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 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 professional ice hockey.
The two leagues had discussed the possibility of merging for numerous years, despite the acrimonious relationship between the two after the WHA aggressively recruited NHL 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 NHL owners. The NHL also initially rejected the 1979 agreement by one vote. However, a massive boycott of Molson products in Canada led the Montreal Canadiens, who were owned by the Molson family, to reverse their position in a second vote along with the Vancouver Canucks, allowing the plan to pass.
As part of the agreement, the NHL treated it more as an expansion rather than an outright merger. The former WHA clubs were stripped of most of their players and 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 former WHA teams were also placed at the end of the draft order for the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, as opposed to previous NHL expansion teams, which had been placed at the front of the draft order.
Since the demise of the Western Canada Hockey League in 1926, the NHL had existed as the only major professional North American ice hockey league. After dwindling to the Original Six in 1942, the NHL remained stable until the 1960s. Following speculation that the Western Hockey League intended to declare itself a major league, the NHL was entertaining serious expansion discussions by 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 to 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 circuit 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 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.
Merger talks between the two leagues had been ongoing since 1973, when NHL owners Bill Jennings of the New York Rangers and Ed Snider of the Philadelphia Flyers 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 A. Mooney, owners of the three NHL teams most affected by the WHA's player raids.
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 Gordie Howe (the NHL's all-time scoring leader-turned-WHA player) and WHA president Bill MacFarland disagreed, arguing that the WHA was sustainable indefinitely.
Long time 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." Despite the animosity, some NHL teams agreed to preseason exhibition games against WHA opponents prior to the 1974–75 season. This interleague play was stopped in 1975 on Campbell's orders. The following year, the NHL president (who by this time was facing both declining health and personal scandal) relented and interleague exhibition games resumed, although they continued to be boycotted by a few NHL teams including Montreal and Toronto.
Campbell retired in 1977. His successor John Ziegler was more open to unification. Under Ziegler's presidency, interleague exhibition games became more common, eventually involving every NHL team except Los Angeles, Buffalo, Toronto and Montreal. Merger negotiations also intensified, and continued to be conducted openly. Ziegler was the NHL's first American chief executive, and 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 Canadiens' dominance of the NHL during the years of the WHA's existence. The Canadiens won five of the seven Stanley Cups during this time, including four in a row from 1976 through 1979. The 1976–77 Canadiens in particular are widely considered to be the most dominant team in NHL history. Montreal owed this success in large part to its ability to resist WHA efforts to lure away its players, and many American teams believed they were able to do this because Canadian Hockey Night in Canada television revenues were mostly distributed among the three Canadian teams instead of across the league. Hence, adding Canadian teams would lessen the financial advantage that teams like the Canadiens had. 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 Hockey Night in Canada 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 that the Canadian teams only needed two American teams to side with them to block any agreement.
In June 1977, Ziegler announced 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. This reduced the junior league down to eight teams for the 1977–78 WHA season, and left its 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 Cleveland Barons) folding. Ziegler was able to mitigate the damage by arranging a merger between the two clubs; the 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, Ziegler was encouraged by the offer, stating that owners were beginning to view the negotiations from a business standpoint rather than an emotional one. The WHA then 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 New England Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, and Edmonton Oilers. The owners of the Cincinnati Stingers and Birmingham Bulls were resigned to their exclusion from the merger, but the Quebec 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 all three of its surviving Canadian teams 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, 12 of the 17 owners supported the proposal – one short of the required three-fourths majority. The five teams that voted against the merger were the Canadiens, Vancouver Canucks, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Los Angeles Kings.
The five teams that cast a "no" ballot did so for different reasons. The Bruins were not pleased with the prospect of sharing New England with the Whalers, while the Canadiens were even less enamored with having to share the province of Quebec with the Nordiques. The Canadiens, Canucks, and Maple Leafs disliked the idea of having to split Hockey Night in Canada revenues six ways rather than three, while the Canucks and Kings feared the loss of 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. When the news got out that the Canadiens had voted against the deal, fans in Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Quebec City organized a boycott of Molson products, believing that Molson was standing in the way of their cities remaining big-league hockey towns. The boycott quickly spread nationwide. It caused a drain on the Canucks' revenue as well, since Pacific Coliseum sold Molson products. 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, which passed by a 14–3 margin as both Montreal and Vancouver reversed their positions. Both teams' hands were forced by the boycott, and the Canucks were also won over by the promise of a balanced schedule, with each team playing the others twice at home and twice on the road.
