by Jim Riggs
February 21, 2004
His Brother Was Key To WHA's Survival
Things began to improve for hockey players in the early 1970s, but the windfall came with the establishment of the World Hockey Association in 1972. No one gave the new league of 12 teams much of a chance until it signed one of the NHL's top players - Bobby Hull. When the Chicago Blackhawks' star player, known as the Golden Jet, signed with the new league, it stunned a lot of people, including his teammate and younger brother, Dennis.
"We talked about it for a long time and it ended up being a shock when he went," Hull said earlier this week when he was in Jamestown to speak at the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner. "And it ended up being, obviously, the biggest mistake the Blackhawks ever made. Not only for them, but for the NHL. (Blackhawks owner) Bill Wirtz told me later it probably cost the NHL a billion dollars."
That's because like when the AFL challenged the NFL, the NHL found itself in a salary battle with the WHA and the new league was taking away its top players with huge contracts. Chicago tried to keep Bobby, but the WHA money was too good to pass up.
"I think the Blackhawks offered him $500,000 maybe and the Winnipeg Jets, who had drafted him, offered him a million bucks and he wasn't going back on his word," Dennis said.
And what had his brother been earning before the WHA came along?
"I was making $40,000 so he was making maybe $150,000," Dennis said.
After Hull signed Winnipeg's 10-year, $2.75 million contract, including a $1 million signing bonus that was shared by all the WHA owners, the WHA suddenly had credibility and soon other NHL stars followed, Goaltender Bernie Parent left the Philadelphia Flyers for the Miami Screaming Eagles, who became the Philadelphia Blazers, Derek Sanderson and Johnny McKenzie left the Boston Bruins for the Blazers while teammate and goaltender Gerry Cheevers signed with the Cleveland Crusaders. Between July 1 and Oct. 1, 1972, more than 100 NHL players jumped to the WHA.
"None of those big-name guys would have gone if Bobby hadn't gone," Dennis said.
He also noted, "I thought Bobby would be back the next year. I just didn't think it would go."
But the WHA did - for seven years.
"They started drawing crowds and getting some coverage and year after year more guys went," he said. "The Howe family went there. You've got Bobby
Hull, Davey Keon and Gordie Howe; there were bigger names (in the WHA) than in the NHL."
And NHL players who didn't jump still benefitted.
"Guys were using the WHA," Dennis said. "They would go with whichever team drafted them and get an offer from the WHA and come back and use that in negotiations with the NHL without ever having any idea of going to the WHA. Bobby hated them doing that."
And Blackhawks hated Bobby for jumping ship.
"The funny thing is they wanted to get Bobby's name out of everything (such as the record book) and then they had the stupid idea that they would give someone No. 9," Dennis said about the infamous number his brother had worn.
It was given to Dale Talon.
"He wore it one night and he went out and they just booed non-stop," Dennis said was the fan's reaction." I said, "Dale, you should have put a decimal point in front of it!"
Talon turned the jersey back in and said it was 'sacrilege" for anyone other than Hull to wear it.
Meanwhile, Bobby was wearing a Winnipeg uniform and carried the WHA on his back during the first season in which he was named the Most Valuable Player.
"He knew he was the whole league and I don't know how he did it," Dennis said. "On the day of a game he would have to go on the radio and do interviews
like all day and would just get to the rink in time to play. I don't know how he did it."
Bobby was also the target of many goon-type players. A lot of tough guys got a chance to play in the WHA and were taking a run at the league's superstar
at every chance they got.
"I knew when they start one of those leagues, to draw crowds, they'll have all the goofs in those leagues, too," Dennis said. "So Bobby had to put up with
that as well."
But while his brother gave credibility to the WHA, Dennis remained with Chicago even though he had been drafted by the Screaming Eagles.
"I didn't want to go," he said. "Growing up, all I wanted to do was play in the NHL and the WHA wasn't the NHL. It just seemed like a minor league."
And the Blackhawks didn't penalize Dennis for his brother's defection.
"Billy Wirtz was a great guy," he said. "A good friend of mine and I like him a lot."
Also, Wirtz offered Dennis an incentive to stay.
"When Bobby left, Stan Mikita was injured and it didn't look like he was going to play the rest of that year," he recalled. "So there was just Jim Pappin,
Pit Martin and I. Billy Wirtz said, "I'll give you a new contract if you play the first game, all three of us, and we did and he redid our contracts in line with the
Wirtz knew it was important to keep that trio because in 1971 they were the highest-scoring line in hockey with 120 goals despite limited playing time.
"Bobby averaged 22 minutes a game, Stan Mikita averaged 20 minutes a game," Dennis said. "I wasn't on either of those lines. So that's 42 minutes,
there's only 18 minutes left, so we did OK for 18 minutes a game."
But some other Blackhawks eventually followed Bobby to the WHA.
"Two years later Pat Stapleton left and Ralph Backstrom and a lot of our top minor league guys," Dennis said.
The WHA also opened up major league hockey in North America to Europeans. It was rare for Europeans to play in the NHL mainly because the established league thought they were too soft to play here. But the WHA drafted Europeans frequently and let them prove they could play. That is why we have the European-filled NHL rosters we see today.
The first two European superstars in the WHA were the Swedish pair of Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, who played on a line with Hull at Winnipeg.
"He brought those two Swedes over (in 1974) and they were probably one of the greatest lines ever in hockey and it's just a shame they never got a chance
to play in the NHL," Dennis said.
The Swedes had their chance in 1978 when they jumped from Winnipeg to the New York Rangers while Hull remained in Winnipeg for the last season of the WHA. However, he retired in November and the Jets won their third WHA playoff title. Then Winnipeg, along with the Edmonton Oilers, the Quebec Nordiques and the Hartford Whalers, joined the NHL.
By then Dennis had also retired. After 13 seasons with Chicago, he was traded to Detroit for the 1977-78 season, his last.
Bobby did play 18 games with the Jets as an NHL team in 1979-80 before being traded to Hartford, in a publicity move so he could play with Howe. It lasted for only nine games.
Bobby's final action was with the New York Rangers in 1981 when he played four games with them in the Dagen Nyheter Cup Challenge in Sweden.
Looking back at when his brother made the jump to the WHA, Dennis said, "Every guy playing the NHL should have given Bobby a bonus for upping
their salaries, or at least thanked him."