Tim Gassen grew up a fan of the Indianapolis Racers, which now is part of the WHA exhibit at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.


There was a time when professional hockey players didn't wear helmets. Instead, some had afros and big mustaches.

That wasn't the NHL, though. It was the World Hockey Association.

"WHA was very funky in that way," said Tim Gassen , a Tucsonan and president and founder of the WHA Hall of Fame.

The WHA was to the NHL, what the ABA was to the NBA. It operated from 1972 to 1979.

It was an alternate option to that "other league," as Gassen calls it, with different rules, guidelines, personalities and play style.

Fun fact: Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier played in the WHA for one season before starting their Hall of Fame NHL careers. Also, before the WHA, the NHL rarely allowed players from outside Canada to participate in the league.

"Its like one of those 'Star Trek' episodes where in the alternate universe you have an evil Kirk and an evil Spock," Gassen said, "and it's a whole decade of hockey that many people now didn't know existed."

So, about 10 years ago, Gassen made it his lifelong goal to make people aware as to how important the WHA was to hockey as we know it today. And in June, his work came full circle, as he traveled to Calgary, Alberta, and Eveleth, Minn., where the WHA has exhibits at the Canada Sports Hall of Fame and the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum.

That's because the WHA is what he grew up watching in Indianapolis, with the now-defunct Indianapolis Racers. It's the hockey he knows, and the hockey he loves.

He remembers going to watch an 17-year-old Gretzky play for the Racers in 1978, and a 45-year-old Gordie Howe, who came to the WHA for a chance to play on the same line as his sons Mark and Marty.

Gassen recalls one time he went to a Racers playoff game in 1977, against the Cincinnati Stingers. There were 16,000 people in the stands, as per usual, and it was an elimination game.

"Then," Gassen said, "a live chicken comes running out on the ice.

"It just started flying around the rink. It was a live chicken, I don't know what it meant, but it was hilarious. That sticks in my mind."

Gassen is also a filmmaker, and he's made a couple of documentaries about the WHA. In doing research for one, he came across the Racers' radio play-by-play guy, Bob Lamey, who is now the voice of the Indianapolis Colts.

Lamey gave the radio footage he did from that game to Gassen, and "there he is, talking about a live chicken on the ice," Gassen said.

Soon after, Gassen was able to retrieve video footage of the chicken, too. Retrieving that type of lost footage is what makes the job and research so great for Gassen, also a journalist who used to write for the Arizona Daily Star.

And since 2004, Gassen has been collecting WHA artifacts. For a while, most of them were loaded up in his Tucson home.

"Basically the joke for a long time before we had a real museum for exhibits and stuff," Gassen said, "was that my house was the WHA Hall of Fame. Its become an obsession, for sure."

And while it's certainly not easy to gather long-lost material from a now-defunct league that the NHL refuses to even acknowledge - "There's still animosity, they call it the seven-year war between the leagues," Gassen said" - he gets all the satisfaction he needs when he meets the players he grew up watching.

"It's really exciting for me," Gassen said. "Some of the main guys in the WHA Hall of Fame, were the people that I really looked up to as a kid. Of course, as a kid I couldn't have known them as a person, as a real person, but now seeing them as a person and what great guys they are, it's just really, really exciting for me.

"As a hockey fan and as a journalist and filmmaker I was looking around and saw that no one had really documented the league … no one ever saved all that stuff so it exists in the next generation, and that's why I got involved."

Contact reporter Zack Rosenblatt at zrosenblatt@azstarnet.com or 573-4145. On Twitter @zackblatt