The WHA Blog: “Rebel League” by Ed Willes & “Gordie Howe: My Story” Book Reviews, Pictures of WHA at Hockey Hall of Fame, What WHA Meant in Hockey History & More

Here I am with the AVCO World Cup!

What’s up everyone and welcome to another blog here on BlueCollarBlueShirts.com. For the first time ever, I’m presenting three blogs on the same day. Again, you can read about my trip to Toronto by visiting http://doinow.com/toronto and get my Rangers/Detroit review by visiting http://doinow.com/detroit

I’ve reviewed several hockey books on this site before and I didn’t want two excellent books to get lost in the shuffle of a monstrous blog. It seems the authors of those books wanted to plug the reviews (at least the positive reviews) for their readers, but the review was buried under 34884358 paragraphs on why Henrik Lundqvist is paid too much! You can always browse the archives on the right hand of the site for previous book reviews I’ve done.

I’ve always enjoyed the history of hockey. In fact, I just enjoy history in general. How people lived. How people handled situations. I am avid reader of anything American History. The Jefferson vs Adams stuff always intrigues me. Learning about history is not wasted knowledge to me.

For any aspiring students out there, if history interests you, even just a little bit, it’s a great subject to major in. Just think, you can never be wrong if you argue well! In math 2+2 will always equal 4, but in history, you can take different views and angles on anything. It’s much easier to bullshit your way through an essay or thesis on the Transcontinental Railroad than bullshitting your way through a calculus test.

I’ll tell you another thing, from someone who’s lived it – I’ve never used sin, cosine or tangents ever in my life. I’ve never had to find the square root of a number. I never had to sit around and figure if P is Q then R is S+T either. On the flipside, I have talked history in bars, airports, trains, at work. Current events and politics will always surround your life everyday. The last time I used a protractor was 16 years ago and it was used as a frisbee in an Algebra 101 class at the University of Nassau Community!

I read a ton of books and it’s getting to the point I need more bookshelves than the 3 huge ones I already have! I usually read an American history book to every 2 sports books. Getting the time is hard sometimes, but I can speed read which helps the process. Two books that were on my list for a while that I finally got to enjoy were “The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association” by Ed Willes and “Mr. Hockey: My Story” by the great Gordie Howe.

Being born in 1982, my first real vivid sports memories, where I can remember everything clearly were Don Mattingly games and the Giants winning the Superbowl, via Scott Norwood, I was never familiar with the WHA. In fact, I was born three years after it merged with the NHL.

As I started watching more hockey and getting into more sports, I heard about the WHA, the old rebel league, just like I heard about the ABA in pro basketball or USFL in football. It fascinated me that someone was able to create a league in direct competition with the gold standard. I don’t think you’ll ever see another league today challenge any of the big four. The last league that tried, the XFL, was laughed at. Like many of these rebel leagues, some of the ideas the rebel leagues brought to the table were added into the big league. The same went for the WHA. You could argue that the WHA had a bigger direct impact on the bigger league than any other rebel league in sports history.

The only real “rebel” leagues you see today are the ones in MMA, Boxing and Pro Wrestling. UFC’s competitor, Bellator, is a complete joke that features fights that demerits the sport. Is it entertaining to watch? At times it is, but it is no where in UFC’s league and it comes off even worse than second-rate. WWE’s competition in pro wrestling is also a joke, when compared financially. ROH, Lucha Underground & TNA, WWE’s three biggest “competitors” are light-years behind the WWE in profitability and name brand value. It’s not to say that the other leagues in MMA, Boxing or Pro Wrestling doesn’t influence the big leagues, because they do, but at the end of the day, these smaller leagues have no shot at becoming the number 1 standard bearer in their field.

Gordie Howe brought a lot of eyes to the WHA

As someone who appreciates history, I couldn’t wait to finally read all about the WHA and what it was like. I did not experience it, but imagine having a WHA type of league now? Something just completely independent of the NHL? When the WHA started in 1972, there was no such thing as TV contracts, Game Center Apps and all the jazz we have today. It also costs a lot more to run a team today than it did back then. But it’s fun to think about. So as I took my flight to Toronto this week, I was able to read the take of a one Ed Willes.

