HbD InDepth: World Hockey Association
Lost in the turbulent history of a year that featured Watergate, the Munich Olympic Tragedy and the end of the Vietnam War, was the birth of a bold but ill-fated professional hockey league. When the World Hockey Association dropped its first puck on October 11, 1972, hopes were high that the new league would give the National Hockey League its first taste of real competition.
What followed over the next seven years was a constant transmogrification (that’s for you Calvin and Hobbes fans) of teams, cities, divisions, players and team logos. When the NHL mercifully added four of the surviving six teams in June of 1979, WHA fans were left holding a mixed bag of memories and a legacy of team logos that ranged from enduring to downright childish.
Looking back on the 40th anniversary of its demise, Hockey By Design reviews some of the best, worst and most amusing team brands from the WHA. And even some that beg the question…“What the Heck?”
1972-73: Season 1, This Should Be Fun!
Flush with startup cash, the new league enticed 67 underpaid NHL players to jump ship and join the fledgling World Hockey Association. They scored some of the biggest superstars, including Gerry Cheevers, Bernie Parent, Bobby Hull, and eventually even Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe. The new league featured 12 teams in two divisions (Eastern and Western), and confidently placed two teams in markets that already had successful NHL Original Six franchises.
The team logos for the inaugural season were a great representation of the budding but primitive design skills that were pervasive in the early years of sports branding. A couple notable exceptions were the Alberta (later Edmonton) Oilers, who created a logo that has endured nearly half a century later, and Quebec, who introduced their now much-loved, and vintage favorite Nordiques classic design.
In the East, the Cleveland Crusaders rolled out a black and purple circular badge logo that was a decent design, aside from the Celtic oldstyle font that is a difficult read even without being forced into a circle.
With the New England Whalers logo, we get a glimpse of their future legendary brand in their use of the big rounded “W.”
The NY Raiders logo is a laughable detailed drawing of a hockey player with Viking horns (you have to look really close) who seems to be skating in front of something that is either a Saks 5th Avenue windowfront or possibly the United Nations building. Your guess is as good as mine.
The Ottawa Nationals went with a simple logo that uses a maple leaf to act as the white space in the “O” letterform. This one probably lands in the top tier, even considering the overall poor quality of the inaugural season designs.
The Philadelphia Blazers’ logo is borderline pathetic, with a flaming hockey stick concept that might not make the cut in a fourth-grade art contest.
The Nordiques introduced the familiar logo that endured long after their adoption into the NHL, and until the franchise relocated to Colorado as the Avalanche.
In the western Division, the Alberta Oilers classic logo is the only brand from the WHA that has survived to the present day and is virtually unchanged.
Chicago’s Cougar, Houston’s Aero badge and the Los Angeles Shark are all 70s-period images that at best lack finesse.
Winnipeg’s initial logo was a predecessor of their future, more recognizable version, but has an antiquated “Coca-Cola” look.
The most amazing logo of the bunch (and the one that inspires the biggest WTH? reaction), is a bizarre creepy-looking Fighting Saint that features a kid with wings and a halo who looks more like a cross between Calvin (again, a reference to Calvin and Hobbes) and Alfred E. Newman (Mad Magazine’s freaky-faced mascot). Rediscovering that disturbing logo makes this entire WHA memory lane trip worthwhile (although it also makes me want to check the closet before I go to bed at night).
Avco Cup Finals
In the first WHA Playoffs, the New England Whalers defeated the Winnipeg Jets, 4 games to 1 to take the inaugural Avco World Trophy. (It’s probably best that the league ended up folding, for no other reason than that their championship trophy name was so lame and uninspiring).
1973-74: Season 2, Starting Anew
The 1973-74 season saw enough changes that it was an early sign of the league’s instability. The New York Raiders first changed their name to the Golden Blades, then fled across the river at mid-season where they were rebranded as the New Jersey Knights. Ottawa lost their Nationals to Toronto, who renamed the team the Toros. The Oilers took up permanent residence in Edmonton and were named accordingly.
