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Silent Skates: The WHA and Atlanta revisited

After the wave of expansion in the early 1970s things cooled down on that front in the NHL for a while. However, in 1979 the NHL merged with the World Hockey Association, adding four teams to the league.

While it was termed a merger, none of the former WHA teams were allowed to keep records or stats going forward, and with a few exceptions all former WHA player rights were returned to those NHL teams that held them.

Of the four teams, only the Edmonton Oilers continue on in their original market. In this second of two articles we’ll explore what became of the Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets. And for good measure, we’ll look at the demise of NHL hockey in Atlanta, take two.

Quebec Nordiques > Colorado Avalanche

The Nordiques played in the WHA starting from 1972 before joining the NHL in 1979, calling the Colisée de Québec home. A founding WHA franchise, they were initially coached by the legendary Maurice “Rocket” Richard, instantly drawing fans in Quebec. However, his coaching career was short-lived, as he stepped down after only two games.

In 1975-76, the high-flying Nordiques had five players break 100 points, but disappointingly lost in the first round of the playoffs. Despite injuries, the next season Quebec hoisted its one and only Avco World Trophy.

As part of the WHA-NHL merger, the WHA insisted all surviving Canadian teams be added to the NHL. The Nordiques entered the league in 1979 and were placed in the Adams Division, igniting a heated rivalry with their provincial foe Montreal.

Unfavorable merger conditions led to Quebec losing all but three players in a dispersal draft, dropping them to the bottom of the standings. However, rookie Michel Goulet was a bright spot, and in 1980 the team signed defecting brothers Peter and Anton Stastny out of Czechoslovakia. Peter’s Calder-winning performance of 109 points led the Nordiques to their first playoff appearance, where they lost to Philadelphia in the first round.

Led by Goulet and Stastny, the team made the playoffs seven consecutive years but faced the daunting task of overcoming Montreal and Boston to advance. They finally achieved this in 1982, only to be swept by the defending champion Islanders in the conference final.

The Nordiques continued their strong play in the early 80s, even finishing first in the league once. However, the late 80s saw a decline, culminating in the unforgettable Eric Lindros debacle.

In 1991, with the first overall pick, the Nordiques drafted Lindros, despite his stated refusal to play there. A media circus ensued, and the team traded his rights to Philadelphia a year later, acquiring a package that included Peter Forsberg and Mark Ricci in return.

With these players, along with Joe Sakic who was drafted in 1988, the team’s fortunes rebounded, and they won the league title again in 1995. However, despite on-ice success, financial woes started plaguing them after the lockout-shortened 1995 season even though they finished first.

High player salaries, a weak Canadian dollar, and the smallest market in North American professional sports all contributed to the team’s sale to the owners of the Denver Nuggets. The Nordiques moved to Denver as the Avalanche in 1995-96, winning the Stanley Cup in their first season there and adding more championships in 2001 and 2022.

Hartford Whalers > Carolina Hurricanes

Another inaugural WHA team, the New England Whalers played out of Boston for their first two years. The small Boston Arena couldn’t support the team, and competition with the Bruins and Celtics for Garden time was untenable. After two years they moved to Hartford upon completion of the Hartford Civic Center, with a brief stint in Springfield in between.

During the NHL merger the Whalers were forced to change their name due to the Bruins’ objection to the use of “New England”. Unlike other WHA teams entering the league, they managed to retain many of their players, including the legendary Gordie Howe and his sons Mark and Marty. However, the Whalers never replicated their WHA success, which included several conference championships and an Avco World Trophy.

Playing in the smallest American market and smallest arena in a crowded Boston/New York-dominated Eastern Seaboard, marketing the team and filling the stands proved difficult. And playoff success was limited, with most of their years spent in an Adams Division dominated by Montreal and Boston and further challenged by the Nordiques.

