Friday, May 20, 2016

The Final Game in WHA History

Following the conclusion of the 1977-78 World Hockey Association season, the Houston Aeros, who were one of the strongest of the WHA franchises, folded in July of 1978 when it became apparent that no merger talks with the NHL would take place in time for the 1978-79 season. The Aeros were the only WHA champion that did not eventually join the NHL.

The loss of the Aeros meant the WHA would open the 1978-79 season with seven teams, down from a high of 14 just three seasons earlier, but after 25 games, the Indianapolis Racers would fold on December 15, 1978.

By the time the six surviving clubs had reached the playoffs, two more had received a death sentence, as a deal was struck on March 30, 1979 what would allow four of the WHA teams to join the NHL as expansion clubs, which in no way did the NHL consider to be a merger with the WHA.

WHA logo photo WHA_Logo.png

The playoff format called for the top five of the six teams to advance to the postseason. That left out the Birmingham Bulls, who finished with 70 points, just two out of a playoff spot in sixth place. Stat heads will also note that the final WHA standings include the 5-18-2 Racers with 12 points as well as entries from the Soviet All-Stars and Czechoslovakia, who both played one game against each of the six full season clubs which counted in the WHA standings. The Soviets went 4-1-1 while the Czechs were 1-4-1. With the Racers having played an odd number of games, a contest between the Edmonton Oilers and the Finnish National Team was arranged to give Edmonton an 80 game schedule like the others, which was won by the Oilers 8-4.

In the playoffs, the fourth place New England Whalers (83 points) faced the fifth place Cincinnati Stingers (72) in a best-of-three series, which was won by the Whalers 2 games to 1, bringing an end to the Stingers franchise.

The Whalers advanced to play the number one seeded Edmonton Oilers in a best-of-seven Semifinal series, while the second place Quebec Nordiques (87) faced the third place Winnipeg Jets (84) in the other.

While Edmonton required the full seven games to eliminate New England, the Jets made quick work of the Nordiques, sweeping them in four straight.

The AVCO World Cup Finals began on May 11th with a 3-1 Winnipeg victory in Edmonton. The Jets then grabbed the series by the throat with a second win on the road, 3-2. The Oilers returned the favor, dominating Game 3 in Winnipeg 8-3, but the Jets put the Oilers on the brink with a 3-2 win at home in Game 4.

As the series moved back to Edmonton for Game 5, the Oilers let everyone know they would not be leaving quietly, as they hammered the Jets 10-2 to extend not only their season, but their doomed league for at least one more game, which came on this date in 1979 as the series returned to Winnipeg for Game 6 with the Jets leading three games to two.

The Jets prevailed in front of their delirious home fans 7-3, as the astute fans in Winnipeg knew the Jets had not only just won the championship, but that they next time they arrived at the Winnipeg Arena later that fall, it would be to watch the Jets play as a part of the National Hockey League.

Winnipeg Jets Avco Cup 1979, Winnipeg Jets Avco Cup 1979
The Jets celebrate winning the final Avco Cup in 1979

With the arrival of the WHA refugees, the NHL would expand from 17 teams to 21 with the addition of Edmonton, New England, Quebec and Winnipeg, all of whom played in the WHA from 1972-73 until 1978-79. Combined, the four clubs won five of the seven Avco World Cup championships, with the defunct Aeros, led by Gordie Howe, having won the other two.

Before New England could become a member of the NHL, there was an additional stipulation placed upon their entry from their original landlords, the Boston Bruins, who demanded that the Whalers change their name from New England to Hartford.

When the WHA teams were allowed to enter the NHL, the old WHA teams were permitted to protect  two goaltenders and just a mere two skaters(!), as the NHL teams raided their rosters in the 1979 Expansion Draft, seeking a return of the players whose rights they once held.

The WHA teams were also each required to pay a $6 million expansion fee for the privilege of having their team decimated. This was a far different scenario than a "merger" between the leagues, in which case the incoming WHA teams would have been able to not only keep their rosters intact but also not pay an expansion fee. But this was no merger. This was not only an expansion, but also retribution for raiding rosters, sending player salaries sky high and signing underage players.

The Oilers thus stared life in the NHL with a roster consisting of goaltenders Dave Dryden and Eddie Mio, plus skaters Bengt Gustafsson and Wayne Gretzky. Although no NHL team held Gretzky's rights, and under existing rules he would have been removed from the Oilers and placed into the Entry Draft, the Oilers were allowed to keep him with the stipulation that they were required to pick dead last in each round of the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, behind even current Stanley Cup champions the Montreal Canadiens!

