Without the WHA this statue would almost certainly be outside another NHL arena. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
On this day 32 years ago the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets faced off in Game 6 of the 1979 Avco Cup Final. On that night the Jets would defeat the Oilers 7-3 to win their second Avco Cup in a row and third in four seasons. You read that right, the Jets beat the Oilers. If the you're not familiar with WHA history the Jets were the team to beat, sadly (for them at least) they were never able to translate that success to the NHL.
With the merger between the NHL and the WHA already set to occur at the end of the season, that last Avco Cup game of course became the final game played in the WHA. The next season both teams, along with the Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers, would join the NHL; the two other WHA teams still standing, the Cincinnati Stingers and Birmingham Bulls, were simply folded. And just like that the WHA was finished.
Today in Edmonton the WHA has been all but forgotten. There is almost no mention of it on the team website. The NHL website is no different. But the WHA did exist and it's time the Oilers recognized that. There are seven years of Oilers history tied to the WHA. With 32 more in the NHL now under our belts I see no better time than now to start recognizing and celebrating the OIlers WHA history as the team enters their 40th anniversary season.
Having been born 35 days before the last WHA game was played I never personally attended a game. There aren't vaults of archival footage to watch. In fact there is very little video remaining at all and what there is can be included on just three DVDs - The WHA Chronicles is a set that includes that final game between the Jets and the Oilers. So why do I even care? Why should the Oilers decide to acknowledge and perhaps even celebrate a league that no longer exists? My argument is four fold.
Like it or not it's part of our history
Would Edmonton even have an NHL hockey team if not for the WHA? Possibly but I think that the idea that an NHL team would be playing here today is far from a sure thing. Edmonton is a small city that isn't really all that close to much of anything. Northlands Coliseum, now Rexall Place, was built for the WHA Oilers, there's no guarantee that the building would have been constructed with the hopes of landing a team like Hamilton did. So without an arena we'd have been in a tough spot to land a team It pains me greatly to say it but Calgary would have probably been the more likely destination for an NHL team based on size and proximity to the US. Especially after the Saddledome was built for the Olympics. Just think, without the WHA we might all be Calgary Flames fans.
And even if Edmonton did have an NHL team today there is no chance that it would have a history of winning like this team does. Wayne Gretzky came with the WHA Oilers when they joined the NHL. The chances that he would have been an Oiler without the help of the WHA are somewhere between slim and none. Gretzky might have been one of the key pieces on the ice in our dynasty years but the only connection between the WHA and the dynasty years. The architect of those teams, Glen Sather, came from the WHA too. Sather played his last year of hockey here in Edmonton in 76/77and midway through the season replaced Bep Guidolin as the coach. The next season he took over coaching full time and the rest is history. Without Sather and Gretzky how many Stanley Cup banners would hang from our rafters today.
The Oilers love to celebrate their history but they miss a big part of that history by forgetting the seven seasons that came before 1979. What's worse is that without those seven seasons we likely wouldn't have much of a history to celebrate. We'd be the Vancouver Canucks.
You've already opened the door a crack, just kick it open
I asked my dad growing up who Al Hamilton was and why his number 3 had been retired. I knew the Oiler greats from the 1980s and that the team started play in 1979 but yet I didn't know who he was. My dad told me that Hamilton had been the Oilers first captain and that an eye injury had forced him to retire. Seemed reasonable to me at the time. But with age I've come to question that. For starters Hamilton wasn't the Oilers captain 1979 and he only played 31 games with the Oilers in the NHL. So why is his number retired? Probably has a little something to do with what he did in the WHA where he was the franchise leader in games played, assists, points, and seasons played; he was also second in penalty minutes. And of course he was the first captain in the Oilers full history.
And then we've got the recently retired Rod Phillips whose banner reads 3542 for the number of games he called. Since the Oilers have only played 2738 games in the NHL that total quite clearly includes the games he called while the Oilers played in the WHA. Phillips joined the Oilers
for that very first year in 1972 starting in 1973 and so I'm thrilled that the banner they raised for him included all of the games that he called and not just those from when the club joined the NHL. In fact Hamilton is the only player to have played all seven WHA seasons with the Oilers so that both he and Phillips have been honoured by the club makes me a smile a bit.
With the Hamilton and Phillips banners the team is already pseudo acknowledging that the WHA existed and that the Oilers were part of it. Why not just get it over with and really acknowledge it?
There is money to be made here
Three years ago the Oilers kicked off their 30th anniversary season with new retro themed jerseys. These were clearly a hit with fans as they're just about all you see in the stands these days. But is wasn't just jerseys, there were hats, hoodies, t-shirts, and just about anything else that the 30th anniversary logo could be slapped on for sale too. There was a lot of merchandise for sale that year and I've got to think that the team made a couple dollars off of it.
So why wait seven more years for the 40th anniversary to cash in again when if you just count the WHA years you'd be there now. I'm sure I don't have to explain the time value of money to those in charge of the Oilers. And if the Oilers are going to switch up the road jerseys next season for a more retro look this makes even more sense because it provides that easily to establish link between the past and the anniversary.
With Katz on the hook for $100M towards a new arena I can't imagine he look down on another anniversary season and all the memorabilia purchases that go along with it.
Just because this would be funny
In the final season of the WHA the Oilers fell short in the Avco Cup, but while their ultimate goal was not achieved they did finish atop the standing at the end of the regular season. I can't find a record of the WHA awarding their own version of the President' Trophy but even without a trophy the accomplishment still remains. So on opening night why not have a banner ceremony?
Think about the team that finished last the season before taking a couple of minutes before puck drop to raise a banner. How can you not want to see that? I know I'd love it. Bring back some of the Oiler players from that last season and play the game against the Colorado Avalanche since the Nordiques finished second that year. I think it could be a great way to start the new season.
After seven seasons the WHA finally merged with the NHL. Four teams were part of that merger but in the years that followed all but one of them would pack up and leave for another. The Oilers are quite literally the last WHA left standing. We should be damn proud of that. That we've also got the history we do just makes it that much sweeter. Ignoring any of our history just doesn't make any sense. Lets change that starting right now.