For Timothy Gassen, Saturday May 16 marked the occasion of his new DVD release at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Ontario. “Gretzky, Indy & the W.H.A.” is an epic look at the Indianapolis Racers organization during their time as a member of the World Hockey Association. The Racers are also the first place where the legendary Wayne Gretzky signed his first professional contract. There was a clearly a lot of anticipation for this project as Gassen appeared on numerous media outlets in both Canada and the United States when discussing his most recent documentary. By all accounts, the response from those in attendance gives an indication that the DVD release at the storied Hockey Hall of Fame proved to be a wonderful success.
First and foremost, Timothy Gassen is a hockey fan. The Arizona native has also made it clear that he was a huge fan of the Indianapolis Racers of the W.H.A. when he was growing up. For a league that was once competing against the NHL, the W.H.A. frequently goes unnoticed. Bobby Hull brought a lot of attention to the league when he left the storied Chicago Blackhawks franchise in order to play for the Winnipeg Jets. Many young players saw the W.H.A. as an opportunity to turn pro early on in their careers while some veterans saw the league as a way in prolonging their careers. While there is a lot of archival footage of Wayne Gretzky on the DVD set, Gassen makes sure to point out that the project focuses on many more issues beyond the Great One first starting his pro career in Indianapolis. Like many sports teams, the Racers also had rivalries, a passionate fan base and some interesting marketing campaigns as Gassen accurately portrays in his story.
The project focuses on the five year history of the Racers by outlining many of the positive and negative aspects of the hockey club. What makes the DVD so special is that you get the perspective of many people who were impacted by the team. Along with hearing from former Racers players like Pat Stapleton and Jim Park, you also hear from broadcasters like Bob Lamey and Mike Fornes. Many of the Racers players do a great job in conveying how important the Racers franchise was to both themselves and the city of Indianapolis during their interviews. Along with the many interviews that appear on the DVD set, the extensive archival Racers footage obtained by Gassen provides some great insight to a franchise that many people may have very little knowledge of.
The doors to the Hall opened at 6:30pm for the show. However, it was around 6:00 when people actually starting forming in front of the Hockey Hall of Fame in order to get inside. Looking at the lineup was in itself something special. The first person I noticed was a hockey fan with a Wayne Gretzky 99 jersey for the Indianapolis Racers. Talk about a vintage jersey as I could never remember seeing anyone wear a Gretzky Racers sweater. I then looked over a little further away and there was a very young boy wearing a Maple Leafs Luke Schenn jersey. What became evident to me is that along with the existing fans of the W.H.A. who came to enjoy the screening, there would be just as many new fans that were not around during the history of the Racers between 1974 and 1979. Men and women, young and old all came to enjoy the show and nobody could be happier than Gassen himself who always had a moment to speak to the fans, former players and the media personalities that were in attendance.
Prior to the screening of the DVD at the Hall of Fame, fans had around an hour to tour the storied facility. A dream for any hockey fan, the Hall of Fame is something to marvel in. While I have attended the hockey shrine before, my visit this time was instead focused upon the recognition of the W.H.A. on display in the Hall of Fame. While there are numerous exhibits dedicated to the NHL and International hockey, there still remains an acknowledgement of the W.H.A. In one area of the shrine, there is a glass enclosure at the Hall of Fame indicating some of the now defunct professional hockey leagues such as the W.H.A. Somewhere in the building you can also find the W.H.A. championship, the AVCO World Trophy. Near the end of the screening, Gassen was nice enough to take photos of the AVCO Cup with many of those who were in attendance.
After having some time to tour the building, fans made their way to the theater portion of the Hall of Fame to watch the show. The theater was near capacity with only the odd seat here or there to be found. Before the DVD began, Gassen introduced himself to the audience. In light of Gassen being an Arizona resident and the ongoing speculation of the Coyotes moving to Southern, Ontario, Gassen began his introduction by stating “I did not bring a hockey team with me” to where laughter followed from the audience. Once the screening began, the DVD clearly had the attention of the audience as there were very few interruptions throughout the entire show. When the screening ended, the reception to “Gretzky, Indy & the W.H.A.” was a very positive one by those in attendance.
The lengthy ovation at the end of the screening was a more than worthy response to a DVD that would be a great item for any hockey fan. Gassen would once again address the audience following the show as he would be very complimentary to his family in being supportive of him during this project. He would then proceed to thank some former players in attendance such as Jim Park, Nick Harbaruk and Reg Thomas, among others. The biggest ovation however was definitely left for Pat Stapleton. The former Racers player and coach can often be seen speaking on the DVD on a number of different issues including one funny moment involving the rival Cincinnati Stingers bee mascot. Jim Park also did a great job contributing to the DVD while emphasizing the importance of the Racers to the city of Indianapolis.
Following the screening, Gassen and the players were nice enough to sign autographs for those in attendance. You could often see fans having lengthy conversations with the players about the gone but not forgotten W.H.A. Another nice side story was that every player in attendance signed every last autograph. Seeing the players stick around for autographs reinforced the message of how so many hockey players are often recognized for displaying so much class. The autograph session was a fitting end to an already successful night. And for those who think fans of the W.H.A. do no exist, I could only hope that you were at the Hockey Hall of Fame last Saturday night. If any of you think that this is the last project for Gassen however, you are sadly mistaken.
While the W.H.A. was before my time, I am still interested in finding out about this league that rivaled the NHL for a short period. I first remember being aware of the W.H.A. after hearing that the legendary Bobby Hull had left the Blackhawks to play for the Winnipeg Jets of the then W.H.A. For hockey fans who are left craving more information on the now defunct league, Gassen has two more projects that are lined up. Gassen explains his future endeavors by stating “The cool thing about doing this Racers documentary is it led me to more people who have unseen W.H.A. footage. We just started shooting a W.H.A. Winnipeg Jets documentary and a W.H.A. Houston Aeros documentary that will involve Gordie and Marty and Mark Howe.” So it looks as if the Racers DVD is a beginning of sorts for Gassen and his documentary work with the W.H.A. For those of you who are concerned that these projects make take a while, Gassen assures you that “It is not going to take five years to get this done. I guarantee you.” Shooting has already begun for Gassen’s upcoming documentaries as he has already conducted some interviews with hockey players at the International Hockey Hockey Hall of Fame in Kingston, Ontario.
The premier of “Gretzky, Indy & the W.H.A.” proved to be a wonderful event that was enjoyed by many. Having the setting of the storied Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto also proved to be a nice backdrop in creating the appropriate atmosphere towards a glimpse into some rare hockey footage of some of the legends of the game. You also come to understand that there are group of passionate W.H.A. fans out there who quickly remind you what a great league the World Hockey Association was. New hockey fans will come to appreciate the DVD by learning a little more about the history of the game while realizing that the NHL did indeed have some competition at one time. Older fans on the other hand will have an opportunity to see some archived footage of names like Gretzky, Messier and Stapleton who were all representative of a changing era in hockey. And that changing era in hockey was an era where the NHL had faced some competition in maintaining their top stars. Hockey fans can now only wait in anticipation as we prepare for the next set of documentaries by Timothy Gassen. If his most recent project is any indication, fans will not be disappointed with Gassen’s continued works on the W.H.A.