The WHA teams then selected unprotected players from the current NHL teams to fill out their rosters, but only after the NHL teams were allowed to protect two veteran goalies and seventeen skaters. Consider that for a second. In the best case scenario, a WHA team would get the 20th best player from any NHL team after only being allowed to protect their two best skaters and a pair of goaltenders.

The results were predictable, as the WHA teams all finished in the bottom eight of the standings. However, a ridiculous 16 of 21 teams made the playoffs back then, so Edmonton and Hartford did manage to qualify for the postseason, with the Oilers being swept in three games by Philadelphia.

Amazingly, within just three years, coach and GM Glen Sather had a team that not only included Gretzky, but also Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Kevin Lowe plus goaltenders Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog. Easily the most successful to make the transition to the NHL, the Oilers made it to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 1983, losing to the New York Islanders before winning the Stanley Cup in 1984, which ended the Islanders dynasty and began one of their own.

Today's first feature jersey is a 1978-79 Edmonton Oilers Garnet "Ace" Bailey jersey from the Oilers final season in the WHA when the home white jerseys had the dreadfully low contrast combination of blue letters on an orange background while the road blues had a nearly equally bad orange letters on a white background.

For their first NHL season, the Oilers mercifully changed to a much higher contrast and much more pleasing combination of blue letters against a white background for both their home and road jerseys, which they continue to use to this day.

1978-79 Edmonton Oilers jersey
1978-79 Edmonton Oilers jersey

While Hartford qualified for the playoffs that first NHL season of 1979-80, it would flatter to deceive, as they would miss the playoffs for the next five seasons, including finishing with a league worst 45 points in 1982-83. They would win their only playoff series in 1985-86 with a three game opening round sweep of the Nordiques. They would follow that with an Adams Division championship, thanks to a franchise best 93 points, only to fail in the opening round of the playoffs to Quebec, who had finished fourth in the division 21 points behind the Whalers.

Five more consecutive first round exits were followed by five more seasons of failing to qualify for the postseason prior to the franchise relocating to North Carolina, where they would win the Stanley Cup in 2006 as the Carolina Hurricanes.

Today's second featured jersey is a 1974-75 New England Whalers Tom Webster jersey. Their final WHA jerseys sported a "W" bisected by a harpoon, which has been worn since their second WHA season of 1973-74.

Upon entering the NHL, the Whalers debuted their new "Whale Tail" logo, which obviously featured a "W" for Whalers, but also contained an "H" hidden in the negative space of the logo to represent their change in name to Hartford.

New England Whalers 73-74 F jersey, New England Whalers 73-74 F jersey
New England Whalers 73-74 jersey, New England Whalers 73-74 jersey

Following their success in the WHA, having won the final two championship titles, the Jets found the transition to the NHL the roughest, as they lost leading scorer Kent Nilsson to the Atlanta Flames, Terry Ruskowski and Rich Preston to the Chicago Black Hawks and Barry Long to the Detroit Red Wings.

After having scored 102 points in 1977-78 in the WHA, the Jets plummeted to last in the NHL in 1979-80 with just 51 points. Things got even worse in year 2 with a all-time franchise low of 32 points, which the club turned into first overall selection Dale Hawerchuk.

With the arrival of Hawerchuk, and then Thomas Steen, the club rose to respectability, making the playoffs the next seven seasons, but only winning two playoff rounds over that time. While the club added some remarkable talent in the early 1990's in the shape of Finns Teemu Selanne and Teppo Numminen, Russians Alexi Zhamnov and goaltender Nikoali Khabibulin plus American Keith Tkachuk, it was not enough to put Winnipeg over the top, as their final eight seasons in Winnipeg saw them miss the playoffs four times and eliminated immediately the other four seasons prior to their relocation to Phoenix, Arizona due to economic issues associated with being based in Canada while playing in one of the smallest cities in the league ata time when the Canadian dollar was at a weak point.

Today's third featured jersey is a 1977-78 Winnipeg Jets Lyle Moffat jersey which illustrates the final style worn in the WHA by the Jets with white shoulders as well as the lower contrast version of their logo, one with a blue background on a blue jersey, which was immediately changed to a white background inside the outer circle for their first season in the NHL for use on their new style of jerseys, which featured a full length arm stripe from cuff to cuff.

