Expansion

By the mid 1960s, the desire for a network television contract in the U.S., and concerns that the Western Hockey League was planning to declare itself a major league and challenge for the Stanley Cup, spurred the NHL to undertake its first expansion since the 1920s. The league doubled in size for the 196768 season, adding the Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, California Seals and St. Louis Blues.[36] Canadians were outraged that all six teams were placed in the United States,[37] and the league responded by adding the Vancouver Canucks in 1970 along with the Buffalo Sabres, who are located on the U.S.-Canadian border.[38] Two years later, the emergence of the newly founded World Hockey Association (WHA) led the league to add the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames to keep the rival league out of those markets.[39] In 1974, the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts were added, bringing the league up to 18 teams.[40] The NHL fought the WHA for players, losing 67 to the new league in its first season of 197273,[41] including Bobby Hull, who signed a ten year, $2.5 million contract with the Winnipeg Jets, the largest in hockey history at the time.[42] The NHL attempted to block the defections in court, though a countersuit by the WHA led to a Philadelphia judge ruling the NHL's reserve clause to be illegal, eliminating the elder l ague's monopoly over the players.[43] Seven years of battling for players and markets financially damaged both leagues, leading to a 1979 merger agreement that saw the WHA cease operations while the NHL absorbed the Jets, Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques.[44] The NHL's owners initially rejected this merger agreement by one vote, but a massive boycott of Molson products by fans in Canada led the Montreal Canadiens, which were owned by Molson, to reverse their position in a second vote along with the Vancouver Canucks, allowing the plan to pass.[45] Wayne Gretzky played one season in the WHA for the Indianapolis Racers before joining the NHL in 197980 with the Oilers.[46] He went on to lead the Oilers to four Stanley Cup championships in 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988, and set single season records for goals (92 in 198182), assists (163 in 198586) and points (215 in 198586), as well as career records for goals (894), assists (1,963) and points (2,857).[46] He was traded to the Kings in 1988, a deal that dramatically improved the NHL's popularity in the United States, and provided the impetus for the 1990s expansion cycles that saw the addition of the San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Ottawa Senators, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, and by the turn of the century the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets.[47]