The 1979 merger of the NHL and WHA was the culmination of several years of negotiations between the National Hockey League (NHL) and the World Hockey Association (WHA) that resulted in four WHA franchises, the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets, joining the NHL as expansion franchises for the 1979–80 season. The agreement ended the seven year existence of the WHA, and re-established the NHL as the lone major league in North American hockey.
The two leagues had discussed the possibility of merging for numerous years despite the acrimonious relationship between the two after the WHA raided the NHL for players upon the former's founding in 1971. The two sides came close to an agreement in 1977 but the merger was defeated by a group of hard line owners in the NHL. The 1979 agreement was initially rejected by the NHL by one vote. However, a massive boycott of Molson products in Canada led the Montreal Canadiens, who were owned by Molson, to reverse their positions in a second vote along with the Vancouver Canucks, allowing the plan to pass.
As part of the agreement, the former WHA clubs were stripped of most of their players, permitted to keep only two goaltenders and two skaters, and NHL teams were given the right to reclaim players from the WHA clubs without compensation. The four teams were placed at the end of the draft order for the 1979 NHL Entry Draft as opposed to the front of the draft for previous NHL expansion teams.
The NHL had existed as the only North American major league since the demise of the Western Canada Hockey League in 1926. After dwindling to six teams by 1942, the NHL remained stable until the 1960s, when fears that the Western Hockey League intended to challenge the NHL as a major league prompted the NHL to begin expansion discussions in 1963, culminating four years later with the addition of six new teams for the 1967–68 NHL season.
The WHA was founded in 1971 with ten teams, and intended to operate as a direct competitor of the NHL. By the time the 1972–73 WHA season began, 67 NHL players had defected to the new league. Former Chicago Black Hawks star Bobby Hull lent immediate credibility to the fledgling league when he signed a 10-year contract with the Winnipeg Jets for $2.7 million; the largest in hockey history at the time. The NHL attempted to block the defections in court, earning an injunction against the Jets that initially prevented several players, including Hull, from playing in the WHA. The new league challenged the orders, stating that the NHL's reserve clause, which tied a players rights to their NHL team for life, was illegal. A Philadelphia district court sided with the WHA in November 1972, striking down the reserve clause and freeing all players to play in the WHA. The ruling ended the NHL's monopoly on talent.
The WHA also challenged the NHL by placing teams in markets already served by the NHL, including the Philadelphia Blazers (Philadelphia Flyers), Vancouver Blazers (Vancouver Canucks), Toronto Toros (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Chicago Cougars (Chicago Black Hawks), among others. The WHA's existence led the NHL to expand hastily to Atlanta, Georgia and Long Island, New York in 1972 to keep the rival league out of the newly completed Omni Coliseum and Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Talks between the two leagues had been ongoing since 1973, when Bill Jennings and Ed Snider unsuccessfully approached the WHA and offered to have all 12 franchises join the NHL for $4 million each. Attempts at reconciliation were frequently blocked by Toronto's Harold Ballard, Chicago's Bill Wirtz and Boston's Paul Mooney, owners of the three NHL teams most affected by the WHA's raids on the NHL for players.
By 1976, both leagues were struggling under the financial pressures of competing against each other on the ice and in the courtroom. Bobby Hull had become an outspoken proponent of a merger between the two leagues, though the NHL's all-time scoring leader turned WHA player Gordie Howe and WHA president Bill MacFarland disagreed, arguing that the WHA was sustainable indefinitely. Discussions had intensified by 1977, and were conducted openly. Outgoing NHL president Clarence Campbell was fiercely opposed to any union between the two leagues: "They're our rivals. They were people that did their best to destroy us. Why would we salvage them now? To hell with them."
Campbell's successor, John Ziegler, was more open to unification. Ziegler was the NHL's first American chief executive. The American teams were far less hostile to the idea of a merger than their Canadian counterparts. There were a number of reasons for this, but probably the most compelling was the Montreal's dominance in the WHA years - the Canadiens won five of the seven Stanley Cups during this time, including four in a row from 1976 though 1979. Montreal owed this success in large part to its ability to resist WHA efforts to lure away its players, and many American teams believed this in turn was due to the fact that Canadian Hockey Night in Canada television revenues were mostly distributed among the three Canadian teams instead of across the league. Adding Canadian teams would lessen that advantage. Also, both NHL and WHA owners realized that the Canadian markets were a vital economic base both to the WHA and any future rival league that might take its place. Absorbing the Canadian markets would therefore preclude the possibility of the NHL having to fight off another rival league.
