WILLES, Ed




Author Tags: Sports

And then there was the time... Bobby Hull lost his toupee on the ice, Mark Howe forgot he wasn't supposed to yell "Dad!" when he passed to Gordie Howe, and a bunch of Birmingham Bulls somehow found themselves buck naked in an arena concourse spoiling for a brawl.

This all happened in the WHA, the league that led to the making of the Paul Newman movie Slap Shot. Harkening back to his days as Winnipeg reporter after the blond bomber Bobby Hull had shocked the NHL by signing with the Winnipeg Jets of the rival World Hockey Association, North Vancouver's Ed Willes has published a history of the seven-year WHA entitled The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the Western Hockey Association (M&S, 2004). Of the 27 new hockey franchises, only six remained when the league was dissolved. Four of these joined the NHL as the Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques, Edmonton Oilers and Hartford Whalers. Willes wrote on hockey for the Winnipeg Sun for eight years, freelanced out of Montreal in 1997-1998, contributed to the New York Times and thereafter started writing a sports column for The Province in Vancouver.

Willes has also published Gretzky to Lemieux: The Story of the 1987 Canada Cup (M&S 2007).

In his third book, End Zones and Border Wars: The Era of American Expansion in the CFL, Willes takes a look at the unfortunate attempt of the CFL to establish a presence in the United States and the interesting tales that accompanied it.

BOOKS:

The Rebel League on the WHA (McClelland & Stewart 2004)

Gretzky to Lemieux: The Story of the 1987 Canada Cup (McClelland & Stewart 2007)

End Zones and the Border Wars: The Era of American Expansion in the CFL (Harbour 2013) $19.95 978-1-55017-614-8

[BCBW 2013] "Sports"

Border Wars
Press Release (2013)



End Zones and Border Wars is the story of the CFL's ill-fated period of expansion into the United States during the early to mid-1990s. At a time when the CFL was in desperate straights financially and needed American expansion fees to buy them some time, the Sacramento Gold Miners, the Las Vegas Posse, the Baltimore Colts/CFLers/Stallions, the Shreveport Pirates, the Memphis Mad Dogs, the Birmingham Barracudas and the San Antonio Texans all came into being. It’s an era in CFL history not often talked about, one that it seems the CFL has tried to forget and barely acknowledges.

Yet expansion into the States was anything but mundane. There were intriguing characters involved, from John Candy to Nick Mileti to Pepper Rodgers, the coach who loved everything about the Canadian game except the rules and the teams. With a cast of investors who were hopeful but unfamiliar with the game, bizarre stories emerged, from the Las Vegas Posse practicing in the parking lot of the Riviera to the Shreveport Pirates camping out above a barn full of circus animals.

Though the American franchises would ultimately fail under low sales and resistance to new rules, the strange three-year period helped to plant the seeds that would grow into the CFL of today and to restore its soul. Throughout, the league held onto its identity—to three downs, to twelve men, and to freezing your ass off at snowy games in November—and to a sense of pride that would culminate in the 1994 Grey Cup in Vancouver, when the BC Lions’ Cinderella team fought against Baltimore to keep the Cup in Canada and won. In the end, the CFL survived these turbulent times to the harsh realization that it is a game for Canada alone, breaking through to a promising new era for the venerable institution.

Ed Willes began working in sports journalism in 1982, and is now a columnist for The Province.

[October 2013]