While the merger resulted in the Oilers, Whalers, Nordiques, and Jets join the NHL for the 1979–80 NHL season, the NHL nevertheless insisted on treating the deal as an expansion rather than a merger. The WHA teams each had to pay a $6 million franchise fee for the right to enter the NHL – however, since this was nominally the same fee paid by all of the other teams that joined the NHL in the 1970s (a decade of high inflation), the financial terms of the agreement were actually quite favorable to the WHA. The two remaining WHA teams, the Stingers and Bulls, were paid $1.5 million apiece in parachute payments and joined the Central Hockey League, the league-owned minor league, for one season each. The Stingers folded after 33 games; the Bulls played two full seasons before folding.
The rest of the agreement was slanted heavily in the NHL's favour. The NHL held a reclamation draft for the established clubs, in which nearly all of the players who had left the NHL to join the WHA saw their rights revert to their NHL clubs without compensation. This effectively dissolved the former WHA teams, as they were stripped of practically all of their players. However, in one of the few concessions to the WHA teams, they were allowed to protect two goalies and two skaters. Even more controversial was the NHL's insistence that the four new teams be placed at the bottom of the order for the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, as opposed to being at or at least very close to the top as is typical in an expansion. In what was not a complete coincidence, the NHL also lowered the draft age by two years, effectively tripling the size and depth of the talent pool in the 1979 draft. The former WHA teams were restocked via the 1979 NHL Expansion Draft with the established NHL teams receiving $125,000 per player taken in that draft, however for the former WHA teams these payments formed part of their $6 million franchise fees. Additionally, a good number of players on the list were either retired or of little value; years later Oilers coach/general manager Glen Sather said that the WHA teams knew this, but went along only because they had to participate.
As the league considered the agreement to be an expansion as opposed to a merger, it refused to recognize WHA records. The four new NHL franchises were essentially regarded as new entities, not as continuations of the former WHA franchises. The Canadian teams were permitted to operate under their established names, colors, logos and front office personnel, however, to appease and satisfy the Bruins, the NHL insisted that the Whalers drop "New England" from their name and they entered the league as the "Hartford Whalers" instead. The NHL continues to recognize all four franchises as having been founded in 1979, not 1972.
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), but 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 alignment irrelevant for the first two seasons following the merger. Nevertheless, the divisions were formally retained.
Although the WHA clubs had performed quite well against their NHL rivals in pre-merger exhibition games (of 63 such games played, the WHA won 34, lost 22 and tied 7) 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 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. The following year, the Oilers became the first former WHA team to win a playoff series when they swept the heavily-favoured Canadiens.
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. For the first time, hockey players had meaningful leverage in contract negotiations.
In its search for talent, the WHA turned to the previously overlooked European market, 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.
Of the four WHA teams that joined the NHL, only the Edmonton Oilers remain in their WHA city today. The other three franchises all moved within a three-year period in the 1990s: the Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995, the Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996, and the Whalers (renamed the Hartford Whalers upon admission to the NHL in 1979) became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997. Of the three cities to have lost their WHA/NHL teams, only Winnipeg has received one back; as the Atlanta Thrashers relocated in 2011. The Oilers are the only WHA team to win the Stanley Cup while in their WHA city, which they have done on five occasions (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, and 1990). The Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 1996, their first year after leaving Quebec, and won their second cup in 2001. The Hurricanes won their only Stanley Cup in 2006, their ninth year after leaving Hartford. The Jets/Coyotes franchise has never appeared in the Stanley Cup Finals, and has advanced to the second playoff round only three times (1985, 1987, 2012) and the conference final once (2012).
The merger led the league to reconsider other Canadian cities it had previously rejected placing franchises in. One year after the merger, the Atlanta Flames relocated to Calgary, becoming archrivals of the Oilers in the process. In 1992, the NHL added an expansion franchise in Ottawa. Both of these teams remain in their respective cities. However, the league has repeatedly rejected bids to bring NHL franchises to the Canadian cities of Hamilton and Saskatoon.
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