Rick Vaive got into a few scraps in his first year in Birmingham and tied the WHA with 248 PIM
A rival for the National Hockey League arrived in 1972 with the emergence of the World Hockey Association, the first major league to compete with the fifty-five year old NHL since the Western Hockey League tried the same in 1954. NHL expansion had occurred twice since six new franchises were added in 1967 and two more teams added in 1969 and then 1972. The WHA challenged the reserve clause which bound players to the NHL even if they didn’t have a valid contract. Bobby Hull was among the star players to sign with the new circuit. He was given a 10 year, 2.75 million dollar deal with the Winnipeg Jets, one of the fledging WHA franchises.
The average pay in the National League in 1972 was $25,000 a year which was the worst salary for any of the four major league sports in North America. The addition ofmore dollars would lure many established stars to the new twelve team league which was announced in November, 1971. That presented numerous battles between the NHL and the WHA over competition for player contracts and in the hockey market place. The new league would create job openings for over 240 players and helped usher in a new era of European players who would become dominant over the next decade. There would be more international competition and hockey became a world-wide spectacle. The WHA teams would compete for the Avco World Trophy every spring which signified the league championship.
Right from the start the WHA faced obstacles of financial instability which resulted in several franchise relocations including some in-season moves. Even before the first puck was dropped in the new league two franchises relocated. The Dayton Arrows became the Houston Aeros and San Francisco Sharks moved to Quebec City and renamed the Nordiques. A total of 30 teams made up the new league over eight years of existence. There was a proposed merger in 1977 which was turned down by the NHL Board of Governors.
Seven Island born or raised players skated in the WHA. Bob MacMillan, Bobby Whitlock, John Hughes, Kevin Devine, Jamie Kennedy, Alf Handrahan and Rick Vaive all spent some time in the new loop.
The WHA lasted until 1979 when four of its remaining teams merged with the NHL (Edmonton, Winnipeg, New England and Quebec). The final season for the rival major league was in 1978-79.
The last game in the World Hockey Association was played on May 20, 1979 as the hometown Winnipeg Jets won their third Avco Trophy championship defeating the Edmonton Oilers, 7-3 in the sixth game of the finals. An Island born defenseman played in that final game.
John Hughes was a member of the Oilers that included an 18-year old Wayne Gretzky. Hughes was one of seven PEI players who skated in the WHA. The Cornwall, PEI native was 20 when he signed with the Cincinnati Stingers but was loaned to the Phoenix Roadrunners for the 1974-75 campaign. Hughes and another Island born player, Kevin Devine, were members of the 1973 Toronto Marlboros that won the Memorial Cup Canadian Junior championship. He returned to Cincinnati and played the next two seasons and then was traded to the Houston Aeros in 1977-78. The following season he was traded to the Indianapolis Racers where he joined 17-year old Wayne Gretzky. The Racers, owned by Nelson Skalbania, were struggling financially; losing $40,000 a game. On November 2, 1978 Sklabania sold Gretzky, goalie Eddie Mio and forward Peter Driscoll to Peter Pocklington, the Oilers owner for $700,000. The cash infusion was not enough to save the Racers who folded two months later in January, 1979. John Hughes was among the remaining players who signed as a free agent with Edmonton. It would turn out to be the only season Gretzky would play in the WHA. Hughes was reclaimed on waivers by Vancouver prior to the NHL expansion draft in June, 1979 (he was drafted in the third round, 41st overall in the 1974 NHL entry draft by Vancouver) and played in 52 games with the Canucks in the 1979-80 season. Edmonton claimed the defenseman on waivers in December, 1980 and he was traded to the New York Rangers in March, 1981. He spent the majority of his remaining professional days in the minors but did dress for three playoff games with the Rangers in the spring of 1981. Hughes was second in penalty minutes in the WHA with 201 in 1974-75 while with Phoenix in his rookie year and ninth overall in WHA history with 778 minutes in the penalty box. He’s 57th in games played at 372 and 88th in assists with 130.
