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The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association Paperback – October 4, 2005
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“A must-read for hockey fans.”
“A book fuelled by the fumes of the WHA’s audacity, reckless hope, violence, and economic hilarity. . . . A highly entertaining tale.”
—Globe and Mail
From the Inside Flap
The wildest seven years in the history of hockey
"The Rebel League celebrates the good, the bad, and the ugly of the fabled WHA. It is filled with hilarious anecdotes, behind the scenes dealing, and simply great hockey. It tells the story of Bobby Hull's astonishing million-dollar signing, which helped launch the league, and how he lost his toupee in an on-ice scrap.It explains how a team of naked Birmingham Bulls ended up in an arena concourse spoiling for a brawl. How the Oilers had to smuggle fugitive forward Frankie "Seldom" Beaton out of their dressing room in an equipment bag. And how Mark Howe sometimes forgot not to yell "Dad!" when he called for his teammate father, Gordie, to pass. There's the making of "Slap Shot, that classic of modern cinema, and the making of the virtuoso line of Hull, Anders Hedberg, and Ulf Nilsson.
It began as the moneymaking scheme of two California lawyers. They didn't know much about hockey, but they sure knew how to shake things up. The upstart WHA introduced to the world 27 new hockey franchises, a trail of bounced cheques, fractious lawsuits, and folded teams. It introduced the crackpots, goons, and crazies that are so well remembered as the league's bizarre legacy.
But the hit-and-miss league was much more than a travelling circus of the weird and wonderful. It was the vanguard that drove hockey into the modern age. It ended the NHL's monopoly, freed players from the reserve clause, ushered in the 18-year-old draft, moved the game into the Sun Belt, and put European players on the ice in numbers previously unimagined.
The rebel league of the WHA gave shining stars their big-league debut and others their swan song, and providedhigh-octane fuel for some spectacular flameouts. By the end of its seven years, there were just six teams left standing, four of which - the Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques, Edmonton Oilers, and Hartford Whalers - would wind up in the expanded NHL.
"From the Hardcover edition.
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Top customer reviews
"Rebel League" is a great look back at the WHA, the pro hockey league that brought pro hockey to some new markets/fans, myself included. Some of the players, coaches, teams and behind-the-scenes people that I had forgotten about are recalled in this terrific book! I've recommended this book to several of my friends who are hockey fans, as well as my 17-year-old nephew, who was born nearly two decades after the WHA ceased to exist.
"The Rebel League" talks about the business aspects of the World Hockey Association. While the league paid players fantastically (and simultaneously helped hundreds of players who never played in the WHA get paid more by the NHL), the league's revenue side was nowhere near as robust. Further, the league struggled with the practical aspects of putting on hockey games. For instance, the New York Raiders were hamstrung at Madison Square Garden by "a series of union contracts that guaranteed certain staffing quotas in the areas of concessions and maintenance. The rent might have been $1,700 on Sundays, but when you added in the costs of all those support workers, the actual price for staging a game was close to $20,000." I had never thought about an issue like that.
An unsung hero of the WHA that "The Rebel League" brings out is the late John Bassett, the owner of the Birmingham Bulls. It was Bassett who was most prominent in signing players under the NHL's age limit. "The Rebel League" argues this was a forcing function that finally got the NHL's dinosaurs to agree to the league merger. Bassett ends up being a martyr as neither he nor the Bulls made it into the NHL.
"The Rebel League" is a quick read. Willes is a lucid writer. His journalistic background comes out, both in the positive sense of the book being well-written and in the negative sense of the book lacking much depth.
But what they saw was an opportunity to bring life to a game that for too many years was operated like a feudal empire by the National Hockey League and made Major League Baseball - before the unity of the player's association - look absolutely progressive.
The WHA operated from 1972-1979 and revolutionized pro hockey in many ways; from a court decision in its first year that basically overturned the NHL's reserve-clause on player contracts, introducing the sport to Sun Belt cities and - for numerous franchises - being literally on the ground floor in new arena construction and introducing pro fans to a pair of young players that quickly redefined the game - Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.
Author Ed Willes gives the reader a great tour of the often unique personalities on the ice and in the front offices in this fast-moving text. And some of the wacky highlights include:
* a team so in debt that a group of potential owners backed out of a deal to buy it for one dollar;
* a player slated to be a major star lasting only eight games in the first season and then striking a buyout deal to be paid for not playing;
* an arena where the players had to be especially careful not to have cockroaches find cozy homes in their gear;
* a radio announcer who had to use his wife's gasoline credit card to refuel the team plane so it wouldn't be stuck on the tarmac until the next morning.
But through the hijinks was a small group of owners and a pool of players who wanted the league to succeed without merging with the NHL. It wasn't meant to be, as the league ended up with six teams in its last season, with four ending up in the NHL.
Maybe the WHA is judged as a failure because it sputtered to an uneventful end, but Willes demonstrates how chasing a dream can make for great memories....and some unbelievable stories.
If you have read this book and liked it, read the others you see on this "home page," such as Terry Pluto's "Loose Balls" on the ABA and Jeff Miller's "Going Long" about the AFL. They are all great reads that will entertain you long into the night.
In addition to the humor and great hockey insight, I was touched by some very nice stories in this book, a few that left a tear in my eyes. There are some real heroes, villains and characters in this book and I'm sad to see all but one of these WHA teams out of business now. It's a real loss, and I say that impartially as a Buffalo Sabres fan living in Western New York. By not showing these WHA games on TV, we missed some great hockey players and very entertaining teams, the way Willes tells it.
After reading this book, I would give anything to see Winnipeg's "Hot Line" in action and Gordie Howe playing with his two sons, or see the real-life "Slap Shot/Hanson Brothers" in action!