Sit back, kids, and let me tell you the story of the Great Hockey Wars of 1991. It’s a tale of two leagues battling for the services of a young superstar – one hoping to highlight underserved markets in North America and the other vowing to take on the world.
In the end, however, nary a shot was fired and the only real casualties were egos.
In January, 1991, news broke that the North American Hockey League was aiming to give fans in the United States and Canada another big-time professional hockey circuit. Gordon Stenback, interim league president, said Cleveland, Dallas, Miami and Hamilton, Ontario, would be charter cities with at least two more franchises (chosen among Atlanta, Houston, Providence, Rhode Island and Oakland/Sacramento) set to begin play that winter.
“The idea for this league actually got started a year and a half ago,” Stenback told the Akron Beacon Journal for a Jan. 9, 1991, story. “I had had conversations with people in major cities around the country that did not have hockey, and we decided to form a network and put together our own league.
“We are not in competition with the NHL because our teams are not in those cities.”
The franchise fee was set at $250,000 and each team was to play an 80-game schedule and work under a $3 million salary cap. Rule innovations included sudden death without goalies, elimination of the red line, and enlarging the area behind the net by moving the goal line forward.
Just over a month later, however, the NAHL had some competition in the battle of hockey upstarts.
The Continental Hockey Association – under the direction of sports entrepreneur Bill Hunter – sprang to life on February 16, promising six franchises would be in place by September with European expansion on the table.
St. Paul and Saskatoon were the two charter members, with Atlanta, Cleveland, Orlando, Miami, New England, Moscow, Prague, Milan, Vienna and Barcelona tapped as possible franchise sites. In fact, the Moscow team would be the infamous Soviet Red Army Team, rebranded for the CHA.
“We’re introducing four principal rules that we think will make our league unique,” Hunter said in an interview with the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis. “First, we’re taking out the red line (for two-line passes) to speed up the game. Second, we’re moving the goals out so they will be 15 feet from the end of the boards to allow more room and eliminate a great deal of violence and delays from piling on the boards. Third, we’re going to use the international rule on icing, which means when the puck crosses the goal line there’s an immediate whistle.
“And fourth, we’re going to play a 10-minute overtime in case of ties.”
Franchise fees would be $400,000 (plus $250,000 first-year assessment) and a $100,000 contingency fund that would receive one percent of all television and marketing revenues.
Teams would operate with 23-man rosters and a $2.5 million salary cap.
Yet aside from commonalities in rule changes and some overlapping franchise targets, both the NAHL and CHA coveted Eric Lindros, who played junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League and was considered the top up-and-coming player in the game.
In May it was reported that the CHA was putting together a three-year, $6 million package for Lindros in which the league franchises would pool resources to bring him in and then assign him to a club. The center would be paid a $1.5 million signing bonus and $1.5 million per season and he wouldn’t be drafted – simply offered a job as face of the new league.
Lindros went first in the NAHL’s inaugural draft on June 3, with Hamilton calling dibs on the 6-4, 230-pound 18-year old superstar. Perhaps trying to answer the monetary challenge of the CHA, Hamilton owner Gary Patterson said the other clubs in the NAHL were prepared to contribute one half toward Lindros’ salary, which would be comparable to the CHA’s offer.
Had Lindros opted to sign with one of the leagues, it would’ve given the fledgling organization instant credibility. Problem is, it’s hard to earn credibility if you never even make it to the ice.
When hockey season began later in 1991, the NHL Philadelphia Flyers owned the rights to Lindros – thanks to a trade with the Quebec Nordiques.
And the North American Hockey League and Continental Hockey Association? Neither got beyond a few press conferences and one player draft apiece.
Ironically, officials of the NAHL and CHA teamed up in 1992 to found the American Hockey Association, a minor league that made it through less than half a season before folding.
Thus, the last major league competition the NHL had was the World Hockey Association, which saw four of its franchises absorbed in a limited merger in 1979. But, I remain hopeful for the future of alternative hockey. Atlanta, Barcelona, Cleveland, Hamilton, Houston, Milan, Moscow, Orlando, Prague, Providence, Saskatoon and Vienna would be a solid lineup for a WHA reboot.