Charlottetown’s Kevin Devine is best known as a scout and in 2015-16 as the Director of Player Personnel of the Buffalo Sabres. He also has been an assistant general manager and was director of amateur scouting for eight years after being a professional scout for the Sabres and an assistant amateur scout for two years. Devine had spent 17 years with the Sabres up to 2016. He had an 11 year pro playing career after winning a Memorial Cup with the 1972-73 Toronto Marlies and was an assistant coach with the PEI Senators in the AHL for three seasons from 1993 to 1996. He also coached in the United Hockey League with Port Huron and Thunder Bay.
He was a member of the legendary Charlottetown Jr. Islanders that
took a run at the Centennial Cup in 1970-71.
Devine was a team-mate of Islander John Hughes on the 1973 Memorial Cup champs with the Marlboros, coached by former Leaf captain and great George Armstrong. The Toronto Maple Leafs took the left wing as the 121st choice in the 1974 NHL entry draft. He was taken in the seventh round by the Leafs. The San Diego Mariners made him the 21st pick in the second round in the WHA draft the same year. Devine signed with the Mariners and spent the next three seasons on the US west coast. His third and final season in San Diego was his best scoring 30 times and picking up 50 points in 80 games. Devine was signed as a free agent by the Edmonton Oilers in August, 1977 when the Mariners folded but was traded a month later to the Indianapolis Racers in a seven player deal. The cash strapped Racers sold his contract to the Quebec Nordiques in September, 1978. When the WHA folded he signed again as free agent with the New York Islanders. Devine played only two games with the Islanders in the NHL and registered an assist while picking up eight minutes in penalties. He played six seasons with the Indianapolis Checkers of the CHL and IHL and retired at age 30 in 1984-85. His 74 goals put him 99th in career goal scoring in WHA history.
His shot was said to be harder and heavier than Bobby Hull’s with the Chicago Blackhawks. That is saying a lot for Bob Whitlock, son of the Island great Buck Whitlock, who would score 81 goals in 244 games in the WHA. The right handed shooting centre was built like Hull at 5’ 10 and 175 pounds. He was a member of the 1966-67 Halifax Jr. Canadians that also included Islanders Jamie Kennedy and Errol Thompson that competed in the Memorial Cup tournament. It was an impressive season as he scored 52 goals, added 70 assists for 122 points in just 48 games. Whitlock had 53 goals and 95 points a year later in Halifax in the Maritime Jr. League. The centre moved on to Kitchener of the OHA and Edmonton in the Western Canada Junior Hockey League in 1968-69. He turned pro with the Iowa Stars in the CHL in 1969-70 and scored 26 goals in his rookie season. That was after signing as a free agent with the Minnesota North Stars in October, 1969. He played his only NHL game in Minnesota the same season getting three shots on net. His WHA career began by being drafted by the Los Angeles Sharks in 1972. He went in a four player deal to the Chicago Cougars in July that year prior to the first season of the new league. He had 23 goals and 51 points in 75 games in the Windy City. Whitlock was traded to Los Angeles during the 1974 season for two players. The Sharks relocated to Michigan the same season. Whitlock was claimed by Indianapolis in the WHA expansion draft that summer. He had his best season in the World league in 1974-75 with the Racers with 31 goals and 57 points in 73 games. His 81 goals in the WHA put him 93rd all-time in that department. The Charlottetown native played two more years in the minors following his impressive stint in the WHA and moved on to the semi-pro Trail Smoke Eaters in British Columbia for three more seasons.
Whitlock played in eleven seasons with nine different pro clubs and broke the 20-goal plateau seven times using that heavy shot.
“Bobby Mac” is best known for his days as a member of the Atlanta Flames and St. Louis Blues in the NHL but began his pro career with the Minnesota Fighting Saints in the WHA in 1972-73. He was selected in the new league’s player draft in February, 1972 by Minnesota and was the second choice of the New York Rangers and 15th overall in the NHL entry draft. He opted to join the Saints who offered more money and spent two years in the Twin Cities. MacMillan had 13 goals and 40 point in his first season as a 20 year old and 14 goals and 48 points in his sophomore season. The left wing, the younger brother of Bill MacMillan, was known for his good moves and exceptional skating ability. Brother Bill summed him up perfectly saying “he knows how to play.” His coaches with the Saints were Glen Sonmor and Harry Neale who led them to fourth and then second place finishes in the WHA West Division while team-mates included Wayne Connelly, Bill Platt and Ted Hampson. MacMillan was a member of the 1969-70 Charlottetown Jr. Islanders as a 17 year old (where he had 33 goals and 68 points in 40 games) and the St. Catherines Black Hawks in the OHA the next two seasons picking up 41 goals and 103 points in his second season in 1971-72. He moved to the NHL and the New York Rangers, who had originally drafted him, for the 1974-75 NHL season. He would play in the National league for the next decade.
