Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The Golden Jet, red pucks and OT

Documentary on colourful WHA co-founder in works

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EDMONTON -- World Hockey Association co-founder Dennis Murphy remembers trying to get Bobby Hull to leave the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks for the upstart Winnipeg Jets 40 years ago.

"We kept bugging Bobby and finally he said, 'There's only one way I'll come over. You write me a cheque for a million dollars.' A million dollars then would be $20 million now," said Murphy, the outgoing 85-year-old showman who co-founded the wildcat hockey league with lawyer Gary Davidson.

Murphy dropped by Edmonton's Rexall Place recently to drop a ceremonial puck for the Oilers-San Jose Sharks game, all part of a planned documentary on the colourful character and his WHA legacy.

The puck he dropped prior to Monday's game was red, which is something Murphy and Davidson wanted back in those WHA days.

"Well, we'd come up with a red, white and blue basketball for the ABA (American Basketball Association)," said Murphy, who also founded the rival hoops league to the NBA that made Julius Erving and Rick Barry household names.

"I thought, why not a red puck? Until I was talking to Bill Hunter (who was then president of the Western Canada Hockey League, now known as the WHL). Bill said, 'We're not making this a bush league.' He hit the table and said, 'I want you American guys to know one thing: There'll be no red puck. We're using the standard puck.' In that voice of his. Bill? He was great."

Murphy also wanted to do away with the red line and implement overtime for WHA regular-season games.

The red line stayed, but the WHA did go to overtime and not just during the playoffs.

The red pucks were used in WHA exhibition games.

"When you'd hit them, they lost their shape," said former WHA Alberta Oilers captain Al Hamilton.

Some WHA teams were there at the beginning but gone in a flash, like the Miami Screaming Eagles. But not before signing NHL all-star goalie Bernie Parent.

Parent played one season when the Screaming Eagles moved to Philadelphia to be the Blazers, before the Blazers moved to Vancouver. He returned to the NHL the following year and won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Oilers are the only original WHA team still alive today in its original market, with Wayne Gretzky dropping into their laps in 1978.

"I'd say our skill level got a bit better when Wayne came in," laughed Hamilton.

Murphy still has a sharp recall of those early WHA days. He not only started the ABA but founded World Team Tennis. He was very good at finding people who'd spend money on his ideas.

But when it came to hockey, he might have known the Zamboni was invented in California, where he lived, but he needed Hunter and Jets owner Ben Hatskin and Scotty Munro, another Hunter juniors buddy, from Calgary to move things along.

As Ed Willes said in his excellent book Rebel League, Murphy planned the meeting with Hunter and company at a yacht club in California so they could see all the beautiful boats, and Murphy hired some good-looking girls to be on deck as Hunter and his group looked out the window. Murphy, the marketer, sold them pretty quickly.

They knew the game. Murphy, who had bucked the NBA to start up the renegade ABA knowing other U.S. cities wanted pro basketball, knew the NHL was a monopoly, too. While they had expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967 and added two more in 1970, Murphy knew there were lots of North American cities itching for hockey. And NHL players, with an average salary of $25,000 and knowing that owners lined their pockets, wanted to be more than serfs.

Murphy barnstormed North America with Hunter looking for buyers for a WHA franchise, and new owners got in for a song -- $25,000.

"Bobby Hull made the league. We were so lucky. We were founders, but we were nothing before Bobby. He was a star and he had credibility. He brought 61 players to our league when he signed," said Murphy. "We got Frank Mahovlich, Gordie Howe and his sons, Paul Henderson, Ralph Backstrom.

"Bobby was the first million-dollar athlete. After Bobby said he wanted a million dollars, we went to our league treasurer, Paul Racine, and he was moaning about it. He said, 'We don't have a million dollars.' But we came up with it.

"They had a parade for Bobby in Winnipeg (when he signed his contract). I remember Bobby saying, 'Hey, they recognize talent,' " Murphy guffawed.

"If the National Hockey League had been smart, which they were not at that time... if it was today, with Gary Bettman, it wouldn't have happened. Bettman followed (NBA commissioner) David Stern (expanding). It was the adage, being at the right place at the right time."

Hull's signing eventually lured Howe and his boys, Mark and Marty, to the WHA in Houston, and the exodus started. Then the Swedes and Finns came over. Ulf Nilsson, Anders Hedberg, Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Veli Pekka-Ketola signed with the Jets, who played a five-man, bob-and-weave style the NHL's Oilers copied.

Underage players such as Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mike Gartner and Ken Linseman were then signed. The WHA was like a three-ring circus with franchises coming and going, lots of thugs and bad rinks in the early days, but it was never dull.

"I remember talking to Gordie when he came to our league (winning the MVP in his first year at age 46), and Gordie saying, 'I don't want you young punks taking it easy on me.' He also said, 'If you touch one of my kids, you're in real trouble. You're getting an elbow.' Nobody wanted that," said Murphy.

Murphy misses Hunter, who passed away at age 82 from bone cancer in December 2002.

"I'm sure Bill's up in heaven and he's saying, 'You Americans stick to basketball; you let us handle the hockey.' "


-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 29, 2012 A1

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