At best, it was ridiculous. At worst, it was insulting. The notion, that is, that the old World Hockey Association was not a “professional” league.
But, by allowing defenseman RICK CUNNINGHAM, for one, to compete for Austria at Sarajevo, that is exactly what the International Olympic Committee, in effect, stated with their ruling on the eve of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games concerning player eligibility.
In fact, the WHA ws specifically launched in the early 1970s to compete directly in the business marketplace with the twelve-team National Hockey League, the one and only ice hockey circuit on the planet classified by the IOC as a professional sports organization. The WHA fundamentally believed the ‘reserve clause’ in NHL players’ contracts to be invalid and immediately began signing skaters whose active terms had expired. Philadelphia Flyers goalie BERNIE PARENT was the first prominent NHL player to jump to the new league and was soon joined by many others.
The Boston Bruins lost goalie GERRY CHEEVERS, defenseman TED GREEN as well as forwards JOHN MCKENZIE, GARRY PETERS and DEREK SANDERSON off their ’72 Stanley Cup playoff champion roster to the upstart WHA. All-Star defenseman J. C. TREMBLAY departed the famed Montreal Canadiens in favor of the fledgling Quebec Nordiques. By the time the new league dropped its first puck in the fall of 1972, the 12 WHA teams had taken on 67 former NHL players.
The reason for the mass exodus of NHL players to WHA clubs was, of course, money.
The Winnipeg Jets gave aging Chicago Black Hawks goalscorer supreme BOBBY HULL a ten-year contract worth a reported $ 2.7 million dollars to become both player and coach for the new WHA team. With the highly-publicized signing bonus that was part of the deal, Hull became the first hockey player to earn one million dollars in a single season. Hull was not the only one hopping on-board for a hefty paycheck, however.
Sanderson’s five-year deal with the Philadelphia Blazers was reported to be worth the then-staggering amount of $ 2,650,000. For the flamboyant Sanderson, who was not even Boston’s first line center, this salary was said to be the richest for any athlete in the world at the time, international soccer superstar PELE of World Cup champion Brazil included. Sanderson, hampered by injuries and other matters, lasted just eight games in the WHA but did collect a one million dollar buyout of his contract.
All players benefited financially from the arrival of the WHA. The average NHL salary for the 1971-72 campaign was $ 22,000. Competition saw the average pay for players skating in both leagues skyrocket. In short order, six-figure salaries for a season soon became commonplace.