Sports

Throwback Thursday: How A Beer Boycott Caused the NHL and WHA Merger

If the Red Sox had the Curse of the Bambino and the Cubs have the Curse of the Billy Goat, then the Leafs have the Curse of the WHA.

by Terrence Doyle
Mar 17 2016, 2:10pm

The Toronto Maple Leafs are the second most successful Original Six NHL franchise in terms of Stanley Cup championships. They have 13. However, the once great but now lowly Leafs haven't won a cup since after the 1966-67 season, making them the only Original Six franchise not to have done so since the NHL expanded the following season. They are also the only one of the Original Six teams not to have won a Stanley Cup since 1979, when 37 years ago this week, thanks in large part to beer, the NHL absorbed the upstart World Hockey Association.

This is no coincidence. The problems for the Leafs began with Harold Ballard. Ballard—an ex-convict and the owner of the Leafs from 1961 to 1990, or about half of the franchise's enduring abortive epoch—was a notorious malcontent and a vocal defamer of the World Hockey Association from its founding as a competitor to the NHL in the fall of 1971.

Ballard was sure the WHA would sputter and seize before it ever got running. At least that's what Ballard hoped would happen—he was a very wealthy man with millions of (Canadian) dollars in assets at stake, and so competition in any form equaled a potentially bad business outcome. A panicky old man afraid of the inevitable and inexorable vice grip of change. Think your grandfather when the internet happened.

Read More: The Original Miracle on Ice

Ballard was wrong about the WHA's capacity for immediate success. The league boasted 15 teams in its inaugural season and eventually saw twenty of its players, including all-time greats Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky, eventually enshrined in the hall of fame. But his general fear was sibylline: four of the Leafs' best players, including Hall-of-Fame goaltender Bernie Parent and a pair of promising young defensemen, Rick Ley and Brad Selwood, jumped ship in the summer of 1972 for the larger salaries and greater freedom of movement promised by WHA contracts.

Ballard's hubris and failure to lock key players into contracts that would make them safe from WHA poaching led to the decimation of the Leafs' roster, and they finished dead last the following season. If the Red Sox had the Curse of the Bambino and the Cubs have the Curse of the Billy Goat, then the Leafs have the Curse of the WHA.

The NHL-WHA merger saw the NHL absorb four WHA franchises: the Edmonton Oilers, the New England Whalers, the Quebec Nordiques, and the Winnipeg Jets. The merger was not without its share of complications—and Ballard's contempt was chief among them.

Here he is in the April 24, 1977 edition the Chicago Tribune:

Over my dead body will we merge with those bastards. They stole 18 of my players in the last five years, they cost me $5 million in legal fees, and they screwed up hockey. They change owners every year over there, they change cities every two years, and now they want to change leagues. Let 'em die on their [own] and they will. If they want my vote to merge, or whatever the hell they want to do, they can forget it.

New England Whalers program. Courtesy of Creative Commons/Flickr user ctsnow.

But angry old man Ballard and the Leafs weren't the only forces working against the merger. The Bruins didn't want another team cutting into their share of the New England hockey market, Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz was still sour about losing all-world sniper Bobby Hull to the WHA's Winnipeg Jets (the Jets paid Hull a record $1.75 million, plus a $1 million signing bonus over ten years, so of course he left the Blackhawks), and the Canucks and Canadiens joined the Leafs in opposing the merger because they didn't want to split Hockey Night in Canada revenues six ways instead of three. So when the time came to vote on whether the two leagues would merge, or whether the NHL would let the WHA "wither and die," it was those five franchises that cast "no" ballots, effectively killing the deal. Twelve of the NHL's 17 teams voted in favor of the merger, but because the measure needed a three-fourths majority to pass, the five nays were enough to derail the deal.

But, as you know (because the leagues did eventually merge), the story does not end here. At the time of the merger, the Canadiens were owned by the Molson Brewery (they're owned by the Molson family now, which is somehow different than being owned by the Molson Brewery). You know what breweries hate? When people stop drinking their beer. And that's exactly what citizens across the great nation of Canada—particularly those citizens in Edmonton, Quebec City, and Winnipeg—did when the Habs voted against the merger.

From the New York Times News Service; March 31, 1979:

Never underestimate the power of an empty glass, especially one that is supposed to be foaming with beer. When the Montreal Canadiens...voted against the treaty on March 8, beer drinkers in three of the WHA cities—Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Quebec City—voted against Molson. Mostly, they simply ordered other brands. Bullet holes also were discovered in the glass doors at Molson's brewery in Winnipeg; a bomb threat was phoned to the Molson brewery in Quebec City; a front-page editorial in the Edmonton Journal requested readers to "give up Molson's for Lent."

The boycotts (and threats of violence) were so widespread that the Canadian House of Commons passed a motion urging the NHL to stage a second vote. Loath to lose additional profits, the Canadiens' beer soaked overlords finally voted in favor of the merger. The Canucks also supported the measure the second time around, as they too had a vested interest in future Molson profits—the beer of choice at their arena, the Pacific Coliseum, was, you guessed it, Molson. A significant dip in concessions sales during the boycott forced Vancouver's hand to check yes on the ballot.

On March 8, 1979, the WHA had, to the extreme pleasure of Harold Ballard, finally died. But it didn't stay dead. By March 22, and at the behest of the Canadian government, the WHA had a heartbeat. Its legacy would live on inside of its rival league. Beer is a powerful drug.

The WHA was often looked upon as the second, bruised banana to the NHL's big, flawlessly yellow banana—but once you look at the data, it's clear that this is a misconception. Of the 63 exhibition games played between teams from the two leagues from 1974 to 1978, WHA teams won 34, losing just 22 and tying seven. Though the games were merely exhibitions and therefore might not have been played with the same degree of intensity as a regular season tilt, it's safe to assume that players from each league wanted to win regardless—NHL players wanted to prove their league's superiority, and WHA players wanted to prove their league was anything but second-rate. The players from the WHA were right.

The WHA's existence had ramifications more far reaching than the merger, which grew the NHL's roster of teams from 17 to 21. It also ushered in the era of free agency. Before players like Hull and sixty-some odd others defected to the WHA, NHL players were bound to their teams for life via the reserve clause.

But thanks to a ruling by a district court in Philadelphia in 1972, the suffocating and illegal hockey reserve clause no longer passed muster. WHA teams started handing out exorbitant contract after exorbitant contract. After Winnipeg made Hull hockey's first millionaire, the Philadelphia Blazers gave the hard drinking party boy and Bruins Stanley Cup hero Derek Sanderson a then obscene $2.65 million for his services. (Sanderson was a good player, but there were 50 better than him at the time. It would be like if Dave Clarkson were one of the highest paid players in the league today. Oh, wait...)

Without the WHA, we wouldn't have gotten ten brilliant seasons of Gretzky in Edmonton. Without the WHA, Ray Bourque would have been tied to the Bruins for his entire career and never would have gotten his cup, not unless he hung around till he was 51. (Hey, it's not unheard of—Howe scored 96 points for the WHA's New England Whalers at age 50—but it wouldn't have happened.) And without the WHA, the Maple Leafs might have won a cup or two over the course of the past 50 years. And who the hell really wants that?