The four World Hockey Association candidates for National Hockey League membership persuaded an NHL negotiating commitmerger proposal submited to the WHA Thursday.
The five-mam NHL commitee agreed to ask the NHL Board of Governors next week to consider the WHA position. Hope was still high that the end of hockey's Seven Years War was near.
Presumably, the changes were sought in the most contentious and negotiable areas, disposition of WHA players whose rights are held by NHL teams and the financial settlement, originally pegged at about $7.5 million each.
As an adjunct to the merger terms, assuming they are approved by the NHL governors, Washington will move into the Patrick Division with the two New York teams, Philadelphia and Atlanta.
Two of the new clubs from the WHA, Winnipeg and Edmonton, are tabbed for a six-team Smythe Division. Quebec joins the Adams and New England replaces Washington in the Norris.
For the present, divisional alignments are of minimal importance, since the 21-team league would adhere to a balanced schedule, every club playing every other club four times.
The NHL governors had approved a merger proposal by a 14-3 vote Thursday. Then the negotianting committee met with the prospective WHA franchise holders for 10 hours recessing at 4 a.m. today. Negotiations redumed at 10 a.m., and four hours later the WHA's request for softer terms was anounced by NHL President John Ziegler and WHA President Howard Baldwin.
All parties refused to discuss the nature of the proposed changes until they had been presnted to the NHL governors.
The original player dispersal provided for each incoming WHA team to declare two skaters and two goaltenders subject to NHL claims as priority pick, thereby retaining them. The WHA clubs had sought a more equitable four-and-one arrangement.
Beyond the priority picks, WHA teams would keep all players not subject to NHL claims and get first crack at Birmingham and Cincinnati players free of NHL strings, except for underage players subject to future drafts. The WHA clubs will complete their rosters at a June 13 expansion draft, with each NHL team first protecting 15 skaters and two goalies, plus all first-year pros.
On the money side, the NHL had demanded $6 million from each prospective entrant, plus payments of $3.25 million to Cincinnati and $2.85 million to Birmingham to fold those WHA clubs. The WHA teams had expected those cleanup payments to come from the $6 million franchise fees.
Washington, on acceptance as an expansion entry in 1974, was assessed a $6 million membership payment and eventually settled the resulting notes at 50 percent.
Regardless of the specific terms eventually approved, the WHA clubs will keep most of the stars who have gained fan followings. These would include Wayne Gretzky of Edmonton, Real Cloutier and Marc Tardif of quebec, Kent Nilsson and Morris Lukowich of Winnipeg, and Mark Howe and Gordie Roberts of New England.
The Capitals would regain defecting defenseman Paul MacKinnon of Winnipeg but it is unlikely they would pursue their only other WHA claim, Winnipeg center Stave West.
Although the WHA teams prefer merger to the prospect of pouring further money into a losing proposition, they face rough roads in the next few years. Winnipeg and Quebec must enlarge their 10,000-seat arenas and all four clubs will require near-sellout situations to meet their heavy financial commitment.
The three Canadian teams cannot count on the lucrative Canadian television loot, vecause they are specifically exempted from sharing it for the next five years.
The NHL still faces a likely challenge from the NHL Players Association, which has demanded $12 million as its price for approval of the merger.
The league's coolective bargaining agreement with the players is subject to termination in the event of merger, but NHL President Ziegler insisted that "our feeling is that we will never merge. The present process is merely adding four teams by expansion and it is up to those teams to settle their commitments to their previous league."
Baldwin, asked at today's 4 a.m. news conference whether any segments of the NHL proposal had surprised him, replied, "I've seen so much speculated that nothing surprises me anymore."