On October 8 the National Hockey League began its 41st annual pursuit of the puck and the buck, amid rumblings of discontent from the players which warned of thin ice ahead for the autocrats to whom they are indentured. The rumblings were generated by the players' discovery that the club owners had negotiated an expanded program of televised games for the new season. Although hockey players have long been known as the roughest of athletes on the ice and the most docile in the hands of their masters, the TV decision prompted them to organize. A Players Association was formed, primarily to demand that a share of the TV proceeds be diverted to their pension plan.
Last season the four U.S. clubs, the New York Rangers, the Boston Bruins, the Chicago Black Hawks and the Detroit Red Wings—which with Montreal and Toronto now comprise the NHL—participated in a 10-game television package deal with CBS-TV, featuring Saturday afternoon games. The results were so satisfactory that this season the program was stepped up to 21 games, beginning Saturday, November 2 and continuing every Saturday afternoon through the season. The club owners proposed to retain air TV receipts for their home games—with the players getting nothing.
The ensuing player protest produced only evasive action. The 'NHL Board of Governors tabled a request by the Players Association that a date be set to discuss the pension plan and the disposition of monies received from television. The Montreal and Toronto clubs, pointed out that they operate under Canadian Jaw and therefore cannot, concede to the NHL the right to deal on their behalf with the Players Association. This allowed the Board of Governors to declare that it would be impossible to negotiate.
In commenting on this maneuver, Ted Lindsay of the Black Hawks, president of the association, said: "The players were aware that the owners might pursue such delaying tactics," and Vice-President Doug Harvey of Les Canadiens' added: "We were prepared for this—and we have other steps."
The owners apparently were not alarmed by this implied threat, nor did they seem impressed by the fact that their .suddenly rambunctious hirelings had retained J. Norman Lewis, counsel for the major league baseball players in their outstandingly successful fight to have World Series and All-Star game TV revenue earmarked for pension funds.
But on October 10 Lewis put a crack in the fast-thinning ice. On behalf of the Players Association he filed a $3 million civil suit in Federal Court in New York against the owners and the officers of the NHL. The suit, filed under the antitrust laws, charged both owners and officers with dictatorship and monopolistic methods.
There is a good deal of evidence to support both charges. The international character of the NHL, and the fact that practically all hockey players are Canadian citizens, probably saved the league from being dealt with by Congress on monopoly grounds during its investigations of baseball, pro football and other sports this year. Certainly it is wide open to the charge of being a monopoly in its United States phase, since the New York, Chicago and Detroit clubs are owned by the Norris family, long dominant in the sport.
Professional ice hockey's survival under the policies of greedy promoters who care little about the players and even less about the fans demonstrates that great paradox that even when this splendid and exciting game is awfully bad, it's still pretty good. The young men who do battle on the ice love their bruising trade so passionately that many of them played for nothing, or next to nothing, before the major league ballplayers showed them the error of their ways. Noting these emotional reactions, the unemotional promoters of the sport have overlooked few opportunities for taking advantage of both players and spectators.
The National Hockey League invaded the United States during the middle 1920s after struggling along as a small regional circuit in Canada for seven seasons. The U.S. response to the fast-paced, virile sport was so immediate and ardent that professional hockey was proclaimed to have come of age. It might have, too, had not those entrusted with its destiny been so eager to sacrifice almost anything for the box office. Emboldened by the enthusiasm of their patrons, and influenced always by selfish interest, the club owners have managed to shrink the 10-club circuit of 1926 to a six-team league. The game itself has been altered almost beyond recognition.
The National League's system of deciding the championship is typical of how the magnates squeeze the last loose nickel out of their clientele. First there is a 70-game season, an exhausting schedule that cannot fail to hurt the quality of the game. The 1957-58 season extends from October 8 to March 23, and the only object, aside from the financial one, is to eliminate two of the six teams from the playoffs for the Stanley Cup which follows. In these, the first-and third-and the second-and fourth-place clubs play each other in best four-out-of-seven rounds, after which the two winners fight it out for the Stanley Cup in another four-out-of-seven series. This brings the hockey season up to mid-April, but there's no guarantee that, taking full advantage of a bullish market, the league won't continue to extend the season at both ends until eventually they will meet in midsummer.