The Golden Blades logo was an interesting copycat of the LA Kings gold and purple color palette with a sharp lightning bolt for a skate blade. But the strange jagged golden circular sunray element (or was it supposed to be a rotary saw blade?) added a bizarre Florida-like feel to the design that didn’t come close to capturing New York toughness.
The mid-season change to the Knights introduced a completely new design and color palette. The logo featured two modular design elements that were totally dissimilar in style. The knight was a fairly complex chess piece that was actually not bad, but they placed it on top of a blocky “K” letterform with an orange circle that I assume was supposed to represent a puck. This one screams of “design by committee” with two opposing ideas melded into a single underachieving result. And the obvious New York Knicks orange and blue color treatment made it appear more like a logo for a basketball team than a hockey squad.
The Toros logo included a fire-snorting cartoon-style bull, with a definite 1970s type treatment that included a popular thick dimensional drop shadow element.
Vancouver adopted the ex-Philly logo exactly, except for swapping out the city name, but the orange and yellow color palette leaves you feeling anything but Vancouver-ish.
Avco Cup Finals
In the playoffs that season, Gordy Howe and the Houston Aeros swept the Chicago Cougars in four straight games to bring home the Avco World Trophy.
1974-75: Season 3, Divided By Three
More changes were in store for the third WHA season. In addition to adding two new teams (the Phoenix Roadrunners and the Indianapolis Racers), there were more moves among the exiting franchises. The New Jersey Knights (née-New York Golden Blades, née New York Raiders) moved to San Diego and were renamed the Mariners. The LA Sharks left the Golden State and were reborn as the Michigan Stags. To accommodate the increase in teams, the league was divided into three divisions (Eastern, Western, and Canadian).
The two new team logos were designed in completely different styles. The Phoenix Roadrunners chose to create a “Woody Woodpecker-like” cartoon roadrunner that presented a fun personality and was well-liked by the Phoenix faithful, myself being one of them at the time.
[Side note: One of the first dates my future wife and I went on was to a Roadrunners game where a woman in the seats a couple rows from us was hit by a puck and bled profusely all over the people sitting around her. When my date wasn’t fazed at all by this, I knew she had to be the one!]
The Racers logo was a badge-style design that inexplicably featured a skate on a racetrack with a prominent right turn. This must have irked true Indy race fans whose iconic track featured a total of zero right hand turns.
But the Mariners added to the WTH? factor with their overly detailed caricature of a salty mariner in a hockey uniform. It bears a striking resemblance to Captain Quint from the movie Jaws, and since that movie was released in the summer prior to the Mariners joining the league, it’s possible that was at least somewhat intended.
The rebrand of the new Michigan Stags team introduced one of the league’s best logos, but it was destined for a short lifespan when the team was moved to Baltimore after 61 of the 78 games.
The Baltimore Blades logo is another great example of the 1970s design style with a simple graphic “B” that morphed into a hockey stick and puck. The more I look at this one, the more I like it, even with the odd red oval background element. And in a milestone move, Winnipeg upgraded their original primitive design to the more memorable version that has become one of the most popular vintage team logos.
Avco Cup Finals
As the third season came to a close, Houston won its second straight Avco World Trophy, losing only two games in their entire playoff run.
1975-76: Season 4, Add Two More
As was becoming the norm for the WHA, teams moved and folded up again before the start of the season. After three mediocre campaigns in Chicago, the Cougars exited the Windy City with their tail between their legs. Vancouver failed to thrive and moved to Calgary where they became the Cowboys. And in the leagues’ final expansion, teams were awarded to Denver (the Spurs) and Cincinnati (the Stingers).
Denver became the city with the shortest WHA franchise tenure, when the Spurs left for Ottawa after playing only 18 games, where they were rebranded as the Civics. But even that was short-lived, as they failed to complete the entire season, folding after a total of 41 games. And sadly, the Minnesota Fighting Saints were down for the count 59 games into the season, bringing to an end to their freakish cupid logo (…or did it?).
