The Rebel League by Ed Willis
2004 by McClelland and Stewart, 277 pages
(I bought this a couple of months ago)
I've always beena big fan of rival sports leagues--eventhough I believe the USFL is really the only one that was ongoing and local to me during my active sports fandom. The 70's saw three sports leagues pop up to contend with the NBA (the American Basketball Association), the NHL (the World Hockey Association), and the NFL (the World Football League) that saw many of the same players involved in the behind the scenes motions, and early ownership groups. While the WFL fizzled pretty quickly and without even the fanfare that the USFL would see nearly two decades later, both the ABA and the WHA were responsible for quite a few changes to the sports landscape in general, and to their respective rival leagues in particular, and both ended with a handful of teams being assimilated into the longer standing rival leagues.
While Terry Pluto's oral history of the ABA, Loose Balls, might never get knocked out of its spot as the top literary recording of one of these leagues, Ed Willis has done an excellent job with The Rebel League. There are times within that I wish he'd have gone the route Pluto did with the oral history--but that's probably more due to my love of that format than because of anything lacking in this book--there are a couple of minor instances that I'm just not sure who his source for a story is.
One gets a great sense of how amazing it was that the league ever worked--you had guys that were lawyers that had some involvement in the first three years of the ABA (which began in the late 60's) getting together and deciding hockey was in need of a competitive league. That is, guys that knew very little about hockey--Bill Hunter, President of the Western Canada Junior Hockey League was brought in early on to discuss the idea:
"I was impressed with them only as promoters," said Hunter. "They knew nothing about hockey. Absolutely zero."
And so it began with many of the money guys simply wanting a shiny new toy to play with. The league established itself quickly by signing legendary superstar Bobby Hull away from the Chicago Black Hawks of the NHL--this is a high point in the book as Willis talked to everybody involved from the Winnipeg Jets owners to the WHA hierarchy to Bobby Hull and his agents, etc. and the story ofthe back and forth discussions, the way that the league had each team kick in money and not just Winnipeg as they knew getting somebody like Hull could make their league viable immediately, Hull's waiting to verify the check cleared before he officially signed his contracts (he had to sign one in the US and then one in Winnipeg for publicity reasons), etc. has a fantastic suspense factor to it.
It's scenarios like this one, where Willis has had access to multiple players and owners and personnel, that the book really shines. There are some minor negatives--there are entire teams that might see one or two very small mentions (the Michigan Stags, for instance, are mentioned on half a page of the book), and the appendix simply shows what teams played in each year--this could pretty easily have been bulked up to show their records, show the playoff series results and even show what teams moved from one city to another.
But those are minor, and even moreso when compared to the Hull story, the setting up of the league stories, the in-depth sections on Gordie Howe and his sons playing together, the Birmingham (Baby) Bulls and how one team signing a handful of 18 year olds helped push the NHL over the edge into agreeing to a merger, and many other stories like these. Willis writes with knowledge of the sport and it's clear that he had a great time talking to the many players quoted directly in the book.
If you're a fan of hockey, or of sports in general, this one belongs on your shelf.