Lest this sound farfetched, it should be explained that the National League in 31 years has expanded its schedule from 24 to 70 games per club, adding about three months to the season. The expansion has been by fairly easy stages in inverse ratio to the contraction of the league from a 10-to a six-club circuit. The jump from 24 to 44 games was made in 1926. Five years later a 48-game schedule was drawn up. In 1942 two more games were added. With the second world war out of the way, the owners voted for 60 games in 1946 and, finding this profitable, jumped to 70 games in 1949.
Club owners defend the playoff system by arguing that it gives teams that didn't fare well during the season a chance to redeem themselves. Of course, what it does to the team that proves itself best over 70 games and then flunks out in the final exams is a word that's never spoken at meetings of the NHL Board of Governors.
Another disability that is hard for the owners to justify is the high incidence of tie games. These are an end product of the heavily padded schedule. Three games a week, which each club averages, tax the endurance of even the most durable players. The curtailment of railroad travel during the war gave the National League a valid excuse for doing away with tie-breaking overtime periods, but with the excuse gone there has been no move to restore them. As long as teams can pick up a point in the standing for every deadlock, with nobody getting hurt except the fans, there'll be more and more of them.
Oldtime hockey fans charge that the NHL has damaged the sport most by constant meddling with the rules to step up scoring as box-office bait. Originally, in hockey, the player had to be onside to receive a pass. The man with the puck could pass it in a forward direction, but unless the receiver was behind the rubber before it was advanced, the pass wasn't allowed. The next phase in the game's evolution or degeneration (according to one's viewpoint) came when the rink was divided into three zones with forward passing permitted in the center or neutral zone. That wasn't enough, however. A season later the forward pass within each zone was legalized. Just in case that wouldn't boost the goal output to specifications, the owners also adopted a rule requiring goalies to reduce the width of their shin pads to 10 inches. In 1934 the penalty shot was introduced and, under an amendment four years later, it was made more spectacular for the fans by permitting the shotmaker to carry the puck right up to the mouth of the goal if he so desired.
Under a rule adopted in 1943, the playing surface was bisected by a red line drawn across the middle, with forward passing permitted for each team in its own half of the rink. This was the move that took all the remaining skill out of the game, in the opinion of such former stars as the late Lionel Conacher and Aurel Joliat, one of the old Montreal Canadiens' famed Flying Frenchmen. The season this rule went into effect the Detroit Red Wings, while blanking the New York Rangers, set two scoring records that are likely to last as long as hockey itself: 15 consecutive goals by one club and eight in one period.
The effect of three decades of rule changing plus ever-heavier schedules has been to produce players who often catapult the puck aimlessly instead of advancing it by clever stick-handling—and who "bum out" almost before they get started.
Some 50,000 players are registered with the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. Out of this number there should be a steady supply of new material for the NHL. But playing 50 games or more per season, many of them on the road, is such a strain that by the time they should be ready for big league hockey, many of the youngsters are all through.
As a matter of fact, nowadays the professionals are too often amateurish and the amateurs are almost always pros. The Canadian Amateur Hockey Association defines an amateur as "anyone who is not a professional." Actually, the line of demarcation between amateurs and professionals in hockey disappeared into Canada's thin air so long ago nobody can remember when. National League teams for many years sponsored farm clubs in the Eastern Amateur Hockey League in which every player drew a salary paid by the sponsors. Under hockey's version of amateurism, an amateur can play three games per season with a professional club without prejudice to his simon-pure status, which means that he can draw a pro's pay three days per season but must be content with an amateur's salary for the rest of the year. Often it turns out that he is more pleased with it.
The classic example is Jean Beliveau, who was such a gate attraction with the Quebec Aces in the Quebec Senior Hockey League that he was able to make more money as an amateur than most of the big league pros were drawing. Beliveau's is the exceptional case, however. The average amateur is a pawn in the hands of the puissant NHL, thanks to a device known as the negotiation list. This is an arrangement by which the big league owners voted themselves the power to stake claims to any promising amateurs who caught their fancy. Under this cozy little scheme any male over 18 who shows talent at pursuing the puck with a forked elm stick becomes the exclusive property, for contractual negotiation purposes, of the first club that files notice of its intentions with the league headquarters. Thereafter, he is unable to talk terms with any club but the one that confiscated his inherent right to dicker in the open market. True, he won't have to accept the club's propositions, but if he doesn't he won't play professional hockey—or much amateur hockey, either—for the self-appointed masters of all North American hockey players' destinies respect each other's "rights."
