NHL lockout could give new league big boost

Updated: May 12, 2004, 2:33 AM ET
Associated Press

PONTIAC, Mich. -- The new World Hockey Association was thinking about an NHL labor stoppage when it chose the 2004-05 season to launch the league.

Co-founder Dr. Nick Vaccaro said he first talked to Dennis Murphy, who co-founded the old WHA in the 1970s, about acquiring the name in 2000. Both agreed early November 2004 would be a good starting date, particularly if NHL players are locked out or on strike after the expiration of their collective bargaining agreement with the league.

"That sort of triggered things," Vaccaro said Tuesday at the Silverdome, where a Detroit franchise will play its WHA games.

Detroit will join Quebec; Toronto; Dallas; Miami; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Hamilton, Ontario in the league.

WHA hockey director Peter Young said he plans to have eight to 10 franchises when the league begins its 72-game regular season.

The Detroit franchise is owned by Hollywood, Fla.-based holding company Senticore.

"I like the economic model," Senticore chief executive Jay Patel. "The setup makes sense."

The model is more affordable tickets and lower payrolls, which will be $15 million for each team, with $5 million reserved for a "premier" player.

Young said more than half the NHL's 776 players will become free agents on July 1, and many of the lower-priced players will be targeted by the WHA.

The new league will hold two drafts July 10: a pro draft for players in the NHL, American Hockey League and top European professional leagues; and an amateur draft for players 16-20 years old. Players will have to be at least 17 to play in the league, Young said.

Vaccaro said the WHA also will look at rule changes to open up the game.

"No-touch icing has been discussed," he said. "And it's 99 percent certain we're going to remove the [center] red line," which will allow two-line passes and presumably more offense.

The original WHA ran from 1972 to 1979 before four of its teams -- Edmonton, Winnipeg (now Phoenix), Quebec (now Colorado) and New England (now Carolina) -- were absorbed into the NHL.

Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mike Gartner and many other NHL stars began their careers in the WHA. Gordie Howe played in the league for six seasons with his sons Mark and Marty.

Bobby Hull, who jumped from the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks to the WHA's Winnipeg Jets in 1972, is the new league's commissioner.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press