At the intersection of Portage and Main streets in the heart of Winnipeg, thousands of people greet with fanfare the most dynamic hockey player of his generation: Bobby Hull.
Posted on June 27
It’s June 27, 1972 – 50 years ago today – and the news is now official: the “Golden Jet” are leaving the Chicago Blackhawks and joining the Winnipeg Jets, of the newly formed World Hockey Association ( AMH). This circuit created by a band of daring entrepreneurs attacks the monopoly of the National Hockey League (NHL).
For several weeks already, speculation about the future of Hull has been numerous, in particular because of his tormented relations with the management of the Blackhawks.
Three years earlier, aware that his prowess was worth huge profits to the team owners, Hull refused to start the season, demanding a significant salary increase. His showdown was a resounding failure. He returned home with low shoulders. His bosses 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 hockey player has appeared on the cover of the weekly more often Sports Illustratedthen the reference sports media in the United States.
His powerful slap shots are his trademark. But there is more: Hull is a star of the first dimension and he assumes this role with panache.
That was before, of course, that allegations of domestic abuse showed a terrible side of her character, tarnished her reputation and lastingly tarnished her legacy.
But at the time, Hull was the ideal candidate to become the « face » of the WHA: his presence would convince fans that the league was serious and encourage other NHL players to take the plunge.
In addition to granting him an annual salary of $250,000, the AMH grants a signing bonus of 1 million to Hull. All the teams of the circuit are called upon to raise this sum. And so, on a beautiful summer day, Hull becomes a member of the Jets, acclaimed by the fans of a city in which he had never set foot.
One might think that the story ends there. It’s the contrary. Hull’s transfer to the WHA triggers hostilities between the two leagues. Until then, the NHL did not believe the young circuit capable of destabilizing it and, above all, of jeopardizing its business model based on the “reserve clause”.
This clause, incorporated into the contracts of all the players, deprived them of all 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 over the following weeks. Thus, 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 true, we suggest that you consult a lawyer immediately so that you fully understand your obligations to our team. »
Despite this hot context, several players are making the leap to the WHA. Among them, defender Jean-Claude Tremblay leaves the Montreal Canadiens and joins the Quebec Nordiques.
But for the NHL, the case of Hull is the most significant. It is around him that revolves the legal recourse which promises to be decisive for the future.
As a precautionary measure, the WHA asks Hull not to participate in the games until the cause is resolved. On November 8, 1972, Judge Leon Higginbotham rendered a historic decision in a Philadelphia court. It prohibits the use of the « reserve clause », which allows Hull to endorse the uniform of the Jets.
The judge also distributes the blame to the NHL. In the documents filed in court, the league notably highlighted its significant investments in the development of hockey.
Higginbotham’s response is incisive: “Reading the tributes they pay on this subject, you would think that this money was spent only for the honor and glory of amateur and minor league hockey. The NHL’s motives weren’t so noble: the spending was necessary to maintain their monopoly. »
The creation of the WHA and the end of the « reserve clause » profoundly changed professional hockey. Now players enjoy real bargaining power.
In the following seasons, salaries increased at breakneck speed in both leagues. The competition between the circuits enriches the players.
In the early 2010s, while preparing my book The Colosseum versus the Forum, in which I recount these events, I interviewed Réjean Houle, who moved from the Canadiens to the Nordiques before the second season of the WHA (he returned to the Canadiens three years later). He explained to me how much the arrival of the WHA had transformed the future of the players.
“Tongues have started to loosen up,” he told me. Previously, it was a taboo subject in the locker room. Young players were the least embarrassed to address this issue. At the Canadian, we all knew that Jean-Claude Tremblay had obtained a very good contract from the Nordiques.
“We could now compare ourselves to each other, we knew that one player had obtained a bonus, another a big raise. Before, we were locked in a straitjacket. We were now getting the ability to truly negotiate our salary. It was the first major breakthrough for gamers, a great deliverance for guys in my era. »
Judge Higginbotham has been forgotten by hockey history. But his judgment of November 8, 1972, in which he declared the « reserve clause » illegal, represented an epic victory for the players.