The National Hockey League Board of Governors needed only three hours this afternoon to approve a merger with the World Hockey Association. Vancouver and Montreal, as expected, changed their stance from a similar ballot two weeks ago to provide 14 favorable votes, one more than necessary.
A five-man NHL committee began discussions tonight with WHA representatives, attempting to smooth out decisions over player disposal and financial settlement that presented a possible stumbling block to actual merger and the end of hockey's Seven Years War.
The price of admission constitutes a rigorous test of each club's desire for membership. It reportedly was placed at $6 million each, plus cleanup costs of approximately $1.4 million each to dissolve the WHA. The WHA clubs had expected the $6 million entry fee to include the cost of dissolution. This, too, presumably is negotiable.
Each WHA team was to be permitted to retain several players whose rights were held by NHL clubs as priority picks. The number of priority picks was reportedly set at two skaters and two goaltenders by the NHL proposal, while Edmonton and Quebec, two of the four WHA applicants, had demanded a four-plus-one settlement. An eventual compromise on three-plus-one would seem the likely solution.
"I don't see anything in our proposal that I would be ashamed of or consider grossly unfair," said Capital official Peter O'Malley, the author of the merger document and a member of the liaison committee."There are some things that should be bargained and I'm sure each club will have some things that will be difficult to accept.
"Our aim has been to bring them in in a viable condition, to deal with continuity of the franchise and to leave the fans something to identify with. I think there were enough people in there today who have been through the rigors of expansion to create a sympathy for such problems." After each of the four WHA teams -- Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec and New England -- has made its priority picks, all other players with NHL claims will be returned to those clubs.
Players whose rights are not claimed by the NHL will remain with their present teams and the new clubs will have the first opportunity to acquire such players from the Cincinnati and Birmingham teams, which would disappear.
A general expansion draft then would be held, with each NHL team protecting a specific number of players and the new clubs being permitted to fill their rosters with draftees.
Details of such conditions were kept secret, but Washington owner Abe Pollin felt the specifics would neither denude the new clubs nor injure the Capitals' competitive opportunities, although Montreal has a lien on 21 WHA players and Washington only two -- defenseman Paul MacKinnon and center Steve West of Winnipeg.
"Once you're apprised of all the intricate player movement details you will see that it won't be detrimental to us," Pollin said. "As for the new clubs, there are provisions that I think are fair.
"I'm sure they're going to have some questions, but they should be able to come in and not be stripped of their biggest stars. They should still be competitive teams."
Pollin was a principal architect of the National Basketball Association merger with the American Basketball Association three years ago and recalled the meeting at Hyannisport, Mass., "when I didn't sleep for three days. I was chairman of the merger committee for seven years before it was finally resolved. I just talked to (Philadelphia owner) Ed Snider and he said he'd been working on the hockey merger for seven years.
"The expansion of the basketball league has cleared up a lot of problems and it has been a healthy situation for basketball. I think it will be a healthy situation for hockey."
Joining O'Malley on the NHL liaison committee were league president John Ziegler, Chicago's William Wirtz, Minnesota's George Gund and Gil Stein, the league's general counsel.
WHA representatives included league President Howard Baldwin of New England, Peter Pocklington of Edmonton, Marcal Aubut of Quebec and Michael Goubuty of Winnipeg.
Ziegler said the proposal passed the board of governors because "people had a little more time to reflect on what we had come up with and there were some alterations which, while important to the teams involved, would not be considered overwhelming by anybody."
The league voted to amend the constitutional unanimity rule on player and property rights for the purposes of this expansion, lowering the voting requirements to three-quarters and effectively silencing the opposition from Boston, Toronto and Lose Angeles.
Ziegler said that if the committee was able to reach an agreement in principle with the WHA representatives, another meeting of the board of governors would be convened at 48 hours' notice to ratify the merger.
"Then we'll give the lawyers a chance to earn their fee," said Ziegler, a lawyer. "There will probably be 3,000 pages of documents, at $10 a pound."