Anyone who has attended a National Hockey League game in the last 10 years has experienced the same creepy feeling that must come to travelers in places like India and Pakistan. Pitiful mendicants loiter under the marquees of Montreal's Forum, Detroit's Olympia Stadium and the other arenas, palms outstretched, faces wreathed in mingled hope and misery, voices supplicating, imploring. "Please mister," they say, and their shamed whispers chill the soul, "do you have a ticket to sell?" On that rare occasion when one does have an extra ticket, violent handshakes are exchanged, backs are slapped, grandiose promises are made and, at least in Montreal, cheeks are kissed resoundingly.
Major league hockey sold out 94.5% of its rated seating capacity during the season that just ended, 91.6% the season before and 86.1% the season before that. No other sport, including pro football, can match it for filling up the empties. In cities like Montreal and Toronto season tickets are grabbed up 10 years in advance, and thousands wait patiently for the list to dwindle, or for Uncle Alf to pass on and divide his box seats among the worthy heirs. Chicago's fierce Black Hawks and Detroit's hustling Red Wings, the league champions this year, sell out as a matter of routine. Even in Boston and New York, the poverty pockets of major league hockey, the acquisition of any kind of decent seat is regarded as a minor miracle. This year the New York Rangers, next to the bottom in the standings, filled 90% of their rated capacity; the Boston Bruins, in the cellar for the fifth consecutive year, sold 84%. Nothing succeeds like failure, and major league hockey has become the toughest ticket in town.
One would suppose, then, that the logical step now would be to expand the NHL from the present six to perhaps eight or 10 teams, or to start a whole new division of six teams, or something.
One would be wrong.
April 12, 1965
Major league hockey flourishes in the narrow confines of six cities—two in Canada, four in the U.S.—all within overnight train rides of one another. As far as hockey cares, everything else is Peoria. No other popular sport retains such a cottage-industry flavor or is so likely to retain its insularity. "Why should they let anybody else in on their act?" says a frustrated student of the game from California. "They're selling out now." NHL President Clarence Campbell puts it in his usual dollars-and-cents way: "Increasing the league doesn't increase your revenue 5¢ per club."
With Campbell applying his intelligence and conservatism to the task, expansion is beaten back year after year. From time to time some kind of sop is thrown to the panting public, and the fans in Los Angeles and San Francisco and Portland and Baltimore and St. Louis begin to salivate. But nothing happens. A few weeks ago the NHL went so far as to hold a trumpeted "expansion" meeting in New York. It issued a dazzling announcement that expansion was coming. It even offered a blueprint of the course it might take, i.e., a second NHL division of six more teams to face off against the present six. But when the meeting was over, the old stalwarts of the original six returned to their command posts and resumed their original position. They want expansion, but only with a 102% guarantee that it will not jeopardize their present affluence.
"Look at it this way," said Conn Smythe, president emeritus of the Toronto Maple Leafs and classical spokesman for the standpat position. "You still got Jimmy Durante and Benny and Hope and Kaye and there's two million every year trying to be comedians, and there isn't anybody coming along. Aren't there 10 million politicians in the States, and how many Presidents are there amongst 'em? There's only room at the top for a few, isn't there? That is the biggest argument of all against expansion. You've got the best players in there now, and you've got a couple of weak teams as it is. What strength do you add by expanding to a league that's already pretty proud of itself?"
The elderly Smythe flicked at his military-type mustache, adjusted his spats and quoted from the gospel according to James D. Norris, co-owner of the Chicago Black Hawks, who doesn't even want two—much less six—new teams in the NHL. Norris told Smythe, "I find it very difficult to sell myself the idea to get two new teams in the NHL. That means we're gonna lose four games with the Montreal Canadiens and four with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and I find it difficult to believe that I'm gonna substitute eight games with Los Angeles or San Francisco for eight games with the Canadiens or the Maple Leafs."
Smythe's own theory seems to be that the NHL is successful mainly because it is small. "New York and Boston keep drawing because there are only six teams in the league," he explained. "So you've always got an attraction coming in. But if you had two more teams that couldn't win games it would be different. If you had four rotten teams in the league you'd have a hell of a time getting people in the rink. They wouldn't buy season tickets for 35 games a year knowing that they had to take 15 or 20 lousy games. Nowadays you know you're always gonna have a Hull or a Howe or a Beliveau or a Richard coming in. Even Boston has Bucyk and Green and three or four others that you can stand for seven appearances. But two more bad teams would make 10 more bad games."
