Oct 232009

Buffalo Columns November 05

So this fellow calls me and tells me he enjoyed my ramblings about the defunct World Hockey Association in last month’s column. Wants to know if I have more little tibdbits about the league that spawned Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and others who went on to NHL fame.

Sure I do. The WHA, it should be remembered, invented the post-game shootout . If the score was tied at the end of three periods, players would line up and take shots penalty shots really at the rival goaltenders. After one game in 1972, the league’s first season, it required 18 shots before the outcome was decided.

The league was responsible for bringing Gordie Howe out of retirement. Gordie Howe had been retired from the Red Wings for some time. At age 46, he was in the Hockey Hall of Fame and thought to be far too old to even consider a comeback. Detroit management had given him a job in the Red Wing office with virtually nothing to do so. That’s when Howe’s old buddy, Doug Harvey, who was with the Houston Aeros, said to his boss, Bill Dineen, “Hey, why don’t we get Gordie down here. We’ll draft his kids Mark and Marty too. He’ll jump at a chance to play with his two sons.” So Gordie was able to fulfill a lifelong dream, playing hockey with his boys. Gordie told me once, “I arrived in Houston and a fan asked me, ‘Say, Gord, how much air is there in the average hockey puck?’ They didn’t know much about hockey in Houston at the time.” Howe even became team president there pro hockey’s only playing president and, within a few years, the game’s only playing grandfather. Was still going strong at age 51.

Mike Walton became a big WHA scoring star. Harry Neale coached him in Minnesota. Harry told me once he looked down the bench to tell Walton to jump on the ice and Walton was busily engaged in a fistfight at the time—with one of his teammates! Right on the bench! Harry said he’d never seen anything like it. When the referee rushed over, Harry said, “You can’t give them a penalty. They’re both on the same team.”

Another time, Harry’s team was practising in Winnipeg and next to the practice rink was a swimming pool separated from the rink by huge windows. When the Fighting Saints left the ice, they looked up to see Walton, up on the high board in his full hockey uniform skates and all! He leaped off the board and did a big belly flop into the pool. But he nearly drowned when the weight of his equipment and skates dragged him right to the bottom.

Another time in Minnesota, Walton was so upset over a losing effort that he skated right off the ice, and, instead of going to the dressing room, had someone grab his car keys for him. He dashed through the back door and into the parking lot where he hopped into his car and disappeared into the night. One of his teammates and this story has never been confirmed said later he found Walton at a nearby bar tossing them back still dressed in his hockey uniform.

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