Like Edmonton and Hartford, the Jets ushered in their arrival to the NHL with brand new jerseys, adopting a design used by the New York Rangers for a brief period of time when they were under the control of then General Manager John Ferguson, who had taken the same position with the Jets in 1978.

The Jets began life in the WHA with a simple design that featured some unusual contrasting colored and rounded nameplates with an equally odd choice for a font for the names for their first season, but improved their look for 1973-74 by ditching the odd nameplates and font as well as using an improved main crest. This style would remain in use for the rest of their days in the WHA, with the only change being the addition of a white shoulder yoke for the blue jerseys in 1977-78 and 1978-79, as worn while the team captured back-to-back championships to end their time in the WHA on a high note.

Winnipeg Jets 77-78 jersey, Winnipeg Jets 77-78 jersey
Winnipeg Jets 77-78 jersey, Winnipeg Jets 77-78 jersey

The Nordiques were unable to qualify for the playoffs during their first NHL season, but quickly became relevant thanks to retaining WHA players Real Cloutier and Marc Tardif and adding in short order Michel Goulet and Peter, Anton and Marian Stastny, who defected from Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the 1980's and turned the Nordiques into a force to be reckoned with.

Their intense rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens led to some legendary battles and brawls, particularly in the postseason, as the Nordiques made the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons beginning in 1980-81, including two trips to the conference finals.

After three consecutive seasons of 90+ points, hard times arrived as the team would miss the playoffs six out of seven seasons, including a dreadful period of seasons with 61, 31, 46 and 52 points which allowed the team to select Mats Sundin, Adam Foote, Owen Nolan and Eric Lidros, who was later traded for Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci, Steve Duchense and Ron Hextall in addition to having already selected future team captain Joe Sakic in 1987.

Unfortunately the same economics of playing in a small Canadian city during a low point for the Canadian dollar that plagued Winnipeg also led to the Nordiques relocation, as they were sold and moved to Denver, Colorado, where they would immediately capture the Stanley Cup their very first season away from Quebec.

Today's fourth featured jersey is a 1979-80 Quebec Nordiques Ron Chipperfield jersey. While the Nordiques were the only one of the four former WHA clubs to keep their same jerseys for their initial NHL season, this was the final season for this variation of the Nordiuqes blue jersey before Quebec would change the logo on their road blue jerseys from the white version used in the WHA since 1975-76 to a better looking red version, which matched the one worn on the home whites, leaving the home white Nordiques jersey the only one of the eight possible WHA sweaters to survive the entry into the NHL with any sort of longevity.

Quebec Nordiques 79-80 jersey, Quebec Nordiques 79-80 jersey
Quebec Nordiques 79-80 jersey, Quebec Nordiques 79-80 jersey

Bonus jersey: Today's bonus jersey is a 1980-81 Quebec Nordiques Peter Stastny jersey. The white Nordiques jersey was not only the single jersey to survive the move to the NHL by the four WHA clubs, the Nordqiues were also the final team to use heat sealed numbers on their jerseys before changing over to fully sewn on twill letters and numbers, which they did not adopt until 1991-92, the year they finally added a red outline to their numbers.

This particular jersey shows the wear and tear suffered by the less durable heat sealed material used for the name and numbers on the back. Over time, collectors have had issues with the material peeling off of the jerseys simply due to age, making conservation of these jerseys far more of a challenge than the contemporary jerseys worn by other clubs of the era, which had their names and numbers sewn on.

Quebec Nordiques 80-81 Peter Stastny jersey, Quebec Nordiques 80-81 Peter Stastny jersey
photo courtesy of Classic Auctions

Today's video in the final minute of the final game in WHA history, as the Jets wrap up their third championship with a win over the Oilers, who would soon win their fare share of championships in the NHL.

Remember the days when fans would come onto the ice after the championship was won? Modern say insurance agents and security personnel all over North America are aghast at the mere thought of it...


  1. It was very unusual for the WHA to have international teams play in the league in 1977-78 and 1978-79. I can't think of any other ice hockey league that did this - the only example I have come across in any other sport was in the NASL, when the US national team competed as "Team America" for one season in the early 1980's.

  2. In 1993-94 (Russian Penguins) and 1994-95 (Soviet Wings) the International Hockey League had a touring Soviet Team play games that counted in the standings.


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