Today, I finished reading Ed Willes's 2004 book, The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association. As you might expect, this book is about the World Hockey Association, a professional hockey league in the 1970s which tried to compete with the NHL, and ultimately ended up with four WHA teams, the Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets, being absorbed into the NHL. The WHA may have only lasted seven seasons, but it still managed to have a huge impact on the game, as the talent wars between the WHA and the NHL causes salaries to skyrocket as well as bringing in a number of Eurpoean players and introducing North America to a different style of hockey. Many of hockey's greatest legends, such as Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, and Wayne Gretzky, played part of their careers in the WHA. While the WHA had a lot of skilled hockey players, it also had a bit of flair to it, as the league employed some of the craziest characters to ever lace up the skates. What Willes attempts to do with the Rebel League is to not only chronicle the zaniness of the World Hockey Association, but also the impact the WHA had on the game of hockey as a whole, and to be honest, he does quite a good job of it. A few notes about this book.
- Even from the start, the World Hockey Association was something quite different in the world of professional sports. The World Hockey Association basically came about because the creators of the American Basketball Association (another startup league around this time), Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, were bored. So they decided to start a hockey league even though they had no knowledge of the game whatsoever. Remarkably, they rounded up enough investors to field 12 teams in the WHA's inaugural season. Even though Murphy and Davidson were the creators of the WHA, they didn't last very long, as the duo then turned their attention to the less successful World Football League.
- One of the key chapters in The Rebel League was the chapter dealing with the subject of signing players away from the NHL to play in the WHA, the key player being Bobby Hull. Hull, at the time one of the marquee players in the NHL, signed a contract with the Winnipeg Jets for 5 years, nearly 3 million dollars, and included a 1 million dollar bonus up front. In modern terms, it would be as if Kobe Bryant left the NBA to sign in a new basketball league. Hull's signing not only caused oodles of controversy, but also legitimized the WHA, as scores of NHL players followed Hull's path into the great unknown. The defections also led to the destruction of the NHL's reserve clause, which not only gave players more freedom and increased salaries, but also became the first step to the establishment of free agency. So, even before the WHA even played a game, the league managed to change the game of hockey forever.
- Another change the WHA brought to the table was the signing of teenage players straight from the junior leagues. Before the WHA came around, players were not eligible for the draft until they reached the age of 20, and players basically were indentured to the various junior associations they played for. The players even had agents hand-picked by the Canadian junior hockey association to represent them, although they would usually not have the players' best interest at heart. One of the things the WHA did was sign players before they were eligible for the NHL draft to huge contracts. While this practice landed the WHA some premier talent, including Wayne Gretzky, it also was a mixed blessing for the youngsters who landed these big money contracts. As the author illustrates in the book, some players, like Dennis Sobchuk and Pat Price, got too much money too soon, and ultimately the players were too immature to handle all of the money and the expectations that followed. However, the practice of signing young players did eventually lead to players now being drafted at age 18, and also loosens the grip that the junior leagues had on their young players.
- Of course, the WHA is also remembered for its cast of some of the most intriguing characters to ever play hockey, and the author does a splendid job of presenting these characters in an entertaining manner. Players like goalie Gilles Gratton, who believed he was reincarnated several times and once missed a game due to an injury he claimed happened over 300 years ago. Also there was the Carlson brothers, Jack, Scott and Jeff, who were the inspiration for the Hanson Brothers in the movie "Slapshot" (Scott and Jeff actually starred as the Hanson brothers, along with fellow goon Dave Hanson. Not to mention Bill Goldthorpe, perhaps the wildest man to ever play hockey, a man that practiced Martial Arts in the locker room and would wrestle many an unsuspecting fellow, no matter what the situation. There was Frankie Beaton, who once escaped Cincinnati police by being placed in an equipment bag after a warrant was issued for his arrest, and many, many more characters whose exploits were profiled here.
Overall, this is quite an entertaining read. Willes uses first person accounts with key figures such as Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Harry Neale, and others, and weaves those accounts into an entertaining tale about one of the most tumultuous times in hockey history. From tales of failed franchsies and sub-standard hockey arenas, to the excellence of the Hot Line in Winnepeg and the Howes in Houston, to the constant attempts to merge with the NHL, only to end up with a merger that provided little help to the merged teams, to all of the changes that the WHA brought to professional hockey as a whole to shape today's game, the Rebel League tells it all, and does so in an entertaining yet informative manner. While not quite on par with Loose Balls, Terry Pluto's account of the ABA, The Rebel League is definitely a worthy read for any hockey or sports fan. Overall, I'd give The Rebel League an 8.6 out of 10. Well, thanks for reading, and if you have any comments about this or previous posts, or ideas for future reviews or posts, than share them either by leaving a comment or by sending me an e-mail at KtheC2001@gmail.com.