The Grateful Dead occupied the Springfield Civic Center Thursday night. On Friday, the entertainment was provided by the grateful living.
A sellout crowd on 8,125 watched the Winnipeg Jets defeat the New England Whalers, 4-1, in the opening game of the sixth Avco World Trophy final, contested for the championship of the World Hockey Association.
Few expected the WHA to finish a sixth season. Fewer still would have bet that the same eight franchises that started the campaign would finish it, or that average attendance would reach a record 8,267.
The WHA has many problems, but it appears likely that it will commence its seventh season in October, perhaps even with those same eight clubs. WHA teams battel financial crises almost weekly, threatening their fans with season-ticket quotas and then, when the quotas are not reached, manage to stay alive anyway.
The WHA was prepared to pass out of existence peacefully last summer, when The Hockey News prematurely headlined "War's Over as NHL, WHA Merge."
Some NHL owners torpedoed the assumed hockey merger, however, so the WHA was left to fend for itself or die. Despite the explosion of the fans' false hopes of seeing NHL hockey, despite self-defeating words from within its own ranks and despite countless other disasters, the most notable being the collapse of the roof in the Harftorf Civic Center, the WHA attracted record crowds.
A slight dent in that life of obscurity will develop this week, when the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. nationally televises Friday's game from Winnipeg. It is the culmination of a long effort to gain some television exposure, but in an ironic twist it may merely generate publicity for the NHL, since two of Winnipeg's best players, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilson, have already signed contracts, for a total package of $2.7 million, to play for the New York Rangers the next two seasons.
The departure of the two Swedes, for a deal Baldwin called "absolutely insane," promises to inaugurate a race of lemmings, as other WHA free agents seek out the sea of NHL money. In addition, many of th WHA's best drawing cards are gray or graying, prompting cynics to label it the World Home for the Aged.
Added to the dominance of graybeards is the league's inability to atract graduating juniors, who prefer NHL money and security. To fight this trend, the WHA this spring tried a new draft setup, permitting its member clubs, with only slight restriction, to sign any three graduates it could before May 31, when all those unsigned would revert to a common draft.
It hasn't worked, with youngsters waiting for the NHL selections, so the next step may be a return to underage raids. there are younsters of considerable ability who sould dountless prefer modest WHA salaries to their $60-a-week junior stipends.
"What this league has to do is quit talking about this franchise and that franchise applying to the NHL," said Birmingham owner John Bassett, who refused to participate in the defused merger negotiations. "What the owners need to do is get 100 percent behind our league and win the confidence of our fans. We have a fine, competitive league."
The WHA also rates its brand of hockey more entertaining than the clutch-and-grab, dump-and-chase tactics considered chic by NHL coaches.
WHA hockey, especially the way the speedy Jets play it, is exciting. It is not devoid of hard hitting, either. They just believe that skating is part of the game, rather than the blocking and tackling that have dominated the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Unfortunately for those who have invested money and carreers in the WHA, not many people are aware of it.