Released 10+ years ago, this book is worth the read if you haven’t read it yet

For starters, you gotta love Amazon.com. You really can get any book for cents on the dollar if you wait a bit to buy them. Sometimes you gotta buy them used, but who cares? As long as there are no bodily fluid stains on them!

When looking around for a book to read about the WHA, Ed Willes “Rebel League” got the most positive reviews on Amazon. It also didn’t hurt that the book was $4 USD when I bought it too!

As someone with only a Wikipedia’s knowledge of how the WHA formed and their effects on the NHL, I took a lot out of this book. I’ve read other reviews where the reviewer, who remembers that era, thought Ed Willes left stuff out, but for me, I thought it was a great book. Upon further research, some reviewers felt more time could’ve been given to other players, but sometimes you only got so much space to fill. Plus for me, I was more interested in the business aspect, the formation, the merger and the WHA’s effect on the NHL. I got all that in this book.

If I had any gripe about the book, at the end, there is a section telling you the teams season-by-season in the WHA. If anything, the standings, point leaders and AVCO Cup Champions should’ve been included as well. It’s really a small gripe and it’s something you could find out in two seconds through a google search.

The book talks all about how the WHA was formed. Ironically, the same guy who had a hand in forming the ABA in basketball, Dennis Murphy, got the wheels going on the formation of the WHA. Murphy wasn’t a hockey guy and recruited Bill Hunter, of the Western Canada Hockey League to help run the operations. Murphy would be the promoter and also tried find ways to make the game more spectator friendly. He even wanted to get rid of the red line right away to increase scoring. He also wanted different color pucks, which were experimented with, but never took hold. Hunter would run the hockey end of things and away they went.

What struck me as interesting is that the WHA wasn’t formed because of someone having a falling out with the NHL. Murphy just saw it is as a way to make money and because he was tired of the ABA.

The book details how the WHA grew. Every business transaction and team formation/bankruptcy is discussed. There are many quotes from players, coaches and executives that were involved in the WHA. While the WHA would have some nice buildings in the league, the majority of the were run down places. Still, these old barns would get a couple thousand people to watch hockey. The WHA would take chances in markets the NHL ignored, like Winnipeg, Edmonton, Hartford & Quebec, which all eventually would be merged into the NHL. The WHA even went into non-hockey areas like Houston & Birmingham! The WHA also did go into big cities like Toronto and NYC, but couldn’t get success like their NHL counterparts. It wasn’t because there was an NHL team there, but the cost of operating venues proved too much to bear.

Author Ed Willes takes a mostly comedic tone throughout the book but when it was time to talk a serious subject, he pumped the brakes on the lightheartedness. I enjoyed that, being a guy who always up for a quick laugh. It’s one of the reasons the book flew by so well.

The WHA may have never taken off without this man

After talking about the complete formation of the WHA and it’s rising, the book then details how the WHA really got steam – when the Winnipeg Jets signed Bobby Hull of the Chicago Blackhawks, to a deal, where he made $250,000 per season, plus a $1M signing bonus. The money was unheard of at the time.

In the original 6 era, teams/owners dominated all contract negotiations. They had the power. Even with the Great Expansion of 1967, the team owners controlled everything. There were even clauses in contracts that players couldn’t talk about what they were getting paid. This book, and Gordie Howe’s book, talks in much length about the WHA’s effect on NHL salaries.

If anything, the WHA affected the NHL, more than any other rebel league in pro sports because it drove up salaries, gave the players bargaining power come contract time and created higher signing bonuses. Obviously, the NHL owners hated the WHA for this.

Away from the money issue, and really, even in 2016, all you hear about when you talk about pro sports is money, the WHA also integrated juniors and international players into the league. The NHL had mostly featured Canadians and Americans. The WHA featured players from Russia, Finland and anywhere else that had skilled players. The WHA also drafted young players, the biggest coup coming when the Houston Aeros signed Marty & Mark Howe, the sons of Gordie Howe. With those signings and Bobby Hull’s money clearing into the bank with no problem, it brought the biggest name in NHL history, out of retirement and back onto the ice, as Gordie Howe lived out his dream of playing professional hockey with his kids.

