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Sunday, January 23, 2005
Upstart league drawing NHLers' interest

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

The World Hockey Association will host a multimillion-dollar, winner-take-all tournament this spring as a way to generate interest for its inaugural season, which will begin play in the fall, ESPN.com has learned.

Several high-profile National Hockey League players are expected to play in the tournament, which will feature six to eight teams, WHA president and CEO Ricky Smith said. The event has also secured a "major television deal" and significant corporate sponsorship, he added.

Complete details about the tournament and the league -- which will feature eight to 10 teams in major North American markets next season and expand into Europe the season after -- will be unveiled at a two-day league meeting, Friday and Saturday, in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. League commissioner Bobby Hull, current NHL players and potential ownership groups will participate, Smith said.

The WHA plans to proceed as scheduled, even if the NHL and the players' association forge a new collective bargaining agreement in time to save a portion of the 2004-05 season. However, Smith added, if the NHL does return, the WHA would not compete in the same cities.

"We didn't get in this not to weather the storm," Smith, 47, said. "We're looking to fill the void. We're preparing to fill the void."

NHL players such as Bobby Hull's son Brett Hull, Chris Chelios, Jeremy Roenick, Mike Modano, Manny Legace and Scott Mellanby have expressed an interest in the league, Smith said. Ed Belfour, who had signed as an owner of a franchise in Dallas with the previous WHA ownership group, is still believed to be interested in pursing an ownership opportunity, a source close to the veteran goaltender said.

While the WHA would benefit by filling the void left by the NHL lockout this winter, league investors opted for a one-time tournament to raise the league's profile instead of rushing preparations to play a truncated schedule. In the meantime, Smith said, the WHA continues to draw more interest from players and agents as the lockout drags on.

Smith said and his two main partners, investment bankers Louis Sitaras of Florida and Mark R. McKelvie of Rochester, N.Y., have $50 million committed to the league's start-up, enough to secure leases at all franchise locations and negate the need for individual ownership groups in each city.

The WHA has targeted 13 North American cities with arenas that would provide acceptable lease agreements, including Las Vegas, Toronto, Phoenix, Vancouver, Dallas and Quebec City.

The league will operate under a salary cap of about $14 million, depending on the number of franchises, Smith said. Teams would be allowed to spend up to $5 million on one designated "marquee" player and $2.5 million for a "sub-marquee" player. The balance of rosters would feature veteran NHL players and players from the American Hockey League, major junior leagues and U.S. colleges.

The NHL will cancel the 2005 draft if a new collective bargaining agreement is not in place before the event on June 25-26 in Ottawa. As a result, there will be a group of young major junior and U.S. college stars whose rights are not owned by NHL teams ripe for the WHA to sign.

The WHA has pledged to provide an entertaining brand of hockey that would include shootouts to decide tie games, no-touch icing and tag-up offsides. Goaltenders' equipment would be reduced in size and their ability to play the puck restricted.

The original WHA burst on the scene in the early 1970s promising higher salaries to established NHL players.

NHL player agent Mike Liut, who played two years in the WHA with Cincinnati, said the economic times may have changed but the impact of a rival league have not.

"It's an alternative," he said. "That's where it starts."

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