The Cowboys new logo has to go down in all of sports branding history as one of the goofiest designs ever. It’s so childish I don’t know what else can be said about it.
Denver’s logo for the Spurs wasn’t half bad considering the time period during which it was created. The concept was excellent, with a western boot/ice skate with spurs. But again, I’m not sure why there was so much use of yellow and orange in team color palettes. For a winter sport, the overabundance of warm colors throughout the league was baffling to say the least.
But with the introduction of the Stingers in Cincinnati, the league could boast another of its top-tier logo designs. A clever bumble bee image was nicely worked into a “C” letterform, creating a team logo that might have made the transition to NHL life if the team hadn’t been shunned during the merger two years later.
Avco Cup Finals
In the playoffs, Houston failed in its quest for a league championship three-peat, losing to Winnipeg who swept them in four games.
1976-77: Season Five, Still Alive
The Cleveland Crusaders led the customary off-season switcheroo, moving to Minnesota and giving life once again to the (you guessed it) creepy Fighting Saint mascot. The Toronto Toros moved to Alabama, maintaining a consistent team branding strategy in becoming the Birmingham Bulls. And the league reverted to its original two-division setup, dropping the Canadian Division.
Birmingham kept the original Bull symbol and color palette. But they introduced a new wordmark that included a creative use of the two “L” letters in their name, which appeared as double hockey sticks. It’s an awesome retro example of 1970s typography design.
And to my horror, the Fighting Satan… I mean Saint…was reborn with a perfect Minnesota-like color scheme of (you guessed it) yellow and red. But why they kept the face detail in black is another WHA WTH? moment for sure. Thankfully (from a logo perspective) the Saints folded after 42 games, relegating the evil cupid to the trash heap of sports branding history. And just for the record, there’s absolutely no truth to the vicious rumor that I still keep my closet door open at night.
Avco Cup Finals
In the first Avco championship finals to go a full seven games, Quebec was victorious over Winnipeg. Ironically, two Canadian teams competed in the finals during the season that saw the Canadian Division eliminated.
1977-78: Season 6, The League’s in a Fix
The 1977-78 WHA season began with three fewer team, as Phoenix, Calgary and San Diego all folded. This left the league with just eight teams and a single nameless division. There were no logo changes, and Winnipeg took the championship, defeating the New England Whalers and their new Howe trio (Gordy and his two sons Mark and Marty) in five games.
1978-79: Season 7, Four Teams Go to Hockey Heaven
The Houston Aeros became the last WHA team to fold before the merger, and the final season saw Winnipeg capture their record third Avco World Trophy. But the writing was on the wall. With two previous unsuccessful attempts to have six WHA teams join the NHL (in 1977 and 1978), the failing league had lost all bargaining power by the end of their seventh season. Ultimately, only four of the remaining teams made the jump to the National Hockey League, with Cincinnati and Birmingham left out in the cold.
Of the four new NHL team logos (strangely enough, all circular designs), three endured for their entire franchise lives, including the Oilers present-day gem (Winnipeg’s 2011 rebirth excluded). The exception was the New England franchise, that was placed in Connecticut and transformed their team image into one of the greatest sports brands in history – the beloved Hartford Whalers logo.
It’s hard to imagine that we will ever see another league arise to challenge the behemoth NHL, but it would be great fun to watch the development of all the potential new team branding efforts. With the huge pool of extremely talented and sophisticated sports branding professionals that exists today, no doubt the results would be spectacular.
A fond look back at the WHA team branding efforts reminds us how far we’ve come, and how high the bar has been set in producing top-notch designs. But just once I’d like to beam myself back in time to watch a World Hockey Association playoff finals game and see those historic logos and uniforms in action. At least I know the Fighting Saint wouldn’t be there to spark a new round of nightmares.