With players like Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and Derek Sanderson in the league, the WHA raised its profile. The WHA would even hold their own against the NHL in exhibition games. The WHA created a bidding war for talent. While you had to still be elite to play in the NHL, the WHA did have elite talent. They also had talent that would not be NHL caliber too. Sometimes that made the game more exciting, as you would see elite guys really dominate and you would see some hellish fights too!

While always a Red Wing, Howe cherished his days in the WHA

Ed Willes did a bang-up job with “Rebel League”. After talking about the talent acquisition period of the WHA, the book then dives into the successes the WHA had before its downfall. And to call it a downfall sounds like it was a loser idea, so perhaps downfall isn’t the right word. Perhaps the word “resolution” is more appropriate, because when the WHA finally folded, the NHL accepted four WHA teams into the league. In fact, merger talks were even discussed in the infancy of the WHA.

The WHA did a lot of good for professional hockey, for fans and players alike. Fans got teams in their areas. Players were compensated fairly. The only people that lost in the WHA were the owners, and for them, they were robbing players for years. Plus, they were still profiting, just not as much. Sometimes change is hard, but a 6 team NHL, then a 12 team NHL, wouldn’t last forever. Some will say the competition was watered down to a degree, but on the flipside, then why not just have a two team league? More teams, in areas that can support them financially, means more jobs and a higher league-wide fan-base.

Many players are discussed in “Rebel League”. The biggest name, obviously, is Wayne Gretzky. Ed Willes recounts the rise of the Edmonton Oilers and how they wound up drafting Gretzky, Lowe, Messier and Anderson. The story of how Gretzky became an Oiler is worth the price of this book alone.

In conclusion, “Rebel League” came off to me as the bible of all things WHA. The big name players are all covered. The battles with the NHL is covered. Everything is covered. Written in a tone that felt like you were sitting at a bar with a funny fucker, this book flew by and I highly recommend it to anyone.

 

Number 9

One book that I wanted to get the second it was released was “Mr Hockey” by Gordie Howe. However, it was selling for $34.95 or something like that, so I said to myself, “Self, let’s wait it out.” Well time passed and I forgot this book was out until I realized it was still in my Amazon wish list. $3.56 later, a used copy was in the mail!

On my return flight from Toronto back to NY, I was able to read this book. It was really perfect timing and a perfect companion peace with “Rebel League”.

When you talk about the greatest hockey player ever, Gordie Howe’s name is always mentioned, along with Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. I really think if Jaromir Jagr didn’t lose 5 years of his career due to lockouts and KHL, he would be able to crack into that top 3 list. I’m sure to some fans, Jagr is the best player of all time.

Again, being a fan of history, the memoirs of Gordie Howe were a blast to read. Just his upbringing alone in Saskatoon was fun to learn about. The book is relatively short, as Howe breezed by some of his seasons, but Howe puts a lot of detail into his childhood, his family as an adult, his business dealings and the years he won Cups, whether it be a Stanley or an Avco.

The final chapter of the book is penned by his four kids, who talk about Howe’s declining health in the current day. Without trying to come off pessimistic, Howe may not have much time left in this world. He’s lived an extraordinary life and has accomplished many things that it would took an ordinary hockey player, never mind just a normal person, lifetimes to do.

Howe starts the story of his life like anyone else, at the start. Howe talks about his upbringing in Canada and how he developed his game. Even at 84 years old (When he started writing his book), he is able to recount names and places of people who helped him along the way. I was really impressed by that. Even at 33 years old, I can’t remember some of the teachers and kids from my high school days, let alone my elementary school days. Howe remembers everyone, especially the people that would buy him a stick, buy him gear or take him to games. That really left an impression on me.

Another thing that left an impression on me was how Howe made a point to talk about giving autographs and how he would always sign any item presented to him, the same way, every time. He wanted every fan to really get the best of him. He didn’t owe anyone that, but he felt it was his responsibility. I really respect that.