Up to now nothing much ever has come of moves directed against the NHL. Occasionally, however, the fans will rebel against inferior teams. In New York, early in the 1952-53 season, they booed Captain Allan Stanley off the Garden ice and stayed away from hockey games in such numbers that the top gallery was closed off briefly for hockey or the poor imitation thereof on display by the Rangers. After being frozen out of the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, the New York club finally got back in the swing in the 1955-56 campaign when fiery Phil Watson took over as coach and whipped the lackadaisical Blue Shirts into a third-place finish that had the top-gallery back in business again. Last season Watson's club, a bit mulish at times under his hard driving, dropped a peg. But each season his Rangers have made the playoffs.
The weak sister of the NHL is James D. Norris' Black Hawks club. Having wound up in last place for seven out of the last eight seasons, the Hawks last season hit an understandable low of 140,000 paid admissions for home games. The year before, Norris had warned Chicago that the 1955-56 season would be his last as sponsor of the club if the fans didn't give it more support. But last fall, Owner Norris changed his line. Instead of tossing hockey to the wolves, he announced that it was his first love and said if the Supreme Court ruled that his International Boxing Club was a monopoly, he would concentrate on building the Black Hawks into a team worthy of the Norris escutcheon.
In any case, it isn't likely that Norris would surrender his Black Hawks franchise, and with it control of the balance of power in the NHL, even if he and his partner Arthur Wirtz have (as they claim) dropped a half million into their B.H. of C—which could mean either Black Hawks of Chicago or Black Hole of Calcutta. Anyway, the Detroit Red Wings, the blue ribbon club of the Norris family, makes up the Hawks' deficit both in money and prestige. The Wings have won the NHL championship in eight of the last nine seasons and the Stanley Cup in four of these.
There are no financial problems in Canada, where hockey comes close to being a religion. If the Montreal Forum's seating capacity of 13,531 were increased by 10,000, every game would still be a sellout. It has been impossible to buy a reserved seat at the Forum box office for a decade. All of them are subscribed and paid for months in advance of the opening of each season. Premiums of from $100 to $500 are offered for occasional pairs of season tickets which fall into the hands of brokers. The humbler French-Canadian fans who can't afford season tickets gobble up the rush seats like pea soup, habitant style, but thousands of them are shut out.
Attendance figures are given out by the NHL office in Montreal. For some unexplained reason, those supplied by Madison Square Garden in New York for its own arena don't tally with the official figures. For instance, the Garden's version of 1956-57 attendance was 439,719. For the 1954-55 season, the Garden claimed 313,026, whereas NHL headquarters said it was 235,000. Despite these discrepancies, the NHL table does show the trend around the league:
Because of the NHL's peculiar setup, it is sometimes called the Norris House League, and there's more truth than impudence in this piece of flippancy. As we have noted, the Norris interests own two of the six NHL franchises outright and have heavy holdings in a third, a situation which virtually gives them control of the league. Jim Norris is chairman of the board of the Chicago Black Hawks. His brother, Bruce, is listed as president of the Detroit Red Wings. His sisters, Eleanor and Marguerite, are co-owners with Bruce. The family owns a controlling interest in the Madison Square Garden Corporation, which operates the New York Rangers, so that this club also is a Norris enterprise. When the Norris interests took over control of Madison Square Garden in 1955, with Jim as president, he appointed General John Reed Kilpatrick president of the Rangers as a concession to public opinion (something which rarely bothers Jim much). The three Norris clubs swap players as needed, in odd or ton lots, without giving the matter a second thought (see box).
With three of the six votes on the NHL Board of Governors, the Norris family runs things in the league, a custom established by the ruggedly individualistic founder of the dynasty, James Norris the Elder. The white-haired multimillionaire, who made a good portion of his fortune in the Chicago wheat market, was a hockey player in his youth at McGill University and remained an ardent fan up to the time of his death. Sometimes he forgot that he was also an owner, as was the case one night in 1939 at the Chicago Stadium when he rode Referee Bill Stewart unmercifully from rinkside until Stewart in exasperation skated up alongside his box and said: "You ought to be ashamed of yourself for such conduct."