However, American support for a merger was based on the assumption that all existing NHL teams would share the expansion fees equally. This did not go over well with the league's Canadian owners. The objection was not without precedent - back in 1970 Montreal and Toronto had only agreed to support Vancouver's addition to the NHL after they were paid indemnities for the inclusion of the Canucks in the HNIC television deal. Although the three Canadian teams could not block a merger on their own, the fact that any deal needed three quarters support among the NHL owners meant the Canadian teams only needed two American teams to side with them to block any agreement.
Ziegler announced in June 1977 that the NHL had created a committee to investigate the possibility of a merger, while Bill DeWitt, Jr., owner of the WHA's Cincinnati Stingers, stated that Ziegler had invited six teams to join the league for the 1977–78 season if various conditions could be met. The proposal would have seen the six team become full members of the NHL, but play in their own division with a separate schedule for the first year.
Led by Toronto's Harold Ballard, the owners voted down Ziegler's proposal. The Calgary Cowboys, who had hoped to be one of the six teams to join the NHL, subsequently folded, as did the Phoenix Roadrunners, Minnesota Fighting Saints and San Diego Mariners, reducing the junior league to eight teams for the 1977–78 WHA season, and leaving the WHA's long term future in doubt.
The intense competition between the leagues did not leave the NHL unscathed, as by 1978 it faced the possibility of two of its clubs (the Minnesota North Stars and the Cleveland Barons) folding. Ziegler was able to mitigate the damage by arranging a merger between the two clubs. The Cleveland Barons remain the most recent example of an American professional sports team in an established major league ceasing operations.
Discussion between the two leagues intensified into the 1978–79 season, when the WHA made an offer to have five teams join the NHL the following year, paying $5 million each for the right to join. The owners of the Houston Aeros elected to fold after learning their franchise was not part of this proposed merger. Although the WHA offer was not accepted NHL president Ziegler was encouraged by the offer, stating that owners were beginning to view the negotiations from a business standpoint rather than emotional. The WHA lost the Indianapolis Racers after only 25 games, reducing the league to six teams, the lowest in league history.
With the WHA facing financial difficulty and unable to meet payrolls, the two leagues reached an agreement to merge in March 1979, pending ratification by the NHL's owners. The NHL originally wanted to take in the Whalers, Jets and Oilers. The owners of the Bulls and Stingers were resigned to their exclusion from the merger but the Nordiques fought the proposal. The NHL's American teams were less enthusiastic about including Quebec than they were about Edmonton and Winnipeg and Ziegler thought that the Canadiens might be persuaded to support the merger if the Nordiques were excluded.
Nevertheless, the WHA insisted on including the Nordiques in the merger and Ziegler finally agreed to put the matter to a vote of the NHL's Board of Governors. At a meeting in Key Largo, Florida, the agreement was supported by 12 of 17 owners—one short of the required three-fourths majority. The five teams that voted against the merger were the Montreal Canadiens, Vancouver Canucks, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings.
The five teams that voted no did so for different reasons. The Bruins weren't pleased with the prospect of sharing New England with the Whalers while the Canadiens, long accustomed to a virtual monopoly on fan support in the province of Quebec, were loath to allow an NHL team in Quebec City. The Canadiens, Canucks and Maple Leafs didn't like the idea of having to split Hockey Night in Canada revenues six ways rather than three. Los Angeles and Vancouver also weren't pleased at losing dates with NHL teams from the east. The Maple Leafs owner had a personal grudge as well; Ballard had never forgiven the WHA for plundering his roster in the early 1970s.
The Canadiens were owned by Molson Brewery, and the Canucks served Molson products at their games. Fans in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebec City, believing that Molson was standing in the way of their cities remaining big-league hockey towns, organized a boycott of Molson products. The boycott quickly spread nationwide. The Canadian House of Commons weighed in as well, unanimously passing a motion urging the NHL to reconsider. A second vote was held in Chicago on March 22, 1979, with the motion passing by a 14–3 margin as both Montreal and Vancouver reversed their positions. Montreal's hand was forced by the Molson boycott. Vancouver was won over by the boycott, as well as by the promise of a balanced schedule, with each team playing the others twice at home and twice on the road.
The agreement was slanted heavily in the NHL's favour. It saw the Oilers, Whalers, Nordiques and Jets join the NHL for the 1979–80 NHL season, however the NHL insisted on treating the deal as an expansion rather than a merger. As a result, they had to pay a $6 million franchise fee for the right to enter the league. The remaining two teams, the Cincinnati Stingers and Birmingham Bulls, ceased operations upon the conclusion of the 1978–79 WHA season, and were paid $1.5 million apiece in compensation.