The younger brother of Forbes Kennedy was a pure goal scorer and later an outstanding coach and referee in the amateur ranks on the Island. Jamie Kennedy was a right wing and centre who scored 321 goals and picked up 630 points in 588 pro games. That’s over a point a game during his career which was based mostly in the minor leagues. Kennedy was a team-mate of fellow Islanders Errol Thompson and Bobby Whitlock with the Halifax Jr. Canadians who competed in the 1967 Memorial Cup Tournament.
He also played in the inaugural season in the World Hockey Association with the New York Raiders as a 26-year old. Some of the others on the team were former Leaf defenseman Kent Douglas, Bobby Sheehan, and Ron Ward. Kennedy picked up four goals and 6 assists for 10 points in 54 games. He was more successful in the minor leagues where he racked up 315 goals in eight seasons. Kennedy had 40, 49, 46 and 50 goal seasons with the Jersey Devils in the Eastern Hockey League between 1968 and 1972 prior to his season New York. He was third in scoring and the first team all-star right wingers in the EHL in 1971-72. Kennedy was also the first Maritime born player to score 50 goals in a season in the minor pro ranks. After his year split between the Raiders and the Long Island Ducks of the EHL in ’72-73 he scored 44 goals and had 90 points with Syracuse Blazers of the North American Hockey League in 1973-74. He led the post season with 13 goals and played a major role in capturing the Lockhart Cup as league champs. That team inspired the 1977 movie “Slapshot” which starred Paul Newman. The Blazers had three players in the line-up with 280+ minutes in penalties in what was a very rough league.
The next stop for Jamie was the Winston-Salem Polar Twins in the Southern Hockey League for the 1974-75 and 1975-76 campaigns under brother Forbie, who was head coach. Jamie had 37 and 22 goal seasons to complete his minor pro career. Islanders Don MacAdam, Peter Williams and Bob MacGuigan also played with him in on the Twins. He returned home to PEI after that and continued to play while also coaching. Success followed him wherever he went coaching the Charlottetown Juveniles to a league title in 1978 and the Charlottetown Midgets to another championship in 1979. In 1980-81 the Charlottetown Islanders won the Hardy Cup Canadian Intermediate “A” title over North Winnipeg and Kennedy was part of the team. He scored six goals one Sunday afternoon at the Charlottetown Forum with the Islanders. Kennedy became head coach with the Islanders and moved on to Junior “A” where he guided the Moncton Midland Hawks to the Callaghan Cup Eastern Canadian Junior title in 1985-86. It was back to coaching the Charlottetown Islanders that won the 1987 and 1988 New Brunswick Senior championships. Jamie rejoined brother Forbie as an assistant coach with the Maritime Jr. and Fred Page Cup Eastern Canadian champs with the Charlottetown A&S Scrap Metal Abbies. They played in the Royal Bank Cup Canadian Jr. “A” championship that year in 1998-99 in Yorkton, Saskatchewan.
Kennedy was also a referee from 1990 to 1995. Many claim he was the best referee in the Maritimes. Fair but firm, he even ejected brother Forbes from a game at the Sherwood Sportsplex in junior one night with the older Kennedy coaching the Abbies in a game against the Sherwood-Parkdale Metros. In senior opposing players tossed water bottles from the bench at him in one game between Saint John and the Islanders. That resulted in a few suspensions. On top of his skills as a referee (another brother Jake was also a ref around the same time) he was also a very good baseball umpire.
