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THN.com Blog: Rival leagues and franchise woes all too familiar to NHL

Dennis Maruk is the Cleveland Barons' all-time leading scorer with 149 points in 156 games. (THN Archives)

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Dennis Maruk is the Cleveland Barons' all-time leading scorer with 149 points in 156 games. (THN Archives)

I find it fascinating how history always manages to repeat itself, no matter the subject. Look at the NHL: Today the league faces competition from a rogue rival with the money to lure players – even stars – away. The same thing happened during the 1970s when the World Hockey Association was around and in the early part of the 20th century.

During the infancy of pro hockey, players were basically mercenaries, jumping from team-to-team and league-to-league anytime more money was offered (sound familiar?). In 1911, the nascent National Hockey Association – which later became the NHL – lost as many as 70 percent of its players to a new league, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, a circuit run by the first family of U.S. hockey: the Patricks.

Imagine if 500 or so NHLers up and left the league today to play in the Kontinental League. They’d start spelling chaos with a ‘K.’

That will never happen, but the KHL is becoming more attractive to players by the day. Yes it has its problems, but money talks. Anyone remember the WHA?

That league started up in 1972 as the first major competition to the NHL in decades. Dozens of players jumped ship to make more money (sound familiar?). At the time, the NHL was offering the lowest salaries of any major North American sporting league (sound familiar?) and the WHA was able to attract a number of top-quality players right off the hop (sound familiar?). Bernie Parent went to the Philadelphia Blazers, then returned to the NHL and won two Vezinas and a Conn Smythe Trophy; Gerry Cheevers left for ‘greener’ pastures, moving to the Cleveland Crusaders for four seasons; and Montreal defenseman J.C. Tremblay left to play for the Quebec Nordiques.

The biggest WHA coup was the Winnipeg Jets’ signing of Chicago’s Bobby Hull to the richest contract in hockey history at the time – $2.75 million over 10 years. Hull had already scored 600-plus NHL goals and 1000-plus points. In six full WHA seasons, Hull scored 301 goals and had a 1.6 points-per-game average.

The WHA, of course, didn’t last. Economics, weak markets, NHL competition and backroom maneuvering conspired to doom it to the annals of history. If the KHL proves to be a viable long-term league, it will be as a pan-European loop.

The travails of trans-Atlantic travel are likely to assure that NHL competition – in terms of markets – won’t be a problem for the KHL. And as long as billionaire oil-igarchs are willing to put up millions, Russia is willing to exempt star KHLers from income taxes and players are willing to risk their well-being, the league will continue to grow. How much and in which direction is yet to be determined. But, remember, money talks.

Speaking of money, NHL-team history repeats itself on that front, too. Franchises came and went with regularity in the early days of the NHL – the Montreal Wanderers were four-time Stanley Cup champions when they simply folded mid-season after their rink burned down during World War I. There is a dearth of money in today’s NHL when it comes to ownership; teams widely considered to be in trouble include Atlanta, Florida, Tampa Bay, Nashville and, the poster child, Phoenix.

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Around the same time the WHA was poaching players from the NHL, a number of franchises were losing bucket-loads of moolah (sound familiar?). The Oakland Seals/California Golden Seals, one non-traditional market team that was part of the NHL’s original expansion, was basically a league joke for nine seasons. They were perennial basement dwellers, unable to draft and develop good players or create any real fan following (sound familiar?). The team was eventually moved east to Cleveland, where they became the Barons.

Hockey Hall of Famer Harry Howell was the Barons GM for the 1977-78 season, their last before merging with the similarly troubled Minnesota North Stars. The team was playing in a suburban rink to sparse crowds (sound familiar?) and had been on the brink of financial collapse the season prior when it missed payroll twice in February 1977. The NHL and NHL Players’ Association bailed the team out with a loan (sound familiar?) until an ownership group with deeper pockets could be found.

“The rink was in a terrible spot,” Howell told THN.com. “It was halfway to Akron, on a back road.”

One story Howell offered involved King Clancy flying from Toronto to Cleveland without the Maple Leafs.

“He had to take a taxi to the arena,” he said, “and the cabbie couldn’t find it. He came walking in halfway through the second period and said ‘What are you doing in this rink?’ ” (Sound familiar?)

This was an NHL team playing in an 18,000-plus seat arena. And a local taxi driver didn’t know how to get there.

So even NHL history repeats itself. Players follow the money, even if it means going to an inferior league, teams fail, and the league and owners try to thrust the game upon markets that just aren’t willing or able to make a go of it.

Asked if he saw any parallels between the last days of the Cleveland team and the current situation in Phoenix, Howell said no.

“Everybody was cool, calm and collected in Cleveland and in Minnesota, too,” he said. “They’re just desperate there now in Phoenix.”

Asked for his opinion on the whole scenario, Howell quickly replied: “I think to be fair, Balsillie put up all the money and he’s got it all. I don’t think it’s fair at all they’re keeping it out of the league.

“If the guy’s got a lot of money I think most of the time the 30 governors would say ‘Bring him in. What the heck.’ ”

That seems to be the way it was done in the past – even the very recent past – but in some cases, history doesn’t repeat itself.

John Grigg is a copy editor and writer with The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his blog appearing regularly during the summer and the Wednesday Top 10.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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