The NHL stripped the four teams of virtually all of their players, allowing them to keep only two goaltenders and two forwards. In addition, all players who had left the NHL to join the WHA saw their rights revert back to their NHL clubs without compensation to their WHA teams. The four new teams were placed at the bottom of the order for the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, opposed to the top as was typical in previous expansions. Not completely uncoincidentially, the NHL also lowered the draft age by one year, effectively doubling the size and depth of the talent pool in the 1979 draft. The former WHA teams were restocked via the 1979 NHL Expansion Draft, though the teams had to pay $125,000 per player taken in that draft.
The NHL had originally intended to place one of the former WHA teams in each of its four divisions (then called the Adams, Norris, Patrick and Smythe), however the Oilers and Jets lobbied to be placed in the same division as the Canucks. The league agreed, although its decision to play a balanced league-wide schedule rendered the divisional alignmnent irrelevant for the first two seasons following the merger. Nevertheless, the divisions were formally retained.
Although the WHA clubs had performed respectably against their NHL rivals in pre-merger exhibition games, winning more games than they lost, they were nevertheless expected to struggle on the ice after the merger due to the purging of their rosters. However, the NHL also expanded the Stanley Cup playoffs from 12 teams to 16. This change allowed the Whalers and Oilers to qualify for the playoffs in their first post-merger season although both teams were swept in the first round. Also in 1980, the Atlanta Flames became the NHL's seventh Canadian team when they were purchased by former WHA owner Nelson Skalbania, who moved the team to Calgary. The following year, the Oilers became the first former WHA team to win a playoff series when they swept the heavily-favoured Canadiens.
In 1981 the NHL, hoping to reduce travel costs in the face of a struggling economy and high energy prices, re-aligned its divisions along geograophical lines although the non-geographical names were retained until 1993. The regular season and playoffs were also altered to emphasize divisional matchups. The Jets successfully lobbied to be placed in the more central Norris Division as opposed to the Smythe. However, the re-location of the Colorado Rockies to New Jersey the following year compelled the Jets to return to the Smythe, where they remained for over a decade.
In its seven seasons, the WHA paid its players $120 million, and lost over $50 million. The competition for talent introduced by the WHA, and accelerated by the signing of Bobby Hull, led to a rapid escalation of salaries for players in both leagues. Hockey players had, for the first time, leverage in contract negotiations.
In its search for talent, the WHA turned to the previously overlooked European market in search for talent, signing players from Finland and Sweden. Anders Hedberg, Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Ulf Nilsson signed with the Jets in 1974 and thrived in North America, both in the WHA and later the NHL. The Jets won three of the six remaining WHA championships after signing European players, and their success sparked similar signings league-wide. Many of these players went on to NHL careers.
- Diamond, Dan (1991). The Official National Hockey League 75th Anniversary Commemorative Book. McClelland & Stewart. ISBN 0-7710-6727-5.
- McFarlane, Brian (1990). 100 Years of Hockey. Summerhill Press. ISBN 0-929091-26-4.
- McKinley, Michael (2006). Hockey: A People's History. McClelland & Stewart. ISBN 0-7710-5769-5.
- Pincus, Arthur (2006). The Official Illustrated NHL History. Readers Digest. ISBN 0-88850-800-X.
- Willes, Ed (2004). The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association. McClelland & Stewart. ISBN 0-7710-8947-3.
- Diamond (1991), p. 74
- Pincus (2006), p. 113
- McFarlane (1990)
- Willes (2004)
- Boer, Peter (2006). The Calgary Flames. Overtime Books, 13. ISBN 1-897277-07-5.
- "'To hell with them; let them die on vine'", Calgary Herald, 1977-06-02, p. 58.
- "Expansion, merger, accommodation — whatever", Calgary Herald, 1977-06-25, p. 41.
- Gammons, Peter (1977-10-17). Quebec just hopes it will have a league to play in. Sports Illustrated. Archived from the original on December 3, 2012. Retrieved on 2009-04-15.
- Hunter, Douglas (1997). Champions: The Illustrated History of Hockey's Greatest Dynasties. Chicago: Triumph Books. ISBN 1572432166.
- McKinley (2006)
- Davis, Reyn (1979-05-28). A Nowhere Ride. Sports Illustrated. Archived from the original on January 2, 2013. Retrieved on 2009-04-15.
- Oler, Van (2008-07-08). Golden Guts. Chicago Blackhawks Hockey Club. Archived from the original on November 27, 2013. Retrieved on 2009-04-15.
- Troubled WHA folds and its teams join the NHL at the CBC Digital Archives