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79 Days Until The Season Begins

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Photo credit:CBC Sports
Cam Lewis
6 months ago
Throughout the summer and into the fall, we’ll be counting down the days until the Edmonton Oilers begin their 2023-24 season with a daily trip down memory lane. Apologies to all of the Nathan Walker fans out there, but today’s countdown at No. 79 will focus on the 1979 WHA-NHL merger.
The World Hockey Association started in the early 1970s and intended to act as a direct competitor with the National Hockey League. The new league immediately gained credibility when the Winnipeg Jets inked superstar Bobby Hull to a 10-year deal worth $2.7 million, which was the largest contract in hockey history at that time. More and more players followed suit when they realized they could make much more money playing in the WHA.


The NHL wasn’t pleased about the exodus of players leaving to play in the new league, so they took the WHA to court and earned an injunction against the Jets that initially prevented several players, including Hull, from signing with new teams. The WHA fought back and stated that the NHL’s reserve clause, which tied a player’s rights to one NHL team for life, was illegal. The verdict was that the NHL’s reserve clause was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and all NHL players were freed to play for WHA clubs.
The first WHA season was played in 1972-73, with the New England Whalers, Cleveland Crusaders, Philadelphia Blazers, Ottawa Nationals, Quebec Nordiques, and New York Raiders in the East Division and the Winnipeg Jets, Houston Aeros, Los Angeles Sharks, Minnesota Fighting Saints, Alberta Oilers, and Chicago Cougars in the West Division.
As the decade went along, more big-name players such as Gordie Howe, Andre Lacroix, Frank Mahovlich, and Paul Henderson signed in the WHA. The new league also benefitted from the NHL not allowing any player under the age of 20 to sign contracts. The WHA had no minimum age rule, so young prodigies like Wayne Gretzky could get paid much sooner than if they waited to be selected in the NHL draft.
The NHL began to talk about the possibility of merging with the WHA during the league’s first season and those talks heated up as the decade went along because both leagues were struggling financially. After years of battles and bitterness, the two leagues reached a tentative agreement in March of 1979 to grant expansion franchises in four WHA cities.
The proposal, which required support from three-fours of the teams in the NHL, came up just short at a Board of Governors meeting on March 8, 1979. There were 12 teams who voted in favour of merging with the WHA, while the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, Boston Bruins, and Los Angeles Kings voted against it.

Edmonton Journal Clipping from Friday, March 9, 1979.

PLAYER COUNTDOWN PRESENTED BY BETWAY


The Bruins didn’t want to share the New England area with the Whalers, the Canadiens were turned off by the idea of another team in Quebec, and the Canucks and Leafs didn’t want to split Hockey Night in Canada revenue with three more Canadian clubs. Also, Toronto owner Harold Ballard held a personal vendetta against the WHA for stealing so many Leafs players throughout the decade.
As a response to the vote, fans in Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Quebec started to boycott Molson products to punish the Canadiens and Canucks. The Canadiens were owned by Molson Brewery while Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver sold Molson products, so the boycott had major ramifications on the revenue of both teams.
A second vote was held on March 22, 1979, and it passed by a 14-3 margin, with Montreal and Vancouver changing their votes and Toronto, Boston, and Los Angeles remaining against the merger. The Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques, and Hartford Whalers would join the NHL as expansion franchises for the 1979-80 season at a cost of $6 million per team.

Edmonton Journal Clipping From Saturday, March 31, 1979.

The deal was stacked heavily against the four new clubs. The NHL held a reclamation draft in which nearly all of the players who had left for the WHA were sent back to their previous NHL clubs without compensation and they restocked their rosters with rag-tag players in the Expansion Draft. The Oilers, Jets, Nordiques, and Whalers were also shoved to the bottom of the order at the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, which wasn’t the previous standard for new expansion teams.
The late selections didn’t matter for the Oilers. They selected defenceman Kevin Lowe with the last pick in the first round of the draft and they took Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson in the third and fourth rounds. They also made it through the merger with Wayne Gretzky on their roster, as he had signed a 10-year personal services contract with owner Peter Pocklington a few months earlier and didn’t have to go through the entry draft.
The Oilers made the playoffs with a 28-39-13 record in their first season in 1979-80 and won their first-ever playoff series over the Canadiens after going 29-35-16 in 1980-81. They reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 1982-83 but were swept by the New York Islanders. The following season in 1983-84, the Oilers beat those same Islanders to become the first WHA team to win the Stanley Cup.

How many days are left until the Edmonton Oilers start the 2023-24 season? 79!

Can you guess who will be featured in tomorrow’s countdown?

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