As with “Rebel League”, Howe spends a lot of the book talking about his contracts and his dealing with “Trader Jack”, Wings GM/Coach Jack Adams. While in the NHL, we have an award honoring the best coach of the season called “The Jack Adams Award”, Howe talked about the side of Adams that only people who knew/dealt with him saw. Howe, a big family man and dedicated to his wife of 55 years, “Mrs. Hockey” Colleen Howe, made sure to talk about how Adams tried to interfere with his marriage several times. Adams didn’t want his players drinking or having sex with their wives. While the players, mind you, this is the Original 6 era of the NHL, where the owners had all the power, would refrain from drinking in the presence of Adams, they all ignored the boning edict!

Gordie Howe is one of the few people alive today that can remember the infancy of the NHL and the forefathers behind it. I really enjoyed his take on the league during its growth, especially the stories about Mr. Norris.

One story that I never knew about Howe, which gave me one of the biggest “WHAT IF’s” of my life, was that Howe was originally approached by Frank Boucher, of the New York Rangers to sign a “C” contract. Howe, an introvert, didn’t want to be away from his familiar surroundings and declined. A year later, he would accept the same contract, however, with the Detroit Redwings. As a Ranger fan, just imagine if Howe’s legacy was tied here! Sure, some things wouldn’t play out the same, but I would like to think the Rangers would have more than 4 Cups, if Howe agreed to Boucher’s offer!

The Rangers would get Vic Howe eventually, but it would not be the same as having Gordie Howe in the line-up!

Howe talks about his time in juniors before moving on to the Red Wings. It’s funny the things we remember in life. For Howe, it was how Adams would promise him a Red Wings jacket, but would never give it to him. Howe would eventually get his jacket though, but just a little thing like that still bothered Howe, some 60 years later.

While Howe recounted stories about Adams, Howe also talks about his relationship with other Wings star Ted Lindsay. It was real, but kind of sad, to see how Howe was once great friends with Ted Lindsay, but had a falling out and to this day are just hi & bye at Redwings events. There may not be enough time left for these two to find peace and friendship once again.

Howe talks about his entire 25 NHL year career and remembers seasons vividly. He recaps in-depth his Hart and Cup years. Howe also talks about his retirement and why he felt down by the Redwings. When his sons were drafted by the Houston Aeros of the WHA, a family decision was made, and Howe would try to make the team. Wouldn’t you know it, at the age of 45+, Howe would win the MVP and two Avco Cups.

While Howe missed a lot of family time because of traveling on the road, you can see his family was very important to him, especially his wife Colleen. Howe spends many pages talking about his recently deceased wife and even shares their letters to each other at different times in their relationship. It’s amazing he still has those letters to this day and shared them in his book.

Howe spends sometime talking about his divorce from the Wings and his WHA career. Along with being honored by the Redwings for 13 years of service (something rare back then), one of the happiest days of his career, besides playing with his sons, was when he was introduced at the 1980 All-Star Game in Detroit. Despite being a Hartford Whaler, the newest NHL team due to the WHA/NHL merger of 1979, the Joe Louis Arena exploded for Howe. It was fun to hear his take on that day.

Howe spends time talking about his post-playing days, his one shift with the Vipers, his love for fishing, his take on fighting and his take on today’s game, before his children remember their father at the end of the book. This was really a book you can read in one sitting because it was a hell of a ride for Gordie Howe.

Skates worn by Howe are in the Hockey Hall of Fame

If there was ever an autobiography to read from an NHL player, “Gordie Howe: My Story” is the one. If you haven’t read this book yet, pick it up, before Howe knocks you on your ass!

Both “Rebel League” and “Gordie Howe” are available at Amazon for cheap. I would say check out your local book store, but do those even exist anymore?

Check out the front page of BlueCollarBlueShirts.com for my Toronto Trip Blog and Rangers/Redwings in review!

As always,

LET’S GO RANGERS

Sean McCaffrey

BULLSMC@aol.com

@NYCTHEMIC on twitter

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