At the intersection of Portage and Main Street in the heart of Winnipeg, thousands of people cheerfully greet the most dynamic hockey player of his generation: Bobby Hull.
Posted at 7:45 am
It is June 27, 1972 – today 50 years ago – and the news is now official: the “Golden Jets” leave the Chicago Blackhawks and join 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, speculations about Hull’s future have been numerous, particularly due to his troubled relations with the Blackhawks leadership.
Three years earlier, aware that his skill was worth huge profits to the team owners, Hull refused to start the season, demanding a significant pay raise. His showdown was a resounding failure. He came home with his shoulders down. His bosses forced him to apologize and fined him.
The announcement of Hull’s move to the WHO made headlines across America. His popularity is immense. No hockey player has appeared on the cover of the weekly more often Sports Illustratedhence the reference sports media in the United States.
His powerful slaps are his trademark. But there’s more: Hull is a star of the first dimension and she plays this role with panache.
This was before, of course, the domestic abuse allegations showed a terrible side to his personality, tarnished his reputation, and long tarnished his legacy.
But at the time, Hull was the ideal candidate to become the “face” of 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 in Hull. All the teams on the circuit are required to collect this sum. And so, on a beautiful summer day, Hull joins the Jets, acclaimed by fans of a city he had never set foot in.
One might think that the story ends there. Is the opposite. Hull’s transfer to the WHA ignites hostilities between the two leagues. Until then, the NHL did not believe in 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 players, deprived them of any autonomy. They were therefore at the mercy of their bosses throughout their career.
Several NHL teams, accustomed to their position of strength, threatened their players in the following weeks. So, 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 environment, several players are making the leap to WHO. Among them, defender Jean-Claude Tremblay leaves the Montreal Canadiens and joins the Quebec Nordiques.
But for the NHL, the Hull case is the most significant. It is around him that the legal appeal revolves, which promises to be decisive for the future.
As a precaution, WHO asks Hull not to participate in the games until the lawsuit is resolved. On November 8, 1972, Judge Leon Higginbotham issued a historic ruling in a Philadelphia court. He 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 court filings, the league highlighted in particular its significant investments in hockey development.
Higginbotham’s response is incisive: “Reading the tribute they pay on this topic, you’d think this money was spent only on the honor and glory of amateur hockey and the minor league. The NHL’s motives weren’t so noble: the expense was necessary to maintain their monopoly. ”
The creation of the WHO and the end of the “reserve clause” have profoundly changed professional hockey. Players now enjoy real bargaining power.
In subsequent seasons, salaries increased at breakneck speed in both leagues. Competition between circuits enriches the players.
In the early 2010s, while I was preparing my book The Colosseum against 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 the arrival of the WHA has transformed the future of the players.
“The tongues have started to loosen,” he told me. Previously, it was a taboo subject in the locker room. Young players have been the least embarrassed to address this issue. At the Canadian we all knew that Jean-Claude Tremblay had gotten a great deal from the Nordics.
Now we could confront each other, we knew that one player got a bonus, another a big raise. Before we were closed in a straitjacket. Now we were getting a chance to actually negotiate our salary. It was the first big breakthrough for the players, a great release for the kids of my time. ”
Judge Higginbotham has been forgotten in hockey history. But his November 8, 1972 ruling, in which he outlawed the “reserve clause”, was an epic victory for the players.