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Jack Olsen
April 12, 1965
Hockey's lords of the major league manor are like poker players with an easy mark at the table. They are in no hurry to open the door to strangers who want to share the fun or the loot
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April 12, 1965

Private Game: No Admittance!

Hockey's lords of the major league manor are like poker players with an easy mark at the table. They are in no hurry to open the door to strangers who want to share the fun or the loot

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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."

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