Flashing Back to the NHL/WHA Merger

NHL/WHA merger
Former Hartford Whalers great Dave Keon (Getty Images)

 Flashback to 1979 when the NHL and WHA merged

In the summer of 1979, the World Hockey Association had had enough of the draining financial fight it had waged with the NHL. The more established hockey league was done with the battle as well. The two parties agreed in June of that year to put their differences aside and to merge together to make one ice hockey league for the good of each other and fans. Ice hockey fans are anticipating this season’s fight for the Stanley Cup and the Betfred offer gives them the chance to wager on their favourite team on game day.

The 1979 NHL/WHA merger

The merger reaffirmed the NHL as the top ice hockey league in North America, while it brought the WHA’s seven years of play to an end. It also stopped the WHA’s incredible financial losses which were reported as $50 million at the time the leagues joined. The merger also led to player salaries plateauing and the race to sign players cooling off.

The two leagues had been in talks previously about joining up. However, it wasn’t until the end of the decade that a deal was finally worked out. Six teams were selected to join the NHL. The WHA’s Birmingham Bulls being left out by the NHL as it wasn’t in an ideal market for ice hockey.

The New England Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, Houston Aeros, and Cincinnati Stingers were all earmarked to join the NHL. However, two months after the initial plan to merge, the NHL reneged on the original deal. Houston and Cincinnati were out of the deal and only the four remaining sides would be permitted entry to the league.

Building the future of ice hockey

A merger between the NHL and WHA had been years in the making. However, previous attempts always had a hang up. The NHL and its owners had reservations over combining the two leagues after years of warring against one another.

When they finally merged, the NHL made life difficult for the incoming WHA franchises. Bitterness had been created due to the WHA poaching NHL players and increasing salaries in the war to sign top talent. Despite the NHL’s harshness towards the WHA franchises, it still initially gave six teams the chance to play.

The WHA’s finances were spiraling out of control and it was believed the league would fold after the 1979-80 season. That is if the WHA could finish that season.

The WHA’s Legacy

Of the original four WHA teams that were permitted into the NHL as expansion franchises (teams were only allowed to keep two goalies and two skaters), only the Edmonton Oilers have not relocated. Quebec, Hartford, and Winnipeg all relocated to southern climates. Perhaps those Houston and Birmingham teams would have worked. However in 1979, they would have been the most southern teams in the league.

There are some elements of the WHA that have lived on in the NHL. In a need for players as the North American talent pool was overstretched, the WHA scouted and signed players from Europe. It was something the NHL hadn’t done prior.

The league also used a blue puck as it was claimed fans could follow it better. In the mid-1990s, American television channel FOX used a blue circle around the puck during live broadcasts. This allowed new fans to track the action. The WHA also went into markets, especially in Canada, that the NHL believed could not support a team.

Although the NHL doesn’t recognize the WHA that often. The merger changed the fate of the league and improved it. Without the NHL/WHA merger, the NHL may not have become the power it is today in North America.

Former Hartford Whalers great Dave Keon who was a player that moved over during the NHL/WHA merger. (Getty Images)

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