2003 - 2004
The Greater Greensboro Observer
August 18, 2004
Will the Puck Drop Here in Yet Another League?
By Jim McNally
Talk about getting handed a lemon and making lemonade or, in this case, maybe lemon ice cream would be a better metaphor. Greensboro's losing of the ECHL Generals hockey team could end up being the spark for one of the largest sports coups in the city's history.
There are still a lot of matters that need to be resolved and then some luck has to come into play, but the Gate City is on the short list of locations being talked about for a hockey league whose entire existence may rest on the solvability and solubility of the NHL and its much ballyhooed financial woes.
The league has secured teams in seven cities and is seeking an eighth to keep things nice and even. The Greensboro situation is an iffy scenario to be sure, but the new World Hockey League has already held two 30-round drafts, the first of which included mostly NHL players.
In the draft, the yet-to-be-named team - being referred to as the Founders' Franchise - alternately chose sixth and third throughout. Its first two picks were Todd Bertuzzi, perhaps the best player currently on the roster of the Vancouver Canucks and Corey Schwab, a backup goaltender with the New Jersey Devils.
Those players, or a squad mostly comprising younger players who most recently played in Canada's major junior leagues, will call Greensboro home if the wishes of city and coliseum leaders come to pass.
But two big 'ifs' still stand in the way.
Last week, WHA officials said Orlando or Greensboro would be awarded the final slot in what will be the only major hockey league putting teams, on the ice if National Hockey League team owners follow through on plans they have made well-known about staging a lockout before the upcoming season.
However, a report on the WHA's official Web site said talks between the league and Orlando officials were at an impasse, as of late last month, and that the negotiating process had all but ended.
The Orlando area also suffered major damage from Hurricane Charley last weekend and it is uncertain how quickly the region will be able to recover from that or what impact it will have on WHA decision-makers, who are expected to finalize a deal sometime this week.
The franchise being considered will be owned by the league. The team would therefore avoid the headline-making troubles that have blighted ownership tenures of other Greensboro hockey teams. Last year, salaries of the Generals' front office personnel were paid by the city of Greensboro.
This year, when the Greensboro City Council approved the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, team expenses were not included in it. When no buyers could be assembled before an ECHL-extended deadline, the team folded.
If Greensboro is selected by the WHA, it will be second team to originate in a league called the World Hockey Association to play home games in the coliseum. The Carolina Hurricanes, who played their first two Tar Heel seasons in Greensboro, started life as the New England Whalers, during the first incarnation of the WHA.
That league - which lured NHL superstar Bobby Hull from the Chicago Blackhawks with a seven-figure contract (numbers unheard of in professional hockey at that time), and NHL legend Gordie "Mr. Hockey" Howe out of retirement - lasted seven years; 1972-73 through 1978-79.
It made itself different from the NHL in every way it could; using red pucks, excessively curved "banana" blades, strange-colored referee uniforms, and an overtime period to end all-to-common ties. The league also encouraged a more brutish brand of hockey in which fighting was not merely a bi-product so much as it was a selling point.
Once it got Hull and Howe, it also went after all the marquee players it could.
Howe, who had 24 NHL seasons under his belt by then, ended up playing another mini-career in the WHA with his sons Marty and Mark (who would go on to become one of the best defensemen in the NHL).
Interestingly, both Hull and Howe finished their careers with the Whalers, during its first NHL season, in 1979-80.
The last four teams from the first WHA - the Whalers, Winnipeg Jets (named, it was rumored, for Hull's nickname, "The Golden Jet"), the star-studded (Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier to name a few) Edmonton Oilers, and Quebec Nordiques - were absorbed by the NHL.
Only the Oilers remain in the city in which they began with their original, WHA name.
The new WHA also went to Hull to give it credibility. The now-graying jet (and father of future Hall of Famer, Brett Hull) is the league's commissioner and front man.
And it will be Hull, among others, who will decide whether hockey will be played in Greensboro this fall.
A WHA team in Greensboro would be the fifth professional hockey team here in the past decade, and a half. That list, so far, includes the Monarchs (a team each in the ECHL and AHL) the Hurricanes and the Generals.