The amiable Kennedy has friends all over hockey. He’s best known for referring to acquaintances as “Devil” or “pal” and in recent years has helped in the scouting department and as a minor official at Charlottetown Islanders in the Quebec Major Jr. League. He survived a horrific car accident during a snow storm during one recent winter on the Island, suffering some very serious injuries. Jamie Kennedy has been in hockey for six decades and many seasons. One of those years in the Big Apple in the WHA.
In the late 1970’s Toronto Toros owner John Bassett got entangled over lease terms with Maple Leaf Gardens owner Harold Ballard and moved his WHA franchise to Birmingham, Alabama. There they became the Birmingham Bulls. Bassett decided to go with a younger team and formed a group that was to become known as the Baby Bulls. They would include teenagers Michel Goulet, Rob Ramage, Craig Hartsburg, Gaston Gingras, Rod Langway and Rick Vaive, who was a 76 goal scorer in 1977-78 with the Sherbrooke Castors or Beavers. Vaive totalled 155 points in 68 games and also had three goals for Canada the World Jr. Hockey Championship where he was teamed up with Wayne Gretzky. Bassett tried to get Gretzky but was beat out by Indianapolis for his playing rights. Vaive signed with the Bulls as an underage free agent in May, 1978. Among his older team-mates was 36-year old Paul Henderson, the hero of the 1972 series for Canada against the Soviets. Henderson was nearly twice the age of Vaive who was just 19. The two played on the same line during the season. Vaive, the former Charlottetown Generals Jr. “A” star, had 26 goals and 59 points in 75 points and a league high of 248 minutes in penalties in his only WHA season. He tied Scott Campbell of the Winnipeg Jets for most penaltiy minutes. The head coach of the team was the fiercely competitive John Brophy who inspired aggressive play for all of his troops. They finished sixth in the standings and missed the playoffs and despite a 32-42-6 record, Brophy was named the Coach of the Year. Vaive and the Antigonish, Nova Scotia born coach would reunite for another season in 1986-87 in Toronto with the Maple Leafs. The decision to sign underage players in the WHA which lowered the minimum age to 18 forced the NHL to lower its minimum age of 20 to 18 to allow the young players from the rebel league to be eligible for the 1979 entry draft. Rick Vaive was taken fifth overall in the first round by the Vancouver Canucks. He would be traded during the season in a blockbuster deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs and go on to become the first 50-goal scorer for Toronto and also a Leaf captain.
The Alberton born and Tignish raised Alfie Handrahan played in fourteen games picking up a goal and three assists for the Cincinnati Stingers in the 1977-78 WHA season after being recalled from the Philadelphia Firebirds of the AHL. The right winger spent the previous five seasons in the Central Hockey League with Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Fort Worth. His best season as a goal scorer was in 1976-77 when he scored 25 goals as a member of the Fort Worth Texans. In ’74-75 he had a career high of 61 points including 23 goals with the Oklahoma City Blazers. Handrahan set career marks with 240 and then 244 minutes in penalties in his first and second pro years in Tulsa and Oklahoma. In his rookie year he got into 22 fights and was runner-up as rookie of the year and voted fan favourite.
Handrahan had a tryout with the Toronto Maple Leafs in training camp in 1973 and got into five fights in two pre-season games, winning all five scraps. Charlottetown scout Jack “Spy” Ready arranged the tryout after watching him play with the 1972 Charlottetown Sandy’s Royals which followed two seasons in Tignish and O’Leary. He impressed the Leafs brass enough to land a pro contract with the Tulsa Oilers.
Handrahan was nicknamed “Little Alfie” at 5’9 and 185 pounds but he had a big heart and was loved by the hometown fans where ever he played including Cincinnati.
PEI Hall of Famers
It should come as no surprise that five of the WHA Island players are inductees into the PEI Sports Hall of Fame. MacMillan, Vaive, Whitlock, Kennedy, and Handrahan. Devine is entered as a member of the 1970-71 Charlottetown Jr. Islanders.
Islander John Hughes played in the final game in the WHA on May 20, 1979
The Winnipeg Jets won the last Avco World Trophy
PEI Pucks Fact: There were three Avco World Trophy's made and one can be found in the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame at Scotiabank Centre in Halifax.