I cringe when I say I am going to write about what I was doing 50 years ago this week.
The reason I cringe is that it was 50 years ago and it feels like it was not that long ago. I have become that old guy that I used to make fun of for saying exactly what I just did.
I will be honest, though, I don’t remember every wax box I cracked open in my lifetime. But this one, 50 years ago, I do remember.
I don’t remember what I was wearing or what I had for dinner that night. But I certainly remember sitting on my bed opening packs of 1972-73 O-Pee-Chee Series 3 Hockey. We lived in the country and I didn’t make it into town that often (Prescott, Ontario, population 5,200). But when I did, I made a bee line for Everyman’s Smoke Shop to buy packs. It was closer than Liscumb’s or Becker’s. Prescott was like a booming metropolis to me. I would look out my bedroom window and see horses and the St. Lawrence River, but what was truly beautiful to me was that I lived just a 20-minute bike ride away from a town that had three – not one, not two, but three – stores that sold packs of hockey and baseball cards.
I had some money saved up and I bought an entire box. I still get a rush out of buying a box and ripping it open pack by pack, but to be nine years old and buy a box? I can’t even explain that feeling.
Series 3 was special in 1972-73. It was the first set of WHA cards. I think I was more excited about the anniversary of this set than I was about the anniversary of the actual WHA.
When Hull Arrived
The card we all wanted from this set was the Bobby Hull Winnipeg Jets card. Over the years in my dealings with Bobby Hull in the sports card industry in the past, I heard him tell the story a few times. Yet, no matter how many times he had heard it, or if it was while he was signing autographs, having breakfast, or finessing a bottle of red wine at the hotel bar and holding court, the story never got old.
“I was hoping to get $250,000 a year from the Blackhawks,” he would say. “I was approached by the Winnipeg Jets of the new WHA and they asked me about playing for them. I said I would jump over to the WHA and play for them for a million dollars. I wasn’t really serious, because no hockey player had ever made that kind of money.”
Hull was a big deal in the NHL at that time. He was the league’s most prolific goal scorer. The only reason he was not the most popular player in the league was because of Boston Bruins star Bobby Orr.
“I was only making $90,000 at the time,” he said. “I thought I was worth a lot more. But it was more than the money. I felt that I was being disrespected by them.”
While Hull flippantly tossed out the figure of a million dollars, Winnipeg Jets owner Ben Hatskin made it happen. He went to the other owners in the league and asked them to pitch in some money to sign Hull on the premise that landing a superstar would put the WHA on the map and lure more stars to the upstart league.
“They said they were going to come up with a million dollars, and I went along with it,” he said. “I didn’t think they would come up with that kind of money. Then one day I got a call from my agent and he told me they had the money and they were serious. Signing that contract meant setting up my family for life.”
Hull signed a 10-year $1.75 million deal, which included a $1 million signing bonus. The NHL retaliated by not allowing him to play in the 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit Series.
“I still won’t call it that,” Pete Mahovlich said at the 2022 Spring Sport Card and Memorabilia Expo in Toronto. “It was the NHL Stars against the Soviet Union. It wasn’t Team Canada because the best player in Canada was kept off the team. Without Bobby Hull, it was just NHL All-Stars.”
Bobby Hull and Frank Mahovlich were both signing autographs at the Expo beside the stage where Pete Mahovlich said that into the microphone. I got a chance to have a few words with Hull not long after that. Hull said he would have liked to have played in the series, especially after he saw how iconic it became. He did get to play in the 1976 Canada Cup and he had a starring role. He and Bobby Orr led Team Canada to the tournament victory.
“When I wasn’t allowed to play in 1972, my brother Dennis said he wasn’t going to play,” Hull said. “I had to have a chat with him and convince him that he had to play. I’m glad he did.”
Hull wasn’t the only player left off Team Canada because they went to the WHA. Boston Bruins stars Gerry Cheevers and Derek Sanderson were replaced by Bruins back-up goalie Ed Johnston and Chicago Blackhawks centre Stan Mikita. Montreal Canadiens defenceman JC Tremblay bolted to the newly-formed Quebec Nordiques and would be the team’s scoring leader.
As a collector and as a kid, this was an important set for me and it was one that I studied. The WHA did not get a lot of television coverage. There was no internet or satellite radio. The O-Pee-Chee WHA set, which had a production run significantly smaller than the first two series, was the only thing we had to follow the league. We memorized the players and the team names and the uniforms. Topps did not produce a Series 3 that year, meaning the bilingual O-Pee-Chee cards were the only WHA cards in the hobby.
Because I grew up about 50 miles south of Ottawa, the Ottawa Nationals immediately became my team. My favorite goalie, Les Binkley, jumped to the WHA and was their goalie. Binkley was my favorite goalie because he was the first card of the first pack I had ever opened a few years earlier, when he played for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
I never saw the team play, live or on TV, but I come across some Nationals memorabilia from time to time. I followed the team in the Ottawa Citizen, which we got at home.
The Nationals played in the first ever WHA game, played on Oct. 11, 1972 at the Ottawa Civic Centre. The Nationals lost to the Alberta Oilers (now Edmonton Oilers) 7-4. I have been lucky enough to have met Bob Charlebois several times at Ottawa Senators games. Bob must get sick of me asking to tell the story of that first game. The WHA was perfect for Bob, and another friend, Jean Payette. They are from Cornwall, near where I grew up. Both had great minor pro careers and finally got their shot to play in a major professional league when the WHA showed up. Bob had played seven games with Minnesota five years earlier, while Jean was a career minor leaguer. Bob was a big scorer for Ottawa, while Jean was an elite goal scorer with the Quebec Nordiques. Both have rookie cards in the O-Pee-Chee Series 3 set.
The Nationals moved to Toronto after their first year and became the Toronto Toros. I adopted the New England Whalers as my favorite WHA team. They beat Bobby Hull and the Jets in the Avco Cup final.
There were no WHA cards in 1973-74, and then O-Pee-Chee produced WHA cards for the next four years. They were standalone products, not affiliated with the NHL in any way, and with a different design. I picked up a few packs here and there, but I never really got into collecting WHA cards. I wish I would have, because the sets are loaded with rookies who did well in the NHL later on.
Bobby Hull, meanwhile, had 303 goals and 335 assists for 638 points in just 411 WHA games. He was a WHA First Team All-Star in 1972-73, 1973-74 and 1974-75. He was the league’s MVP in its first season, and then won the award again two years later. Hull scored 1,018 goals between the WHA and NHL combined. Only Wayne Gretzky (1,109) and Gordie Howe (1,071) have scored more.