Many standout players wore the Whalers jersey over the years, including fan favorite Ron Francis, who was traded to Pittsburgh and immediately helped the Penguins win two consecutive Stanley Cups. Other notable players included, of course, the Howes, Ulf Samuelsson (also part of the Francis trade), Ray Ferraro, Kevin Dineen, and goaltender Mike Liut.

In the summer of 1994 the team was sold, and the new owners promised to keep the team in Hartford for at least four years. However, after three years of disappointing attendance the team relocated to Carolina in 1997.

Winnipeg Jets > Arizona/Phoenix Coyotes

Another founding member of the WHA, the Jets made an immediate splash by signing Bobby Hull, funded in part by the rest of the league. This move boosted credibility for both the Jets and the WHA, paving the way for other NHL players to follow.

Playing out of the Winnipeg Arena, the Jets were also one of the first North American professional hockey teams to seriously explore European talent. Swedes Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson joined Hull on the WHA’s most famous and successful forward line, the “Hot Line.”

The Jets were the most successful team of the short-lived WHA, reaching the finals five of their seven years and winning the Avco World Trophy three times.

However, the NHL merger forced the Jets to relinquish two of their top three scorers and pick 18th in the dispersal draft. Unfortunately, they protected defenseman Scott Campbell, who struggled with chronic asthma, leaving them significantly weaker compared to their dominant WHA roster.

This led to abysmal results in their first two seasons, but with a silver lining – it allowed them to draft Dave Babych in 1980 and Dale Hawerchuk in 1981. These acquisitions fueled 11 playoff appearances in the next 15 seasons, but the dominance of the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames made playoff success elusive.

By the early 1990s, new American expansion teams, rising salary demands (now payable in American dollars), a declining Canadian dollar, and a small market impacted Winnipeg in a similar manner to the Nordiques.

Mounting losses led to the team’s sale to an American group intent on moving them to Minnesota. However, a stadium deal could not be reached, so the team moved to Phoenix, sharing the America West Arena with the NBA’s Suns. Renamed the Phoenix Coyotes, they later became the Arizona Coyotes.

Atlanta Thrashers > Winnipeg Jets

Atlanta was awarded an NHL franchise in 1997 alongside Nashville, Columbus, and St. Paul. All teams began play based on arena availability, with the Thrashers hitting the ice in 1999 at Philips Arena.

This marked the league’s second attempt in Atlanta, following the Flames’ departure for Calgary in 1980. The team was owned by media mogul Ted Turner, who also owned the Hawks and Braves of the NBA and MLB.

Their first two draft picks, Patrik Stefan and Luke Sellars, were major disappointments. NHL.com ranked Stefan as the worst first overall pick ever, and Sellars only played one NHL game.

The next draft year brought the Thrashers Dany Heatley, who became a star player. However, despite decent attendance, owner Turner’s limited investment hampered the team’s growth.

In 2004, AOL Time Warner sold the team to the Atlanta Spirit group, who immediately put it back on the market. Tragedy struck when Heatley’s car accident injured him and teammate Dan Snyder, who later died. Seeking a fresh start, Heatley requested a trade and was dealt to Ottawa for Marian Hossa.

Following the 2005 lockout, the team experienced moderate success, reaching the playoffs in 2007 before losing to the Rangers in four games.

After that season, attendance dwindled due to the 2008 housing market crash and a struggling Atlanta economy. The team’s performance and attendance remained stagnant, with a tenth-place conference finish their best result.

Mounting financial difficulties and declining attendance led to relocation rumors. True North Sports & Entertainment ultimately purchased the team and moved them to Winnipeg, resurrecting the Jets name for the 2011 season.

Peter, with over 20 years navigating the dynamic world of sports websites, brings not only experience but an insatiable passion for the games. An avid NHL and curling fan, his heart beats for all things sports, from the roar of the crowd to the quiet intensity of strategic plays. At Attiq, Peter strives to curate an attic of hidden stories, insightful analysis, and forgotten legends, inviting you to explore the depths of the sports world beyond the headlines. Click here for Peter's posts.