REVIEW FOR OCTOBER 21, 2004

 
THE REBEL LEAGUE: THE SHORT AND UNRULY LIFE OF THE WORLD HOCKEY ASSOCIATION
BY ED WILLES
MCCLELLAND & STEWART LTD., 2004
5 OUT OF 5
SUMMARY | FOR ONCE, THE TITLE ISN'T A LIE AT ALL.  SERIOUSLY, I KNOW I'M REVIEWING A HOCKEY BOOK BUT STILL.
 
While I was having one of my spells where I was working on my side projects and not on UR itself (see: 99% of the time) one of my blogs featured a series of articles under the umbrella title The Hockey Lockout Compendium.  I haven't become sick of the articles, but I haven't posted on my blog in a while (as of this writing, anyway) because...well, I have my reasons - work, tiredness, the fact that I'm doing this outsize 'zine myself etc. - the usual excuses.  Still, I have the Compendium and Google News to thank for allowing me to find out that a book on the World Hockey Association exists.  Weirder still, I have McClelland and Stewart publicist Dulcey Antonucci to thank for sending me a review copy of this book.  Normally I wouldn't thank publicists but considering a major Canadian publisher sent a book to a guy who writes for a site named Unbelievably Retarded...well, shit, do I need to finish that sentence?  It's one of the most incongruous things I've known anyone to do in the five years I've been self-publishing my work.  Then again, the WHA was incongruous for its entire seven years of existence so it's not like The Rebel League isn't UR-worthy material.  Bill Goldthorpe alone would merit a UR article here.
 
The Rebel League is a well-documented and down-to-earth account of the World Hockey Association through the players, owners and people who were involved with the league in one way or another throughout its history.  Although there is a definite bias towards the more stable of the WHA teams throughout this book (aside from the Minnesota Fighting Saints, and the two teams laying claim to the name are covered here in detail) The Rebel League presents the WHA as nothing more and nothing less than what it was: a brain-fart from American Basketball Association founder Dennis Murphy that grew into the NHL's only real threat to its continuing dominance of major-league hockey.  To Ed Willes' credit, he doesn't romanticise the WHA or belittle it as some sort of an asinine, blue-pucked, glorified minor-pro league - that would be way too easy to do, and it's not like the WHA was a disaster in the making like, say, the XFL eventually became.  Ed Willes pretty much presents the WHA the way it should be presented, as the second major league and one that struggled for respectability in all of its seven seasons.  There is a fair bit of criticism towards the NHL and Alan Eagleson (not undeserved, considering the NHL's enforced monopoly on hockey) but Willes doesn't gloss over mistakes the WHA made in its seven seasons.  The over-reliance on underaged hockey players and overpriced "superstars" that never panned out is given a lot of coverage in the book, with anecdotes from good WHA players...and Dennis Sobchuk.  That's an in-joke that I'm sure three people will get, tops.
 
As for the anecdotes the book presents, some of them have been retold to death but there are some good stories here: roach-killing competitions at the Sam Houston Arena, Jacques Plante's preference of cross-country skiing to coaching the Quebec Nordiques and more than I really needed to know about Mike "Shaky" Walton and his mental problems.  The Rebel League isn't as bawdy as one might think from the advertising campaign it's received, but nothing really is after one's heard all those Harold Ballard anecdotes about his "sexy parties."  Still, there are some good anecdotes here that are worthy of mention, and it's not like the book is prudish in nature.  Trust me, with the WHA there's no way in hell a book about it would be lacking in the sort of backstage debauchery one invariably expects from a book such as this.  That, and there's a story about Steve Durbano's wife showing her tits.
 
All in all, The Rebel League is successful in its approach to present the WHA as what it was without knocking the league down or presenting it as some sort of joke beside the NHL (which has presented itself as the only hockey league that matters in the world for decades.)  The book isn't perfect, mind you, but it's about as comprehensive a book about the WHA as one really needs.  The second major league might not have played great hockey all the time for its seven seasons, never mind how the league watered down major league hockey standards at the time (which are still better standards than found in today's NHL, mind you) but Ed Willes makes a good case about how the game has never been the same thanks to the WHA's influence.  While a book about the WHA might not be perfect for the omissions one has to make, The Rebel League is about as good as it's going to get with regards to North America's only other post-1927 major pro hockey league.  This is the book the WHA has deserved for at least a quarter-century and Ed Willes has delivered it.  It's more entertaining than a modern-day regular-season NHL game, at least.
 
MCCLELLAND & STEWART
http://www.mcclelland.com/