Smythe sounds the dominant chord in the minds of most NHL owners: attendance, that is, money. And Clarence Campbell, who has held his job for 20 years by reflecting accurately the sentiments of the NHL owners, talks in the same terms. "I'm not antiexpansion, but I'm solid for the economics, and I think that's my primary responsibility," says Campbell. "Maybe if you started two weak teams in Los Angeles and San Francisco they would be successful, but you would jeopardize the entire enterprise. And who has come forward with the necessary resources to do it? No one at all. Expansion talk is newspaper talk. There's nobody who can create a new league faster than a columnist."
Clarence Sutherland Campbell is a Rhodes scholar, a lawyer and a thoroughgoing conservative, who answers the telephone with a clipped "Campbell here" and sometimes wears his handkerchief stuffed up his sleeve. His thin, white hair is combed straight back; his steel-gray eyes slope downward. He gives the impression of having just stepped out of the shower. He does not seek the flowery phrase but the correct one. "I am glad," he told his audience at a recent banquet, "to be at this dinner held under the aegis of the Chicago Men's Press Club for the Toronto writers and their ancillary satellites." This bon mot is not likely to be anthologized at a later date, but it was indubitably accurate, and indubitably Campbellesque. At a testimonial dinner for Foster Hewitt, who has been announcing hockey games in Toronto since shortly after the Battle of Hastings, Campbell started to slide into the spirit of postprandial ebullience by observing that Hewitt had had more effect on hockey than anyone else in this generation. The words apparently did not feel too comfortable in his mouth, so Campbell quickly interpolated that he was only speaking "numerically." None of your wild hyperbole for Clarence Campbell.
In his tenure as NHL president, Campbell has sat like the man who is dunked by baseballs at the carnival, absorbing shot after shot by critics who mistakenly assume that he is setting policy. "This is a problem in journalism today," he said. "If they all wrote the same thing it wouldn't be any good, would it? So they are all looking for a new angle, particularly if it can be one which is challenging. The little man enjoys seeing the big guy get the hell kicked out of him. The reader just isn't interested if you say Campbell's a nice guy. They don't give a goddam." Neither, to judge by his cold analysis, does Clarence Campbell. He has developed a thick skin, perhaps because he realizes better than his critics that he is not the grand emperor of pro hockey but simply the agent for the owners of six commercial enterprises known as hockey teams. He reminds one of John L. Lewis' description of Cyrus Ching as "a truly remarkable man, who sees through the eyes of United States Rubber." Lewis was not challenging Ching's honesty or skill, nor does anyone who knows Campbell challenge his. They merely challenge a perspective that may be so limited as to distort.
And yet it is possible to sit in Campbell's neat office in Montreal and to become mesmerized by the army of arguments he has marshaled against expansion. To hear him tell it, hockey would be destroyed and the whole impregnable fortress of the NHL might come tumbling down if it tried to grow bigger. "You'd simply have more hockey, and all diluted." he says. "If you expanded by only two clubs, each NHL team would have to provide six players. You just tell me," he said recently, "what the result would be if you took six players off any team in the NHL. Any team! And what the hell do you think it's gonna do to the spectacle? It has to deteriorate it, it has to dilute it. These six players at the bottom echelon couldn't sell tickets, they couldn't sell a show, you couldn't put them on the ice by themselves. They are the fillers."
"The best 120 players in professional hockey are in the NHL today. The second best are in the other leagues. Expansion isn't gonna change the caliber in the slightest. It never has and never will. Baseball's expansion didn't increase the quality of one baseball player; it diluted the whole show. It didn't provide any opportunity for the improvement of baseball players. In fact, it reduced the competition to the place where some of them didn't play as well as they could, and that's what would happen to us, too.
"Even if you had a new team with stars like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, they wouldn't be Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita for long. This is a team game, and they couldn't do it on their own. They wouldn't get the support. They'd get all the defensive attention, all the checking, and you'd have a slower game all the way along."
