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."