One could see that President Clarence Campbell of the National Hockey League had been giving the subject considerable thought. "Hockey," he announced recently, "has become progressively less vicious over the years." Campbell's mouth was hardly shut before his two best teams, to the delight of 14,325 fans in Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, piled into each other in the most violent fight the NHL has enjoyed in 10 years. The date, fittingly enough, was December 7. By the time an armistice was declared—neither the Leafs nor the Chicago Black Hawks ever considered surrender—125 minutes in penalties and $875 in fines had been assessed. Except for a recent rule that says players can no longer be assessed penalty minutes for leaving the bench to get into a fight (instead they must pay $25 fines), the league record of 184 minutes for one period (Leafs vs. Canadiens, 1953) would have been not only eradicated but humiliated. The more recent bit of roughhousing, someone figured out, would have equaled 345 penalty minutes in 1953.
Such is progress, and if anybody really thinks that violence is going out of fashion in the NHL he has been missing a large number of games. Rough play has, in fact, begun to emerge as a formula for hockey victory.
This year the roughest, toughest team in hockey, the Black Hawks, is also the best team in hockey, a runaway cinch for the championship before the season is half over. Intimidation is not the entire story. The Hawks skate as well as anyone else, shoot and defend better, but their roughness is a valuable adjunct. Although he used to be an enemy, the former president of the Maple Leafs, Conn Smythe, gave the Hawks some words to live by. "You can't lick 'em on the ice," said Smythe, "if you can't lick 'em in the alley."
For several years the NHL has been behaving as if the entire schedule was being played in an alley with only the survivor eligible for a prize. In the last four seasons there has been a direct correlation between the number of penalty minutes amassed by a team and its final position in the standings. Over that period all but two of the 12 teams to finish 1-2-3 in the league also ranked 1-2-3 in penalties.
December 23, 1963
The two exceptions were the Canadiens of 1959-60, who skated so fast and shot so well that they managed to finish first although they were only fifth in penalty minutes, and last year's Detroit Red Wings, who were able to present a unique excuse for their fourth-place finish despite an impressive penalty total of 964 minutes. The Red Wings cheated. One man, Howie Young, accounted for 273 of the penalty minutes. As everyone knows, winning hockey is a team effort.
"If a scientist were handling this research," said one official, "he would discard Young's total as an abnormality." By deducting Young's penalties from the team total, it was discovered that Detroit finished fourth, exactly matching its position in the standings.
The National Hockey League is not particularly proud of statistics such as these and, as a result, the Maple Leafs had some even more recent words of Clarence Campbell in mind when they skated onto their home ice last week, four days after the big fight, as chastened and meek as teddy bears. Their opponents were the Red Wings, who had not won a single road game all year. Result: Red Wings 3, Teddy Bears 1. Virtue is its own reward.
It is unlikely that the chastened mood will long infect the Maple Leafs or any other team in the NHL, however. Despite their burly appearance, most hockey players are inward-looking men whose vision seldom extends beyond the ice they play on. There, despite the admonishments of the reformers, they see the success of the Black Hawks with their bone-jarring play. They see opponents, who should be watching out for passes, watching out for flying elbows and stick handles instead. They see the rough clubs coming on strong in the third period while opponents lick their wounds. They see hockey as a jarring contact game, and what they see is what they play. If a seat in the penalty box is the price of transgression, they know that they will not sit alone.
Certainly hockey can never cleanse itself simply by announcing that it is cleaner. Two years ago Canada's Senator Hartland de M. Molson, president of the Canadiens, added his voice to those calling for stricter enforcement of the rules against roughness. "I have some feelings of genuine concern about the future of hockey," he wrote in a letter to Campbell. "I believe that every club can cite instances where a player has been deliberately injured." Andy Bathgate of the Rangers said it even better: "If this keeps on, one of these days someone's going to lose his eye or get killed." His words were prompted by a gash over his eye and by the memory of 1956 when teammate Red Sullivan was speared so severely that he was given the last rites.
The referees blow more whistles today than ever before—with an average of 29 penalty minutes per team per game, the 1963-64 season is well ahead of the 1955-56 modern record of 26.1—yet still the roughness persists. On November 7 two Canadiens—Gilles Tremblay and Billy Hicke—were hospitalized as the result of rough play by the Black Hawks. Tremblay, hit by an elbow, was operated on for a broken cheekbone. Hicke was laid up with a concussion and a dozen stitches in his forehead after Bobby Hull, the league's leading scorer, got through with him.
Three weeks later two Leafs plowed into John McKenzie of the Hawks, who subsequently had to be operated on for removal of a ruptured spleen. And nine days later Rangers Rod Gilbert and Earl Ingarfield went to a hospital during a game with the Bruins.
It is not always safe even in the stands. When the Hawks and Leafs played in Chicago on November 17 a fight spread from the ice to the crowd and a woman spectator found herself in the neighborhood of two male spectators with a difference of opinion. One swung, one ducked—and the lady got clipped in the jaw.
Other countries, exposed to the Canadian-American style of hockey during the Olympic Games, have long insisted that brutality is not necessarily an integral part of the sport, and no better example exists than Ulf Sterner. Sterner is the young Swede who, as an apprentice with the Rangers last fall, was one of the first Europeans ever to play with the NHL. Later Sterner returned to Sweden to resume his amateur status as an Olympic hopeful. "I'm going to play rougher from now on," he announced, and from then on spent most of his time in the penalty box, eventually emerging to clobber a fan with his stick. Now he may spend a year in a Swedish jail. Who knows, a few court cases could yet save the NHL.