In Campbell's view the addition of two teams to the NHL would create insurmountable problems of scheduling. "Our current arrangement permits a schedule that is absolutely perfect," he said. "Now let's introduce two teams on the West Coast. You can't schedule Montreal or Toronto at home on Saturday and then on the Coast on Sunday. Who the hell would run the risk? You could get snowed in. Nobody knows till 4 in the afternoon that they're gonna arrive. And, in order to go to the Coast, Toronto would have to give up three or four of its Canadian television dates, and that's revenue."
According to Campbell, professional hockey simply does not have the personnel, on or off the ice, to stock two new teams, let alone the six that are often suggested. "Where do you get the right kind of owners?" he asked. "You need a guy with a love for the game. There are no good owners that don't have one foot on the bench. We have nothing but bench operators in our league now. A new owner would have to be willing to put money into it, even when things were going poorly, and to do that he has to be an enthusiast. There's no room in hockey for promoters, no room at all. Jim Norris for several years put in at least a half million a year because all his life he was interested in the game; his father made him play it. Where are you gonna get people like that?"
Each NHL team owns its own arena and its own players, and some of the owners treat their teams the way many horsemen treat their stables: as personal extensions of their own personalities and egos, as hobbies that currently are bringing in some money. They are willing to let new owners in, but only if they, too, are hobbyists with solid-gold resources. In 1954 Cleveland almost got into the National Hockey League (Campbell already had drawn up a seven-team schedule), but at the last minute the league voted the team out because too much of its financial backing came from promises instead of cash on hand. As Campbell recalled, "They had control of their building, but they didn't have real equity money. With the advances and the loans they had, it would have been too shaky." One critic was moved to observe: "Screening applicants carefully is one thing. But it is absurd to set up stringent requirements that make entrance impossible for anyone but a millionaire with a platinum arena."
A few miles away from Campbell's stronghold, one well-heeled owner with a different perspective works patiently in opposition to the hoary attitudes of the NHL. He is J. David Molson, president of the Montreal Canadiens and member of the brewing family that has owned the team for decades. "The National Hockey League as it is constituted today is the most successful sports enterprise in existence," young Molson said a few weeks ago. "From that point of view, expansion would seem to be undesirable. The owners say, 'Here's a successful thing; don't tamper with it.' This seems to be a good business view, but personally I don't think it's a wise one from a broad outlook."
J. David Molson does not look like a visionary. He has no long beard, no arresting red-flecked eyes and hardly any voice at all. He sits behind a big desk at the Forum—a short, impeccably dressed man with blond hair combed conservatively to the side—and mumbles predictions that must give Clarence Campbell sleepless nights and hockey fans visions of sugarplums: "Twenty or so years from now I can see two six-team leagues in the National Hockey League and an expanded American Hockey League with more than the nine teams it now has. I can see foreign leagues with Russian and Czech and Swedish teams. Some of these foreign teams are just as professional as any team in the NHL right now; they play 11 months of the year. I can see eventually a world playoff for the Stanley Cup, with worldwide television."
They talk about diluting the game by expanding," says Molson. "But you'd only dilute it for a short time. And then the incentive would be there for young hockey players. The odds on playing in a major league would be doubled, and the young players would have a renewed interest. There's no telling how many potential NHL players there are in the minors right now, but they're just not getting a chance to come up. Take Roger Crozier (star goaltender for the Red Wings). He came into the league almost by accident. He came up here and played against us once and we beat him 9-0, and I said, 'If that guy Crozier ever plays in the National Hockey League I'll eat my hat.' So you just can't tell. Players get lost in the minors. You take the American League, a minor league with players 26, 28, 30 years old. They've been in the league four, five years, and they figure there's no chance to go up; there are only 120 places open in the NHL, and so they go about playing their game the way they want to play it. But if the chance ever came, their attitude would change, their ability would increase. Dilution doesn't worry me. As far as hockey is concerned, expansion wouldn't dilute interest, it would increase it.
"The NHL has to look at its six teams and say, 'Well, we're successful today, but where are we going tomorrow?' You can only charge so much for a ticket. And anything over 20,000 seats is bad, because you take the fan out of an involvement with the game. So we're static. And once you stop growing, you die."
