Houston and Cincinnati in NHL? It almost happened in 1977 when WHA-NHL talked merger

Former New England Whalers owner Howard Baldwin enjoys telling the story of how Houston and Cincinnati once held NHL franchises for two months.

In 1977, owners from the maverick World Hockey Association reached an agreement with the NHL to bring the New England Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, Houston Aeros and Cincinnati Stingers into the NHL as one division.

“We were voted in in June,” Baldwin said. “Details had to be worked out and we were going to reconvene in August to vote on the details. But between June and August, the hawks circled their wagons and we were voted out in August. We were in for two months. Sort of.”.

By the time, the WHA-NHL merger was finally back on track, Houston had folded out of the WHA and the NHL didn’t want Cincinnati or Birmingham, Ala., The other city in the WHA. Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the NHL accepting the Hartford Whalers, Jets, Oilers and Nordiques into the NHL.

The Oilers are the only team that exists in the same city. The Whalers moved to Carolina (1997-98) to become the Hurricanes and Nordiques moved to Denver (1995-96) to become the Colorado Avalanche. The Jets moved to Phoenix (1996-97) and are now the Arizona Coyotes.

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“The debacle of 1977 was a big hurdle to overcome,” Baldwin recalled. “But once John Ziegler became president, he and I were able to establish a nice dialogue.”.

The WHA merger was rejected again in 1978. “But it was close,” Baldwin said.

Ziegler and Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz recommended that the WHA hire the influential New York law firm of Prokauer Rose to help them close the deal. The first lawyer the WHA worked with was David Stern, who would end up being commissioner of the NBA.

“(The WHA) had to have this,” Baldwin said. “We were like a country going down the tubes.”.

The NHL had reason to negotiate a tough deal with the WHA because the WHA had driven up the NHL salary structure by competing with them for players. The WHA, founded in 1971, raided the NHL immediately for 67 players, including Bobby Hull.

The WHA also boasted Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Howe’s two sons, Mark and Marty, plus Mark Messier when the two leagues merged.

Baldwin, 76, recalls that some “forward-thinking” NHL owners, such as Philadelphia’s Ed Snider and the New York Rangers’ Bill Jennings, hatched a plan to allow 12 WHA teams to buy into the NHL for $2 million each.

“They realized we weren’t going to go away easy,” Baldwin said. “But as soon as the hawks of the league got wind of it, it was killed quickly.”.

Today, Baldwin is a film producer. He currently has a hockey movie called “Odd Man Rush” in post-production. Gretzky’s son, Trevor, and Mario Lemieux’s daughter, Alexa, have roles in the movie. Baldwin also had a lengthy NHL career. At various times, he had ownership stakes in the Whalers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota North Stars.

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But he might have had his most fun when he co-founded the Whalers as a 28-year-old. This is a guy who once traded 1 percent of his team for office furniture.

The WHA turned down Baldwin and his partner Johnny Coburn when the franchise fee was $25,000. He was told when to come back when they had an arena in place. He ended up landing half a season in the Boston Garden and half a season in Boston Arena.

When he reapplied two months later, he was told the entry fee had gone up to $250,000.

“They let my partner and I step out of the room to discuss that,” Baldwin said. “I said, ‘We don’t have the $25,000 anyway, so let’s just agree and worry about that later.”.

By 1979, Baldwin said the WHA teams were desperate to get into the NHL.

“If we didn’t merge, I don’t know if we could have gone on another year,” Baldwin said. “We were playing BS poker. We were putting up a good front. We went from 14 down to six teams.”.

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