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Denis M. Crawford: The Life and Teams of Johnny F. Bassett

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  1. Denis Crawford
    The Life and Teams of Johnny F. Bassett: Maverick Entrepreneur of North American Sports is the biography of one of the most influential sportsmen of the twentieth century. Dozens of interviews with Bassett’s contemporaries and archival research provide the basis for this work which began as a PhD dissertation in American Studies and was successfully defended at Penn State-Harrisburg in 2020. Interview subjects include Bassett’s friends and family, but also his sports rivals and political opponents. The aim was to craft as complete a biography of Bassett as possible while arguing for his place among the leaders of professional sport in the 1960s and 1970s.

    While there is a great deal in the book about Bassett’s time in the World Football League (WFL) and United States Football League (USFL), a significant portion of the book details Bassett’s time in the World Hockey Association (WHA). A chapter goes into depth on his battle with Harold Ballard and the Toronto Maple Leafs for the hockey soul of Toronto from 1973-1976 while owner of the Toronto Toros. Another chapter chronicles his successful attempts to market professional hockey in Birmingham, Alabama with a team known unofficially known as the “Birmingham Bullies” and “Birmingham Baby Bulls.” The reader will also learn of Mr. Bassett’s role in midwifing Wayne Gretzky’s entry into the WHA and his role in emancipating the Canadian Juniors, acts that led to his team being shut out of the WHA/NHL merger.
    The book is available directly from McFarland Publishing: The Life and Teams of Johnny F. Bassett – McFarland (mcfarlandbooks.com)

    About the Author:
    Denis M. Crawford grew up in the Tampa Bay area and was just the right age to be fascinated by Mr. Bassett’s Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL. He is author of two other books: McKay’s Men: The 1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Hugh Culverhouse and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He holds master’s in Communication and History from Florida State University and Youngstown State University, respectively, and a doctorate in American Studies from Pennsylvania State University-Harrisburg. His research interests are upstart sports leagues and the rhetoric of losing. He is currently on the staff of Youngstown State University.

    Excerpt from Chapter Ten: “Emancipation of the Canadian Juniors”
    The true legacy of Johnny F. Bassett’s time in the WHA, what made him beloved, was the impact he had on the player selection system. Hockey players gained a level of control over their own careers that they have never relinquished and that their predecessors only dreamt of. Bassett’s signing of multiple junior players to professional contracts gave the WHA star appeal and a reason for fans to watch. Just as the American Football League took away just enough business from the NFL to force a merger, so had the WHA made the NHL agree to a merger. This led to more jobs for hockey players, more NHL franchises in Canada and the United States, and proof that a team in the Deep South could work. Even though the Atlanta Flames fled to Canada, a precedent for hockey in the South had been set by Bassett. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, and Carolina Hurricanes would not exist without Bassett’s foray into Birmingham. “He was such an innovator,” Gilles Leger said. “He was one of the last, great original individual owners in hockey. He helped to grow the game by giving so many guys the opportunity to make money. It helped that he could relate to them because of his own hockey and athletic background.”

    Bassett got an idea of how much his contributions to hockey were appreciated one night when he and Steve Ehrhart were on a business trip to Oklahoma in the early 1980s. According to his friend, they took in a minor-league hockey game and an impromptu tribute broke out. “We were at a minor-league hockey game in Tulsa and nobody knew who we were in the arena,” Ehrhart recalled:

    “We went down by the bench and some of the players and coaches started banging their sticks against the boards in tribute to Johnny. They knew how iconic he was in hockey, having created so many jobs for so many people in the WHA, in Toronto, and in Birmingham. Johnny kind of shrugged it off, but the respect for him in the hockey world was enormous. He just joked it off, reminding everyone that he was the only man dumb enough not to sign Wayne Gretzky.”

    In the opinion of Wayne Gretzky, the work of Bassett in the WHA paved the way for juniors to become professionals, hockey teams to find a home in warm-weather locales, and the sport itself to become a national presence in the United States. “He was very much an innovator,” Wayne Gretzky said about Bassett’s position on junior players and expanding hockey to new markets:

    “He didn’t believe that because a league made a rule that it should become law. He thought the laws that governed society were bigger than what a sports owner dictated. The rule was no 20-year old players and he just didn’t believe that. The only Southwest team when I played was the Los Angeles Kings. No one had the foresight that Dallas, Phoenix, and San Jose could do it. The Bulls really opened a lot of doors, not just for those cities’ success, but from a television marketing point of view. That team in Birmingham helped pave the way for hockey to become more of a national sport in the United States. Kids in the South and Southwest now grow up wanting to play hockey and that is part of his foresight.”
    The Life and Teams of Johnny F Bassett.jpg
    Bassett’s Ottawa Nationals/Toronto Toros/Birmingham Bulls was just one of five franchises to survive all seven years of the WHA. During that time Bassett further burnished his reputation as a sports-idealist, a talented business operator, and a marketer extraordinaire. Honest, creative, and shrewd, Bassett had navigated very turbulent waters and came out as crisp and clean as any man could.

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