Salty old Jack Adams, who transformed Detroit into a hockey town and saw his name engraved on nine Stanley Cups as player, coach and general manager, shares Molson's point of view and enlarges on it in the blunt language of the dressing room. "All that stuff about traveling and not being able to get to the West Coast," roars Adams in the voice that used to shrink referees to an inch and a half in height, "that's bunk. How many games have been postponed in the baseball leagues? Why, with these new jets you can get anyplace. And Campbell argues that you can't expand in the United States, because Americans don't understand the game well enough. That's [unprintable]! Why, the game is right there. You get the puck in the nets and you get a goal. You don't have to understand about the timing of a halfback running through a hole or a guard having to do something in a split second."
Adams lost his job in Detroit after 35 years of loud independence and baiting referees to the quitting point. Now he is head of the Central Professional Hockey League, a training ground for NHL players, and from this shaky platform the ruddy, roly-poly 69-year-old lobs grenades at Campbell and the NHL owners. "They got a good thing going for them now," he observed. "But if they had good judgment they'd form another major league on the West Coast and play some interlocking games till they built it up. Would they have any problem finding players? No! With the interest there is in hockey, there'll even be American players in a few years. There's 3,800 kids playing in leagues in Detroit right now. An American kid can do anything in the world that any other kid can do.
"Why, we've got the greatest spectacle in the world in hockey. It's got to expand. Once a fellow takes his wife or sweetheart to a hockey game he's sunk. He might just as well go out and buy season tickets then and there. They're all like an Englishman I heard of, who lived only for soccer. They took him to a hockey game, and in the first period he's sitting back watching. In the next period he's on the edge of his seat, and in the third period he's telling the coach how to run the club.
"They used to say hockey was limited because there was no market in the South and West. Well, that's all changed now. I was in Jackson, Miss. when our league played two games before 6,000 people. In Jackson, Miss.! We're going into Oklahoma City and all over the place. I know the game's got it made in Memphis, because I'm getting letters from women there giving me hell about the referees. At our opening this year in Memphis we sold about 5,000 seats, which is pretty good, and the way the fans acted you'd think they were playing for the Stanley Cup. And you're gonna tell me Americans don't understand hockey? Why, that's [unprintable]!"
On the West Coast, where hockey teams in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and San Francisco draw hysterical crowds and set new attendance records almost annually, patience with the entrenched authorities is growing short. A loud spokesman is Harry Glickman, managing director of the Portland Buckaroos and a man who does not think that promoter is a dirty word. Glickman was looking for a sport to promote when he noted that hockey's last-place Boston Bruins were outdrawing basketball's champion Boston Celtics by nearly two to one. Promptly he founded the Portland Buckaroos, and the team broke the Western Hockey League's attendance record by 100,000 in its first year. With an average attendance around 8,000, Portland continues to outdraw seven of the nine cities in the NBA, thus validating Glickman's original premise. In his wildest dreams he wonders what major league hockey would draw in Portland. And, commercial considerations aside, he thinks there are other reasons to upgrade the Coast league to the majors. "That would make hockey a truly representative sport on the North American continent," he explained. "It's not now. It can't be, with only six cities in one so-called major league. With expansion you would improve the image of hockey. Does that sound like a glittering generality from a schoolboy idealist? Let me tell you something. Hockey doesn't have a very good image in the United States. That's why the NHL hired a guy named Fred Corcoran to do public relations for the league for 50 grand.
"How many stories do you ever see on hockey in the large-circulation magazines? How much time do you ever get on TV? How many kids can rattle off the names of hockey stars? Hockey needs an image that only expansion can bring about. This is the greatest game played with players. But not enough people know about it."
Western operators like Glickman are biding their time, trying not to alienate the NHL and soft-pedaling their demands that major league hockey accept them and assist them. But underneath their policy of nonviolence an unmistakable note of threat is creeping in. As Glickman said recently, "There are owners in this league who are getting restless. They want some action, and they're even impatient to the point that some of them are willing to go it alone by going independent. That's the last thing I want to see happen, but I don't exclude it from the realm of possibility."
