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WHEN Hell FROZE OVER
Allen Abel
April 06, 1998
Twenty-five years after the renegade World Hockey Association first dropped the puck, players who jumped leagues for big bucks look back and laugh—or cry
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April 06, 1998

When Hell Froze Over

Twenty-five years after the renegade World Hockey Association first dropped the puck, players who jumped leagues for big bucks look back and laugh—or cry

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The WHA was like buying a motor home. There are only two great days—the day you buy it and the day you sell it.
—Derek Sanderson

We are without merit. We are in free fall. We are a generation of guys with no statistics—only stories. We are WHA guys living in a WHA world.
—Al Smith

This is the hour to celebrate hockey's great pretender: a league where Bobby Hull soared, Gordie Howe scored and Maurice Richard coached (for a week). Where Wayne Gretzky arrived, Frank Mahovlich thrived, and Derek Sanderson—when his team's first home game was canceled because the Zamboni crashed through the ice—was pelted with pucks by irate fans.

Mark Messier played here, and scored one goal all season. Harry Neale coached a team, but it folded. Twice. (Another team went under five times.) The league's championship trophy was sponsored by a finance company. The Dayton and Miami franchises never played a game. The Ottawa team, in its second incarnation, lasted only two nights. The league's most memorable moment came when a brawler yanked the toupee off the No. 1 star. Yet the league endured—and, in places, flourished—for seven unforgettable years.

This was the World Hockey Association, created in the Watergate autumn of 1972 by a marriage of California confidence men and giddy millionaires with major league dreams. The new league didn't just change the face of hockey; it drew a mustache and beard on the portrait of a fossilized sport. The WHA terrorized the NHL's fraternity of plantation slaveholders, blithely kidnapped teenage prospects, crusaded bravely into the Sun Belt, enriched a few headliners and an underclass of ordinary puck chasers beyond their wildest nightmares, and went head-to-head with the NHL in every major North American city—and lost every time.

In its brief and addled existence, the WHA spanned the continent from Boston to Vancouver, from St. Paul to Birmingham. Its rosters included many of the icons of the sport: Howe, Hull, Mahovlich, Gerry Cheevers, Paul Henderson, Dave Keon, Bernie Parent and Jacques Plante. The league sent its All-Stars to Moscow as the proxies of Canada's national pride—and won one game out of eight. It enlisted some of the fiercest goons in hockey history, yet it embraced Europe's daintiest pros and welcomed the U.S. collegians and Russian militiamen whose kind would rise to rule the game today.

Twenty-five years after the first blue WHA pucks were dropped, the Chicago Cougars and Minnesota Fighting Saints, the Michigan Stags and New York Golden Blades are ancient history. (Only the Edmonton Oilers endure, by a thread. The fact that the NHL has planted teams in every U.S. city larger than Hope, Ark., keeps the Oilers in Canada.) But the legacy of the WHA—from Gretzky and Messier to the explosion of U.S. and European players—remains vibrant even as the defunct circuit's bankers search for dozens of former players who are entitled to small pensions but have disappeared.

To WHA veterans, the league's bequest varies from riches to rags. Some of its former stars remain prominent in pro hockey as players, executives, scouts, commentators and coaches. The luckiest of them glide through middle age in an Elysium of golf and beer. Most, however, have returned to a less celestial existence in the mortal grip of families and work. Several are dead. Some live in poverty. One is in prison. Another, a sportscaster, was murdered outside an Ottawa television studio by a madman with a hatred of reporters.

As a charter member of the WHA press corps, I was assigned to track down a few of the survivors. My search stretched across the continent, around the clock and far beyond the arenas where, for an instant, they found their fame.

OUTSIDE THE CHESHIRE INN, ST. LOUIS

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