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."