The specter of a hockey war like the NFL-AFL fight looms larger each year. As Molson of the Canadiens has said, "If we keep matters as they are, a new league could start on its own, and we'd have a lot of headaches. You just can't tell people forever and ever that they're gonna be minor league and there's nothing they can do about it, because there is something they can do about it. They can say, 'Well, why shouldn't we class ourselves as major league hockey? We'll just start our own league. We'll raid the NHL, we'll sign their players, we'll offer these guys x hundred thousand.' There's nothing to stop them. Then you get into lawsuits, antitrust actions and everything else. This is all a definite possibility."
Clarence Campbell and oldtimers like Conn Smythe profess to be unconcerned. "A wildcat league?" said Smythe, grinning. "Not unless they're crazy. I don't know how many crazy guys there are out there on the West Coast."
Campbell discussed the threat in his usual analytical manner. "Take the teams that are operating out there now. The Victoria Hockey Club is 100% owned by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Vancouver is owned by a man who is approaching 75 years of age, a man so crippled he can't sit in the meetings and doesn't own more than two or three hockey players altogether. So let's see how far he's gonna go to war. The Seattle club is a collection of local civic leaders, and their team plays in a new building that belongs to the city. Portland and Seattle are having their most prosperous year in history. Portland is a private organization operating in a civic building. Last year they didn't draw half enough money to run a National Hockey League team and break even. It takes $1 million a year, and they drew less than half that. In San Francisco you have the same situation, a tenant club. In Los Angeles you have a combination of a western Canada construction engineer plus Dan Reeves, who is forbidden by football's rules to spend one dollar on hockey. In fact, he was told to get the hell out of it, but he hasn't.
"Do you think any of these people are going to war? This is silly!"
Perhaps so, but there is another war that could break out, according to some experts in and out of the league, and it is one in which the NHL would find itself in a more precarious position. Old Jack Adams might have been alluding to the possibility when he lowered his voice in a recent interview and said, "The NHL's very lucky that the politicians haven't got into this. Some day one of these politicians is gonna say, 'We've got big-league towns out here, you've got to let us in.' "
Adams refused to expand his remarks, but another insider put it bluntly: "A government investigation is pretty sure to happen if the NHL doesn't expand. Somebody's gonna go to the Democratic machine in California or Oregon or Washington state and say, 'We want to get into the major leagues of hockey, and they won't let us because they've got a monopoly.' Some Senator could get it started, and they've got some big Senators out there on the Coast. Morse from Oregon, or Jackson from Washington, they're pretty powerful guys. Why, those politicians could make it goddam tough on the NHL. And it will come to that if they don't expand. Baseball got off easy in its investigation, because baseball could do no wrong in your country. But hockey would be different."
One can only wonder what a headline-hunting congressional committee would make of the NHL's methods of corralling player talent. Boys as young as 9 and 10 play on NHL-sponsored teams, wear NHL-purchased equipment, attend NHL-financed banquets and award dinners. Later they collect spending money from the NHL—which is certainly no more reprehensible than college payoffs to American athletes, except that it starts at the postdiaper stage in Canada. One result of the NHL's hold on young players has been an apparent drying up of top amateur talent. Father David Bauer, who has been entrusted with the task of building up a Canadian national team for the world championships, calls the NHL "the agent of villainy," and Conn Smythe answers by calling Father Bauer a hypocrite for going to the championships with players who have collected money from the NHL. "Shamateurs!" says the acerbic Smythe, "and he knows it." Father Bauer charges that "the NHL dominates hockey from the cradle to the grave," and Clarence Campbell answers that amateur hockey in Canada was dying of high expenses when the NHL stepped in to sponsor children's teams.
One can imagine the purple testimony rattling about the walls of a congressional committee considering charges of monopoly, or an international committee considering charges of impropriety. Deserved or not, the National Hockey League has developed a reputation as a tight little island of closefisted, inbred standpatters, with a stranglehold on a grand professional game. "The only good thing that has ever come out of a stagnant pool is penicillin," a Canadian critic has observed. "Hockey needs expansion. Not meetings in New York, not press releases, not a lot of hokum about how the poor owners might lose a few bucks if the league expanded. If they don't expand, you'll see some interesting developments. If they do expand, you'll see something even more interesting: wide-open hockey, the most exciting game there is, in places where the people deserve more than words, more than promises. This is a fine game. It can't be held down forever."