"I'm going to turn you in for this and have you fired," roared Norris.
"Do as you please," retorted Stewart quietly, "but you can't referee from the box while I'm working."
The NHL took Stewart off the ice shortly after this but never would admit that it was because of Norris' complaint. The Board of Governors knew who was boss if Stewart didn't. The elder Norris demonstrated his power in another way in 1952, when Cleveland attempted to enter a team in the league. Norris was against it—and demanded that the sponsors prove their solvency by getting up $425,652.12. They got it up, but were still rejected when Norris persuaded the Board of Governors that part of the sum was "gambling money."
National Hockey League chief executives are chosen for their meekness in the face of authority. Clarence S. Campbell, president of the league since 1946, is a former referee who learned early in his career that if he wanted to get ahead in hockey he should never sass a magnate back. The Board of Governors, made up of a representative of each club, runs the league, usually according to plans and specifications of the Norris interests; and Mr. Campbell, who besides being league president is also the secretary-treasurer, has to do little except look respectful and nod his head in the right direction at the proper time.
Where is the NHL going from here? Perhaps to court, to answer the charges of the Players Association. However, even if their action is successful, there is little likelihood of federal antitrust prosecution. U.S. officials would hesitate to interfere with a sport that is international in character and so popular north of the border that U.S. prosecution might damage U.S.-Canadian amity.
Whatever the result of the Players Association suit, the good old status quo which has stood the NHL Board of Governors in such good stead for the past 15 years isn't likely to be much disturbed. Talk of an eight-club league is dismissed as poppycock.
"Where would we get the players?" ask the Solid Six, as if unaware of the negotiation list, the reserve clause contract, the $15,000 draft provision and all the other gimmicks they have devised to perpetuate control of their labor market. If the NHL owners got together and spread the wealth of talent evenly among eight clubs, by sale or trade, a flexible league could be organized and a new start made from scratch. The three Norris clubs certainly follow this practice among themselves and the Board of Governors doesn't seem shocked by it.
A shorter season might allow more good players to accumulate instead of being burned out prematurely by too much hockey. The NHL has a minimum salary limit of $7,000, which means $100 per game. It's easy for most of the club owners to pay this, and with the prospects of big television royalties in the offing, it should be still easier.
In any case, one-family control of half the clubs in the league is a relic of sports feudalism that should be dispensed with—and the sooner the better. The professional phase of Canada's finest contribution to sport has gone a long way since it first crossed the border but, alas, mostly in the wrong direction. It's high time for it to straighten out, skate right and grow up.
SOME DEALS IN THE NORRIS HOUSE LEAGUE
The teams owned or controlled by the Norris interests have a cozy system of interchanging players. Herewith a few examples: Rangers traded Forward Ron Murphy to Black Hawks for Forward Hank Ciesla in 1957; Red Wings traded Goalie Glen Hall and Forward Ted Lindsay to Black Hawks last summer for Forwards John Wilson and Forbes Kennedy, plus some amateurs and cash; Rangers traded Defenseman Wally Hergesheimer to Black Hawks for George Sullivan in 1956; Black Hawks traded Tony Les-wick to Red Wings in 1955; Red Wings traded Forwards Glen Skov and John Wilson to the Black Hawks for Metro Prystai in 1955; Rangers traded Rookies Billy Dea and Adolph Kukulowicz to Red Wings for Bronco Horvath and Dave Creighton in 1955; Rangers traded Defenseman Allan Stanley and Forward Nick Mickowski to Black Hawks for Defensemen Bill Gadsby and Forward Pete Conacher in 1954; Rangers sold Forward Ike Hildebrand to Chicago in 1953; Rangers traded Wing Reggie Sinclair to Red Wings for Defenseman Leo Reise Jr. in 1952; Defenseman Rags Raglan played with the Red Wings in 1950-51 and with the Black Hawks in 1951-52; Rangers traded Tony Leswick to Detroit for Gaye Steward in 1951; Black Hawks traded Forwards Vic Stasiuk and Bert Olmstead to Red Wings for Defenseman Lee Fogolin and Forward Steve Black in 1950; and last season, the Red Wings drafted Ranger farmhand Tom McCarthy from Vancouver.
Chicago Black Hawks
Detroit Red Wings
New York Rangers
Toronto Maple Leafs