SIMMONS: Long before there was a PGA split, Bernie Parent was a WHA pioneer

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Bernie Parent understands, better than most of us can, why Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson and others took the money and ran.

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He understands because he was once there – a star goaltender back in the days when the National Hockey League didn’t pay star money for goaltenders or anyone else for that matter.

Parent left the Toronto Maple Leafs to sign with the Miami Screaming Eagles of the World Hockey Association in 1972. It wasn’t Bobby Hull – here’s a million dollars money – back when Hull was making $90,000 a year with the Chicago Blackhawks. But it was more than Parent had ever seen or frankly heard of and he wasn’t about to say no.

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“I’ve always said, if you want to succeed in life, you have to be a calculated risk-taker,” said the 77-year-old Parent, the Hall of Fame goaltender, talking about the decision he made 50 years ago, talking about the great divide in professional golf today between those staying on the PGA Tour and those, like Mickelson, like DJ, who have chosen to leave.

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“Making a decision like this doesn’t diminish who you are as a person or a player. You’re doing what you think is best for you. I’d love to talk to some of those guys about my experiences, and what we went through. I honestly think this will be good for golf. It was good for hockey. Time will tell, of course, competition is a good thing in sports.”

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Jim Dorey is not convinced this will be good for golf. He played defence in front of Parent in the early `70s. He chose to leave the NHL to more than double his money from $12,000 a year to $45,000 a year to eventually $100,000. “We took a gamble back then,” said Dorey, now 75 years old. “Nobody knew how secure we were. Our team could have folded at any time, we didn’t know. And we didn’t know if the NHL would take us back if that happened.

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“Everybody took a risk. It’s not like what you’re seeing right now with the PGA Tour. I think there are some moral concepts to this, involvement in Saudi Arabia and how they treat people, and you think of all the PGA does for local charities. I don’t know what these guys will be doing charity-wise. There’s a lot to think about here.”

Parent spent less than a day celebrating his new deal in Miami, which says a lot about the early days of the WHA. He flew home to Philadelphia the day after he signed and by the time his flight landed he learned the Miami Screaming Eagles were no more. The team was moving to Philly, calling itself the Blazers.

The uncertainty had already begun.

“The hard thing is leaving an organization (the Maple Leafs) and a league that had been in existence for so many years,” said Parent. “The players were good players, just not as good as what he faced in the NHL. For me, when you were used to playing in front of 18,000 fans and then you’re playing in front of 500 to 1,000 fans, that affects you. That affects your team. I’ve always believed spectators make the game great. When that changed everything changed for me.”

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Parent lasted one season with the Blazers. Hull stayed, becoming the face and the hope of the WHA: In the seven seasons the league existed, he was paid close to $4 million. In the 15 previous seasons in which he starred for the Blackhawks, not just starred but scored more goals than anyone else in hockey, he took home about $600,000 in total. He wound up with life-changing money in Winnipeg and hockey changed because of the WHA.

Had there never been a WHA there would not likely be professional teams in Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, or Edmonton right now. There would certainly be fewer Americans and Europeans playing. In response to the WHA, the NHL expanded by two teams in 1972, by two more in 1974, and then in merger added four teams in 1979 – that now represent franchises in Edmonton, Carolina, Denver, and Arizona. Long-term contracts were born. The entire landscape of the sport was altered.

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“I realized after some time in the WHA that the NHL was where I belonged,” said Parent. “It worked for some players. It didn’t work for me. That’s what you’re going to find now with these golfers. You’re going to find out whether you fit in or whether you don’t. There’s a certain amount of unknown when you do something like this. You have great golfers making this move, big names. Time will tell whether it’s what they want or don’t want.”

The Maple Leafs were torn apart by the start of the WHA in 1972. Parent left a giant hole in goal. Half of their starting defence, all 25 and under – Dorey, Rick Ley, and Brad Selwood – departed. A solid forward in Jim Harrison went west and depth forward Guy Trottier also signed in the WHA. That was six players of consequence gone and when Parent decided to return to the NHL, the Leafs made it worse for themselves, trading him to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Parent went on to win two Stanley Cups and two Conn Smythe Trophies with the Flyers. Dorey never played again in the NHL.

“I’m not happy with what the golfers are doing but I understand why they’re doing it,” said Dorey. “We took a gamble with our careers. It was a different time. It paid off for some of us. It paid off for the sport.”

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