At the intersection of Portage and Main Streets in the heart of Winnipeg, thousands of fans greeted with fanfares the most dynamic hockey player of his generation: Bobby Hull.
Posted at 7:45am
It’s June 27, 1972 – 50 years ago today – and the news is now official: The “Golden Jet” are leaving the Chicago Blackhawks and switching to the Winnipeg Jets, the young World Hockey Association (AMH). Created by a group of daring entrepreneurs, this racetrack challenges the National Hockey League’s (NHL) monopoly.
Speculation about Hull’s future has been raging for several weeks, particularly over his strained relationship with Blackhawks management.
Three years earlier, Hull refused to start the season, demanding a substantial pay rise, aware his skill was worth huge profits to team owners. His showdown was a clear failure. He returned home with his shoulders down. His superiors forced him to apologize and fined him.
The announcement of Hull’s move to the WHA made headlines across America. Its popularity is immense. No ice hockey player was seen more often on the cover of the weekly newspaper sports illustratedthen the reference sports media in the United States.
His powerful slap shots are his trademark. But there’s more: Hull is a star of the first dimension, and he pulls it off with flying colors.
Of course, that was before allegations of domestic violence revealed a terrible side of her personality, tarnished her reputation and permanently tarnished her legacy.
But at the time, Hull was the ideal candidate to become the “face” of the WHA: his presence would convince fans the league was serious and encourage other NHL players to take the plunge.
In addition to awarding an annual salary of $250,000, the AMH awards Hull a $1 million signing bonus. All teams on the racetrack are called upon to raise this sum. And so, on a fine summer’s day, Hull joins the Jets, hailed by fans of a city he’s never set foot in.
One might think that the story ends there. It is the opposite. Hull’s move to the WHA sparks hostilities between the two leagues. Until then, the NHL had not trusted the young circuit to destabilize them and, above all, to endanger their business model based on the “reserve clause”.
This clause, written into all players’ contracts, deprived them of any autonomy. They were therefore at the mercy of their bosses throughout their careers.
Several NHL teams, accustomed to their position of strength, threatened their players in the weeks that followed. For example, the Detroit Red Wings sent this message to some of them: “We have heard rumors that you have signed or are about to sign a contract with another hockey team. If this is the case, we encourage you to consult an attorney immediately so that you fully understand your obligations to our team. »
Despite this hot context, several players are taking the plunge into the WHA. Among them, defender Jean-Claude Tremblay is leaving the Montreal Canadiens for the Quebec Nordiques.
But for the NHL, the Hull case is the most significant. The legal process, which promises to be decisive for the future, revolves around him.
As a precaution, the WHA is asking Hull not to attend the Games until the cause is clarified. On November 8, 1972, Judge Leon Higginbotham made a historic decision in a Philadelphia court. It prohibits the use of the “reserve clause” that allows Hull to endorse the Jets’ uniform.
The judge also assigns blame to the NHL. In the documents submitted to the court, the league particularly highlighted its significant investments in the development of ice hockey.
Higginbotham’s response is perceptive: “Reading the tributes they pay on this subject, one would think that this money was only spent on the honor and glory of amateur hockey and the minor leagues. The NHL’s motives weren’t so noble: the spending was necessary to maintain its monopoly. »
The formation of the WHA and the end of the “reserve clause” fundamentally changed professional ice hockey. Now players enjoy real bargaining power.
In the following seasons, salaries in both leagues rose at a rapid pace. The competition between the circuits enriches the players.
Early 2010s while preparing my book The Colosseum versus the Forum, in which I chronicle these events, I interviewed Réjean Houle, who left the Canadiens for the Nordiques prior to WHA’s second season (returning to the Canadiens three years later). He explained to me how much the arrival of the WHA had changed the future of players.
“The tongues are gradually coming loose,” he told me. Previously, it was a taboo subject in the dressing room. Young players were the least embarrassed to bring up this issue. As for the Canadians, we all knew that Jean-Claude Tremblay had landed a very good contract with the Nordiques.
“We could now compare ourselves, we knew that one player got a bonus, the other a big increase. We used to be locked in a straitjacket. We were now given the opportunity to really negotiate our salary. It was the first major breakthrough for gamers, a great redemption for guys in my era. »
Judge Higginbotham has been forgotten by hockey history. But his November 8, 1972 ruling, declaring the “reserve clause” illegal, marked an epic victory for the players.