Following basketball’s example, promoters decided that North American hockey needed a new league to prevent the NHL’s professional monopoly. Thus, the World Hockey Association (WHA) officially began its first season on October 11, 1972. While the WHA geared up for legal battles with the NHL (especially over releasing players from contracts), the league hoped to overcome their ever-present financial troubles and instability. Instead, the WHA just lasted until 1979, at which time four of the WHA teams merged into the NHL.
On opening night in 1972, four of the WHA’s twelve teams took to the ice. The Alberta Oilers visited the Ottawa Civic Centre, where they defeated the Ottawa Nationals 7-4. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Crusaders hosted the Quebec Nordiques at a sold out Cleveland Arena. Gerry Cheevers (formerly of the Boston Bruins) earned the WHA’s first shutout with the 2-0 Crusaders’ win. The Nordiques’ coach, famous Maurice Richard (of the Montreal Canadiens), quit after only one more game.
Within ten days, each of these four teams played against each of the other three. Despite the Oilers’ initial success, the Nordiques crushed them 6-0 and the Crusaders defeated them 3-2. The Nationals lost to the Crusaders 7-5 but defeated the Nordiques 3-2. All told, the Crusaders fared the best when facing these three teams throughout the season. The Oilers tied both the Nationals and Nordiques, winning and losing three games of six. The Nordiques mostly lost to these teams.
For the 1972-73 season, the Crusaders ranked second in the East Division and third overall with their record 43-32-3. This was the only season they would make the division finals (where they lost to the New England Whalers, who went on to win the Avco Cup). For the franchise’s final season, 1976-77, they played as the resurrected Minnesota Fighting Saints.
The Nationals (35-39-4) ranked fourth in the East Division and ninth overall. They lost to the New England Whalers in the division semi-finals. Due to rental disagreements with their Ottawa rink, the next season saw them playing as the Toronto Toros (out of the Maple Leaf Gardens). That was their best season, finishing second but losing in the division finals. In 1976, due to dropping attendance and more lease issues, the franchise moved much farther south, becoming the Birmingham Bulls. Though they survive the 1970s, they were not invited to merge into the NHL since that league already had struggled with and ultimately had to relocate the Atlanta Flames. Instead, the Bulls played two final seasons as members of the Central Hockey League.
For the 1972-73 season, the Oilers (38-37-3) placed fifth in the West Division and sixth overall. Their playoff season was brief when they lost to the Minnesota Fighting Saints in the preliminary round. From the next season on, the franchise became known as the Edmonton Oilers. In their final WHA season, the Oilers finished first but lost in the Avco Cup finals. They merged into the NHL with the 1979-80 season and went on to win five Stanley Cup championships between 1983 and 1990.
Like the Oilers, the Nordiques (33-40-5) placed fifth in their division but tenth overall. Although they fared the worst in their first season, the Nordiques was the only one of these four teams to win the Avco Cup (in 1976-77). They also were one of the four teams invited into the NHL for the 1979-80 season. Maurice Filion, the Nordiques’ general manager and director of hockey personnel said, “With the World Hockey Association, it was not just survival on a year to year basis. We did not even know if we were going to exist for the next 24 hours. But, with the NHL, we know that 20 years from now, 40 years from now, the Nordiques of Quebec will still be young and thriving and though personally, we won’t be there, our work today will determine the framework of the years to come.” He nearly proved prophetic since the Nordiques lasted until 1995. The very season they moved to Colorado to become the Avalanche, they won the Stanley Cup. The Colorado Avalanche won again in 2001.
The WHA has been relegated to hockey history along with most of its teams (including the Crusaders and the Nationals). However, the Oilers and the Nordiques’ legacy continue to thrill fans.
- Brian McFarlane, Brian McFarlane’s History of Hockey (Champaign, Ill.: Sports Publishing Inc., c1997), 133-134.
- Stephen Laroche, Changing the Game: A History of NHL Expansion (Toronto: ECW Press, 2014), 1-3, 200-203, 263-268, 301-306.