Book Review: The Rebel League. The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association
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Book Review: The Rebel League. The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association

The WHA existed for just seven seasons from 1972 until 1979. The league changed the hockey world forever.

The World Hockey Association revolutionized professional hockey in a seven year span from 1972 to 1979. The WHA brought the competition necessary to break the archaic ways of the National Hockey League and how the established league treated and paid their players. More than that, the WHA brought excitement and simple mad-capped zaniness to what was a stale game.

The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association was written in 2004 by Ed Willes. The 277 pages over twelve chapters chronicles the birth of the league as a simple idea in the head of Dennis Murphy in 1970 to the death of the league after the 1978-79 season. Of course, four teams would survive and merge into the NHL, ensuring the legacy of the WHA.

The WHA made a splash when they began to sign away players from the NHL for their inaugural 1972-73 season. However, it wasn’t until the Winnipeg Jets penned hockey great Bobby Hull to a million dollar deal that the survival of the league was guaranteed beyond that first season. Hull, Derek Sanderson and Bernie Parent were the big names ‘stolen’ from the NHL to give the WHA a running start.

Players were lured to the upstart league with big contracts. However, to pay these players the big bucks, teams had to skimp in other ways. The economic creativity of the league and the loyalty of the players creates a non-stop parade of interesting and at times hysterical anecdotes that make this book an addicting read for hockey fans and even those that have never heard of the game before.

There is a whole chapter dedicated to the Minnesota Fighting Saints. The chapter is called “We had every idiot who ever played”. The team began in the league with a roster filled with local players who starred at the university level. It soon became obvious that the crowds in St. Paul didn’t want to see the same players that they’d watched for years. They wanted to see the style of game that was being played at the time by the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers (aka Broad Street Bullies). They wanted to see fighting. The legendary hockey movie ‘Slapshot’, starring Paul Newman, is based on the players of the Minnesota Fighting Saints.

One arena that was so close to a slaughter house that it constantly smelled of rotten meat, clear plexi-glass boards, blue pucks, chain link fence in place of end glass (great for dumping beer on players during the game), payrolls not being met for weeks at a time, teams changing homes in the middle of the season. This was the WHA.

Willes also speaks of what could have been. The goal of the WHA right from the beginning was a merger with the NHL. However, in the league’s second last season, it was commonly thought that the WHA champion Winnipeg Jets were as strong, or stronger, than the NHL’s powerhouse Montreal Canadiens. The Jets asked the Canadiens to play in a champion’s series but the NHL refused. Had that series been allowed and the Jets had won, just maybe the WHA would still be existence today.

In the end, four teams remained. The Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and New England Whalers began the 1979-80 season in the NHL. The Oilers brought with them Wayne Gretzky and the Whalers enabled Gordie Howe to play one last season in the NHL before he retired at the age of 52. Bobby Hull would also appear in nine more NHL games that season with the Whalers.

This book is pure entertainment. Even if you have no interest in the game of hockey, you will find yourself laughing out loud at the unbelievable but true stories that only a rebel league in the 1970’s could provide.

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Comments (2)

Yes, I'd like to read this book. Oops! Do you mean Paul Newman – not Robert Redford – starred in the movie "Slapshot?" This book sounds like the hockey version of Loose Balls – a history of the American Basketball Association.

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Oops is right, William! It was Paul Newman! Very similar the the ABA and the World Football League...