The refusal of the National Hockey League to accept an accommodation with the World Hockey Association shocked a lot of people who should have known better. Those familiar with NHL machinations should realize that the league inevitably will pursue the path of least logic, and merger was the logical move.
"War's Over as NHL, WHA Merge" had been the banner headline in the July issue of the Hockey News, which should make its red type face a permanent item.
"They will regret this decision" was the reflexive reaction of Howard Baldwin, the New England Whalers' president, upon learning his highly paid Howe family was still a second-rate WHA act. Baldwin claims he's ready to spend that $2.9 million merger fee to resume the player raids of 1971.
Bill DeWitt of the Cincinnati Stingers was quoted along similar lines, but he quickly denied the statements attributed to him and opined that "the NHL governors have the right to make decisions any way they want."
DeWitt, whose NHL entry was first derailed in 1972 when Washington's Abe Pollin scored a late coup, obviously thinks another year can alter a mind or two and produce the three-quarters vote that would make a merger a reality. Two of the prime opponents of an accommodation are Harold Ballard of Toronto, who is 74, and Jack Kent Cooke of Los Angeles, harried by illness and divorce proceedings. They prevailed this time, despite the fact that two-thirds of the NHL sought an end to the debilitating competition.
The terms discussed were about as close to unconditional surrender as one could ask. All of WHA teams were to receive for their $2.9 million apiece, were a new name within a separate NHL division and the right to participate in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Full integration, a guarantee of one game, home and away, against each current NHL team, was not programmed until 1980-81.
By rejecting a deal heavily weighted in its own favor, the NHL has assured future bidding for amateurs and free agents, and future dominance of its current power elite, bad news for a badly unbalanced league. Teams like Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Colorado, all financially shaky, could have used that WHA money, as well as an end to salary escalation.
One must wonder, too, about the effect on NHL president John Ziegler's future, since the formulation of the proposal was his first act after succeeding anti-merger hard-liner Clarence Campbell.
The injection of WHA teams into the Stanley Cup picture would have added interest to that declining spectacle. A repeat victory by Montreal is almost guaranteed, so the only real new life in the Cup competition figures to be the expected participation of the Washington Capitals.
If the Capitals won't be playing a WHA opponent in April, they will be doing so in September. The Capitals will meet Baldwin's Whalers in Hartford and DeWitt's Stingers in Hampton, Va., in exhibition games. So much for talk of all-out war.
The WHA figures to go with eight clubs. Indianapolis and Birmingham rejoining the spurned six - New England, Cincinnati, Houston, Quebec, Winnipeg and Edmonton.
Spicing the league's schedule will be games against the national teams of Russia, Sweden and Czecholovakia and Finland, all counting in the WHA standings. It's a spice the NHL is lacking.