With a Niagara Falls casino as the backdrop, the WHA began the slow march to credibility. Or did it? The fledgling league began to stock its collection of hopeful franchises on Saturday, by beginning two days of drafts designed to give each team a negotiating list to work with. Day One featured 30 rounds of free agent talent being selected and placed on wish lists.
Number one in the hearts of the Quebec Nordiks was Simon Gagne, who will go into the Hockey history books as the first player chosen to join the crusade. Of course there’s a small matter of a contract offer before Gagne might wish to relocate from Philadelphia.
7 actual cities were identified in the draft today, though some have yet to finalize anything resembling a deal with a rink. The Toronto franchise which will go by the name of the Toros continues to insist that they have a home, but regret that they can’t announce it yet, might make for a hard sale on the season ticket front that little bit of news. They also claim that Ted Nolan is pegged to coach the team, which would be an interesting choice if only someone would share the news with Nolan. So far in Toronto the scenario is all hat and no cattle.
Besides the center of the Canadian universe three other Canadian cities have been formally identified as home to the WHA, Halifax, Quebec and Hamilton apparently are ready to welcome the new league to their palaces of shinny. There may even be a fifth Canadian franchise added, as in Saturday’s draft there was a team called Founder’s franchise. A team which was busy picking players who seem to have had some connection to Vancouver, thus we must assume that the Founder is planning on calling the Pacific coast home. To get on the good side of the locals, Todd Bertuzzi was picked as the debut player for team Founder.
Dallas, Detroit and Florida rounded out the eight, as they too added free agents from the NHL and AHL to their negotiation lists and prepared to take to the ice in October.
Bobby Hull appeared at the Casino to open up the festivities and after about an hour moved on to other things on his schedule, leaving the dreamers, schemers and believers to carry on with the business of adding some flesh to the WHA fantasy. Before he departed, Hull leveled some criticism at the negative tone of the gathered media, who asked some pointed questions regarding the leagues less than tangible points thus far.
The league also has to worry about the negative perceptions about one of its co-founders, Alen Howell. He has a record littered with failed ventures; court troubles and a short term attention span, that has seen him bounce from one project to another.
Wishing these questions away is not going to make the great endeavour any closer to reality. For while the franchise holders were busy holding the fantasy draft, at the moment their teams have about as much tangible reality as the local office hockey pool. Indeed the local office pool seems to have a more secure funding structure than the new WHA, and like the WHA owners the fantasy draft picker may never have to actually sign a player to a contract.
The league continues on with its draft on Sunday, the real question will be where they go on Monday. It’s one thing to put together a wish list of players for everyone to read, the real tale will be if those names eventually get put into a program for game night.
In order to be taken seriously the league has to quickly address its arena issues, sign a few players and stake out a claim in its member cities. Otherwise Bobby Hull is going to be even more upset, for at the moment there are far more questions out there than answers.