________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 7 . . . .November 25, 2005


The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association.

Ed Willes.
Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2004.
277 pp., pbk., $22.99.
ISBN 0-7710-8949-X.

Subject Heading:
World Hockey Association-History.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Thomas F. Chambers.

** /4



What followed was a living nightmare for a man who just wanted to own a professional hockey team. Michel went back to Hamilton, and Copps was now saying the city would donate the land but Michel would have to build the rink. Good one, Vic. He then went to Leafs owner Harold Ballard, who said he was welcome to use Maple Leaf Gardens for $25,000 a game or 50 per cent of the gate after taxes plus a $500,000 bond.

Michel was now scrambling. He had to sell his half of his electrical company for $105,000. His bank account was down to $1,000, and he started living off his credit cards. He travelled to Ottawa, where he talked with the Central Canada Exhibition Association about playing in the new Civic Centre there. They wanted $100,000 in cash as a guarantee, 15 per cent of any TV revenue, plus rent.

Everyone, it seemed, was trying to screw Doug Michel and no one wanted to kiss him.


Rebel League is written in an irreverent, flippant style suitable for a book about an irreverent, upstart hockey league. The league in question was the World Hockey Association that lasted a few brief years from 1972 to 1979 before it was relegated to the sport scrap heap of history. The owners of the teams in this league had the audacity to believe that they could compete with the NHL for players, fans, and money. In the end, they were wrong on all counts.

      The author, Ed Willes, has been a sports columnist with the Vancouver Province since 1998. Prior to that, he worked for various newspapers including the Regina Leader-Post and the Winnipeg Sun. While in Winnipeg, he wrote about hockey for the paper. In researching Rebel League, he uncovered many unusual details that will be of interest to hockey fans and likely would have been lost forever once the memories of those who were interviewed faded.

      The WHA can best be described as a league with chutzpah. It had all the attributes often associated with successful men and women who have this quality. That it only lasted seven years was not because of a lack of ambition, or effort, on the part of those who started it but because it lacked quality players. While it did have hockey legends Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe (playing in the twilight of his career), many of those who donned WHA jerseys were, at best mediocre, and at worst, terrible. The Quebec Nordiques, for example, drafted "eighty-one players, including just about every francophone who played beyond bantam." Since other teams did something similar, it is no wonder few fans attended the games. Like any new business, the league also had teething troubles getting started. These included, in addition to finding players, finding qualified coaches, arenas in which to play, and enough money to pay the bills.

      The book gives a complete history of the league, its few successes and, its many failures. Much is written about Bobby Hull, the league's only true marquee player who jumped to the WHA from the NHL's Chicago Black Hawks. While a considerable number of other NHLers followed him, not one was of Hull's calibre. Gordie Howe did play a few years in the new league, but he was 45 when he started, an age long past retirement for most professional athletes. He was no longer a marquee player.

      Rebel League has special chapters on four of the teams that formed the league: the Quebec Nordiques, Minnesota Fighting Saints, Winnipeg Jets, and Houston Aeros. The chapter titles, unfortunately, give no indication what the chapters are about. Each starts with a quotation but gives no clue as to the contents. One quote, "It brought the love of the game back to me," is about Gordie Howe. Another, "You'll rue the day you got all this money," is mainly about former Boston Bruins' player, Derek Sanderson, who was lured away from Boston by the Philadelphia Blazers.

      Rebel League has functional black and white photographs grouped together in two blocs. It has an index and an appendix. The Appendix summarizes the history of the WHA from its birth in the 1972-73 season to its final year in 1978-79.


A retired college teacher, Thomas F. Chambers lives in North Bay, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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