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.
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."