New WHA targets NHLers
By TIM WHARNSBY
From Thursday's Globe and Mail
Toronto — Is it a case of déjà vu all over again?
The old World Hockey Association brought you the first million-dollar hockey player, a teenaged superstar by the name of Wayne Gretzky, and rewrote the existing pro hockey salary structure.
The new WHA is poised to hold a free-agent and entry draft next month and launch a 76-game schedule with eight, and possibly 12, teams in late October.
It plans to draft teenage phenom Sidney Crosby, woo players with National Hockey League experience, and has secured arena-lease agreements with six cities, including Halifax, Quebec and Detroit.
And it's doing all this in a year when it increasingly appears a labour war will shut down the NHL.
"There was a lot of skepticism back in 1972, too," new WHA commissioner Bobby Hull said, referring to the rogue league that signed up players such as Hull himself, Gordie Howe and later Dave Keon, a 17-year-old Gretzky and Mark Messier.
It was Hull who became the poster boy for the WHA back in 1972, signing for the unheard-of sum of $2.75-million, a contract that included a much-celebrated bonus of $1-million.
Hull and the new league announced yesterday that Halifax, Quebec City, Detroit, Dallas, Orlando and Jacksonville have secured arena lease agreements for the 2004-05 season and that Toronto and Hamilton will announce their own lease agreements in the next few weeks.
What now appears to be an eight-team league, Hull said, could swell to as many as a dozen by the time the new WHA holds its draft on July 10.
"This takes me back to 1972," Hull said, "when a bunch of courageous guys put that league together. Now we have a new group who are passionate about the game, want to make a go of starting another league and providing fans with entertaining hockey at an affordable price."
Peter Young, the new league's director of hockey operations, believes most franchises will build their rosters with six players with NHL experience, six players with AHL experience and six junior-aged players. He outlined four rules different from the NHL, including the removal of the centre-ice line.
The schedule has not yet been completed. However, each franchise will have a $15-million (U.S.) salary cap, including a marquee player who can make as much as $5-million (U.S.).
Hull confirmed that his son Brett, the Red Wings' sniper, has interest in playing for Dallas, where he makes his off-season home, but only if the NHL is dark next season.
"My son wants to become the second all-time leading goal scorer in the NHL," said Bobby Hull, whose son is 60 goals behind Howe's 801 goals.
Gretzky is tops at 894. "But if the NHL is not playing next year, of course, [Brett] is interested in playing."
Hull talked of possibly seeing players such as Wendel Clark returning to play for the Toronto — which will be named the Toros, the same name as Toronto's last WHA entry — or maybe even Dale Hawerchuk or Adam Graves. None of these players have been contacted yet, but Hull and the WHA owners will draft them in the hopes they can later convince them to play.
There is a whisper out there that the owner of the Halifax franchise, which will play out of the Metro Centre, has a $2.5-million letter of credit from a bank to sign Crosby, who turns 17 on Aug. 7.
When contacted yesterday, Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson, said: "There is nothing going on. Sidney is committed to play for the Rimouski Océanic [of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League] next year."
The new WHA is quick to boast about comments made by Detroit Red Wings defenceman Chris Chelios and backup goalie Manny Legace last February. They said they are interested in playing for the WHA Detroit team that will play in the Silverdome, the old home of the National Football League's Detroit Lions. The Silverdome will be reconfigured to have 30,000 seats for hockey.
Toronto businessman John Marshall is the front man for the Halifax franchise. He would like nothing more than to draft Crosby next month and persuade him to play at home. Crosby is from nearby Cole Harbour, N.S.
"The desire is high," Marshall said. "Whether it's going to happen or not is up to Sidney.Toronto front man Gino Naldini may have the biggest selling job. He said he is close to inking a lease agreement with the SkyDome and will play there in a 14,000-seat configuration that can increase by as many as 6,000 seats.
Naldini's is one of three teams trying to lure former Buffalo Sabres coach Ted Nolan back behind the bench.
The Toros will be the third pro hockey team behind the Maple Leafs and the Roadrunners of the American Hockey League. The Roadrunners routinely played in front of crowds of less than 2,500 last season.
"Yeah, but I consider that a farm system," Naldini said. "We will be a notch above that."
And if the Leafs are playing next season?
"How many families can afford a $200 individual ticket?" Naldini said.