As told to: Dave BidiniThe first game the New England Whalers played was in Boston Garden and it was almost a sell-out. I was young– 30 years old– and it was like a dream come true. But the next game was in Boston Arena and when I went there in the afternoon, I found the building dark; all of the lights were out. The maintenance man said, “Don’t worry, everything is fine,” but when I followed him into the dark bowels of the rink, I saw that the electrical panel had a fan in front of it blowing on the switches. The game went off okay, but the next night in Philly, the players fell through the ice. That was the WHA: you never knew what was coming at you.
Compared to the establishment who ran the NHL, a lot of us were young, and, as owners, we didn’t know what we were getting into. The guys who started the league– Gary Davidson and others– had started the ABA, and so in early drafts of the WHA’s constitution, the word “court” was often used where the word “rink” should have been. Some of our league meetings were hysterical, and some ended in fistfights. Still, there was a spirit to what we did that was different. Ownership today is corporate, and a lot of the heart has shifted to science and brain power, as opposed to the pure romanticism of owning and running a team.
The game went off okay, but the next night in Philly, the players fell through the ice. That was the WHA: you never knew what was coming at you.
So much of what we did, we made up as we went along. When we brought the Whalers to Hartford– after a few years in the Boston/New England area– we staged an average of 350 events a year in the community. Me, Bill Barnes and Phil Lang ate, slept and drank promotion and we loved coming up with new ideas, like the harpoon logo and the “Brass Bonanza” song, two staples that have lasted long after the team. There were 16 big companies in Hartford and we offered all of their employees discount tickets to midweek games, and that’s how we made sure, in the beginning, that there’d be people in the rink before the fan base developed. In the days before the internet, you had to know your audience by feel, rather than area statistics or metrics. You used the phone and wrote letters. These days, front offices of pro teams employ 140 people. But in the early days of the Whalers, it was a few dozen, so we could pull together and make this happen.
The players in the WHA were as unlikely as the owners. We had a player named Bobby Sheehan, and in the last game of our first year, he came out of our dressing room in handcuffs. The cops had gone down there and arrested him for something he’d done away from the rink. Players smoked everywhere and all the time, and, as far as we were concerned, the more personality they had, the better. Sports today takes itself too seriously, but because stakes are so high and the dollars so enormous, the game and the players are forced into being robotic. There’s no way me or anyone else would have told Gordie Howe what to say or how to behave, and the same held true with his wife, Colleen, who, if you ask me, should be in the Hall of Fame for the impact she made in getting her son and husband paid as much as they deserved. When we negotiated with her, there was never any hardline from our perspective. We were just thrilled to be talking to the Howes and you’d be hard pressed to find that dynamic in any scenario in the modern game. We were fans and we loved the players and the game. And I think you saw that in the way we ran our teams.
DAVE BIDINI is the co-creator of ‘Slapshot Diaries’ as well as a writer/musician/columnist from Toronto and the author of 12 books.
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