play regularly, many of these players demonstrated they belonged in the big leagues. And several landed in the starting lineup. All are included in Surgent’s player register, which includes yearly and career totals for games played, goals, assists and penalty minutes in the regular season and playoffs. For goalies, he includes their win-lose-tie records, shutouts, and goals-against-average per game. He also provides their place of birth. Back then, Canada was the country of origin (or immigration) for more than 90% of the players, far more than today. Writes Surgent, “I wanted to highlight everyone, giving guys who may have just played briefly in the WHA, some time in the sun too.” And all 807 players are listed from A to Z (Bruce Abbey to Mike Zuke).
Gordie Howe, the other “name” player familiar to L.A. sports editors, writers and fans (somewhat), was the former NHL legend that Surgent read about when “Mr. Hockey” (a registered trademark nickname) played in the WHA. Rekindling his career in midlife, in the fall of 1973, the then-45-year-old, 25-season NHL veteran, formerly with the Detroit Red Wings, accumulated many additional goals, assists, overall points, and championships in the WHA. None of them count, however, in the official NHL record book. Howe’s primary reason for coming out of retirement was the chance to play alongside his then teenaged sons, Mark, 18, and Marty, 19. Bridging the “generation gap,” the Howes agreed to a four-year contract with the WHA’s Houston Aeros, skating in the league’s second season (1973-74). All three Howes remained together on the same teams. After Houston folded, they played for the New England (later Hartford) Whalers, which were absorbed into the NHL in 1979. A father playing at the same time with his two sons, on the same team, and in two major leagues was a first in pro sports history – and a feat never duplicated in any sport to this day.
The Howe family’s WHA hockey records are prominently mentioned in Surgent’s book, particularly in the section on playoffs and championships. Together, the Howes appeared in four Avco World Trophy finals, winning two. (The Avco Cup was the WHA’s version of the NHL’s Stanley Cup.) Gordie Howe retired as a full-time player at age 52, playing with sons Mark and Marty for Hartford in the Whalers’ first NHL season, 1979-80. But this was not the only first for the Howe family, or, possibly, for pro sports. The three hockey-playing Howes’ agent was Colleen Howe — the wife of Gordie, the mother to Mark and Marty, and one of the first women to represent athletes in playing contracts and endorsements as the founding owner of Power Play International. Some reports claim she negotiated a two million dollar “package deal” for the Howe clan.
According to author Surgent, the WHA was founded by a group of pro sports visionaries almost 50 years ago (Sept. 13, 1971). They ranged from non-hockey novices (Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson) from sunny Orange County, California, to veteran hockey team managers (“Wild Bill” Hunter and others) scattered along Canada’s freezing Prairie Provinces of Alberta and Manitoba. The latter had been denied franchises by the National Hockey League (established in 1917). In contrast, the WHA recognized Alberta’s and Manitoba’s growth, thanks in large part to an oil boom. The WHA placed teams there, and lobbied, successfully, to have modern major league arenas built. Today the NHL has very profitable teams in Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary, playing to sellout crowds in large, opulent sports arenas.
Heading into the 1970s, the NHL was steeped in archaic traditions and had a stubborn unwillingness to adapt to innovative ideas. WHA leadership, in contrast, was open to all suggestions on how to improve the product. WHA teams had colorful uniforms, clever, eye-catching logos, slick magazines. All was mod.
Hull’s signing opened a floodgate of talent mired in the NHL’s minor leagues, some of whom went on to have productive WHA careers. Alton White, a “career” minor leaguer, became the first Black major leaguer to score a three-goal “hat trick” in a single game in the WHA. He did it twice, according to Surgent’s stat list of hat tricks. This earned the Canadian-born White a feature story and photo spread (shown helmetless, with a vintage ‘70s Afro) in Ebony magazine in April, 1973. White’s WHA club, the Los Angeles Sharks, became the first major league hockey team to make a serious attempt to reach out and draw significant numbers of Black fans to its primary home rink, the iconic Los Angeles Sports Arena. The WHA newspaper, The Hockey Spectator (Dec. 8 and 15, 1972), welcomed White’s acquisition by the Sharks. This outstanding publication (most deservedly given recognition in Surgent’s book), boasted that L.A.’s minor league hockey team in the early 1960s was the first to include two Black players on the roster at the same time. One of the players, Willie O’Ree, was the first Black to play in the NHL, in two very short stints with Boston (1958 and 1961). Surgent remarks, “I always felt the Sharks blew an opportunity to bring in a few old-time [Los Angeles] Blades players (e.g., Willie O’Ree) as a way to connect the team to the old WHL [Western Hockey League] team, and also a way to peel off fans from the [NHL’s L.A.] Kings.”
