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Thursday, January 6, 2005
WHA wary of dropping puck too soon

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

The new World Hockey Association has a decision to make: start playing an abbreviated schedule in February or wait and launch a full season in the fall.

While there are several factors involved in the process, not the least of which is the number of teams, none of them include the National Hockey League.

On Friday, WHA president and chief executive officer Richard William "Ricky" Smith retracted a release from his office that stated the league will launch in the fall. He reiterated that the decision has yet to be made and the status of the NHL lockout will not dictate the WHA's timetable, which he plans to announce within the next two weeks.

"We're not trying to do this as quickly as possible just to have players on the ice for the month of February," Smith said.

In the meantime, Smith said he has fielded calls from NHL players, including Dallas Stars captain Mike Modano. Other NHLers -- like Brett Hull, son of the first WHA star and current commissioner Bobby Hull, Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios and netminder Manny Legace -- already have indicated they might be interested in playing in the league.

The WHA also has deployed scouts to evaluate players in North America and Europe, where many NHL players are biding their time during the lockout.

"It's definitely a long shot. You can't expect it to work. But if it does it'll be a great thing for the sport," said Louis Sitaras, one of four primary investors. "It's just an opportunity I see that has unbelievable up-side."

The reincarnation of the WHA was left for dead in September after a poorly executed and hurried attempt to take advantage of the impending NHL lockout. A slightly altered version of the original WHA, a rogue league that operated from 1972-79 and drove up player salaries by using lofty contracts to lure away established NHL players, the 2004 edition was billed as being more entertaining and financially conservative than the NHL.

Smith, the leader of a group of investors that bought the WHA trademarks from co-founder Nick Vaccaro in October, promises the same. But this time, he said, the "new" WHA has $50 million in financial backing, which is enough to launch a 6-8 team league without having an owner in each market. The league anticipates good leases in good buildings will attract strong ownership and, in turn, good players.

"It was primarily a hockey decision, not a financial decision," Smith said from the league offices in Oakville, Ontario, a western suburb of Toronto. "Since then we've cleaned up the league, solved all the debt that was around it."

Smith, 47, a British Columbia native whose financial background is in the timber industry, and Sitaras, 43, a Florida businessman involved in real estate and investments, had planned to own and operate the Minneapolis franchise in last year's failed venture, but were unable to reach a lease agreement with the Target Center. Another overture to arena management was rebuffed earlier this week.

Although there are 13 markets that have a facility that could support a franchise, the plan is to start small and expand, with a European division targeted for the league's second full season. Smith wouldn't identify all 13 markets, but listed Las Vegas, Toronto, Vancouver, Phoenix, Dallas and Quebec City as likely ones.

While the WHA doesn't want to rush the process, filling the void being left by the NHL lockout and playing a half-season now would go a long way in ensuring the WHA's viability next season.

The league will operate with a soft cap that, depending on the number of franchises, will be in the $14 million range. If the WHA does implement a half-schedule this year, the cap would be about $5 million, Smith said.

Each team will be allowed one "marquee" player whose salary would be capped at $5 million (reduced accordingly for a half-season) and one sub-marquee player whose salary would be capped at half of that. The irony of a player rejecting a cap in the NHL and an average salary of at least $1.3 million to play under a cap system in a fledgling, low-budget professional league is not lost on Smith.

"It's not so much how we'll pay but how we'll explain it," Smith said.

For instance, players will be allowed to have a stake in ownership. Smith hopes netminder Ed Belfour, who was involved in the previous WHA's Dallas franchise, will again be involved. Teams will have an open-book policy, with designated player representatives who will have access to the books whenever they want, Smith said.

"Profit-sharing with the players is our intent," he added. "That shouldn't be confused with, 'let's have profit-sharing because we don't plan to pay you well.' "

On the ice, the WHA plans to implement many of the rule changes adopted this year by the American Hockey League, which include restricting goaltenders' ability to play the puck, no-touch icing, tag-up off-sides and a shootout to determine tie games.

Also, roster sizes will likely be reduced to 17 or 18 players.

Smith said there has been discussion with a major television network and regional broadcasters, though he declined to specify which ones.

While top agents say they are not familiar with Smith or the WHA's plans, one major agent said the NHL would do well to be wary of the new league.

High-profile players like Hull, Chelios, Roenick, Belfour and others who are nearing the end of their careers might be inclined to join a rival league if the NHL lockout appears to be headed for a second season. Plus, highly-paid players in their prime who have enough financial security might take a chance on becoming a marquee player in a well-run North American league or to wait out the negotiating process.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.