Later, the WHA pioneered the signing of some of Europe’s finest players, particularly from Sweden, to further enhance the quality of play. This gave the league’s name — “World” — true meaning; well before the NHL, according to Surgent. In a controversial move during the Cold War between the USA and former USSR, each WHA team played a home game vs. “Soviet All-Stars” in 1978-79. These games counted in regular season standings and statistics. Many “Soviet All-Stars” later appeared in the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” the stunning upset defeat by the USA at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. The WHA also hosted games with teams representing the former Communist Czechoslovakia and neutral Finland – two international hockey powers. Surgent includes complete statistics for the three European teams that competed in WHA regular season games in 1978-79. Line scores of games, as well as summaries of other exhibition matches against the Soviets throughout the duration of the WHA also are included.
During its history, WHA teams played home games in a total of 26 cities spread over seven seasons. Nine were located in cities with NHL teams. And Surgent writes about all 26, including their arenas (with many exterior photos). Locating suitable facilities (without an NHL team or minor league affiliate) that could accommodate a hockey rink and would rent to WHA teams often was difficult. Exceptions were New York’s Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden. In addition to New York and Boston, American cities with established NHL teams that the WHA challenged (and ultimately folded or moved to other cities) included: Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit and Minnesota (St. Paul). In Canada, the WHA tried to make a go of it in Toronto (Maple Leaf Gardens) and Vancouver (Pacific Coliseum). All two-team city duals were costly blunders for the WHA. Surgent provides background on the owners, team management, radio/TV outlets and announcers (which included Steve Albert and John Sterling).
Surgent reminds us that hockey’s greatest player ever, Wayne Gretzky, had his roots in the WHA. Nicknamed “The Great One,” he was a member of the Edmonton Oilers, the only WHA team to defeat the Soviet All-Stars in 1978 (December 15). Surgent recalls, “I remember Wayne Gretzky’s first appearances in the WHA. It was vague to me, but begged the question — if he’s so great, why is he not in the NHL?”
In 1978, Gretzky, then only 17 years old, agreed to a seven-year deal for $1.75 million to play for the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers. Unlike Hull’s deal, however, Gretzky’s was a personal services contract, guaranteed by the team owner, not the Indianapolis Racers or the WHA. Unbeknownst to the Gretzky family (“Stage Dad” Walter Gretzky helped broker the deal), the Racers’ Canadian owner was secretly teetering on his own personal financial insolvency. In Indianapolis, Gretzky’s rookie debut lasted a total of eight games, with 3 goals and 3 assists. But the Hoosier state is where it all began in the pros for Gretzky. Surgent has it well documented. Gretzky and his owner’s “personal services contract” were quickly shipped off to the Edmonton Oilers (one step ahead of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). Mainly due to Gretzky in the lineup, the Edmonton Oilers were given permission to join the NHL. And Gretzky didn’t disappoint. He went on to break most NHL single season and career scoring records.
Bobby Hull’s Winnipeg Jets were the most successful franchise in the history of the WHA – appearing in five of the seven league championship finals (winning three). In its finale, the WHA shrank to a compact six clubs, half the size of when it began in 1972. Its smallness and respectable showing against international competition in 1978-79 gained it partial entry into, and begrudging acceptance by, the National Hockey League. Four WHA teams were allowed entry into the NHL: the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques.
Scott Surgent makes a most convincing case that WHA stats merit inclusion in the NHL record book. The World Hockey Association was legitimately major league, and not just for the caliber of its players. It has earned its place for successfully taking on the sports Establishment in the courtroom; partially ending the reserve clause for players and antitrust laws practiced by the NHL on its “territory” (Canada and the U.S. East Coast), all of which the older league considered its “personal property.” The WHA helped lay the groundwork for ushering in free agency for athletes in all North American major league sports. The pioneering efforts of the WHA and Bobby Hull brought much innovation and free thinking to the sports world. The Complete World Hockey Association 11th Edition relives one of pro sports’ best kept historical secrets and also helps us better understand the outspoken stance taken by many 21st century athletes. The WHA redefined the rules, forcing change. Through Sugent’s comprehensive research, all WHA records and its other intriguing moves, innovations and ending of the status quo will now live on in perpetuity.
Rich Macales, a native Angeleno, is a former longtime senior writer and public information officer for UCLA. He is a contributor to the encyclopedia/anthology, American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols and Ideas, edited by Prof. Murry R. Nelson, ABC/Clio. For SAH, Macales has written reviews about other defunct leagues – the American Basketball Association [ABA] and All-America Football Conference [AAFC].