Losing Lysiak to the WHA would be another in a continuing series of damaging blows to the NHL's prestige and image. At present one NHL owner, Harold Ballard of the Maple Leafs, is in prison for theft of funds, while another owner, Tom Scallen of the Canucks, is free on $25,000 bail after being convicted of the theft of $3 million in club funds and of issuing a false stock prospectus. Also, Scallen reportedly borrrowed $1 million from Arthur M. Wirtz, the owner of the Black Hawks, to satisfy creditors, and now the NHL is confronted with the kind of conflict-of-interest question that used to arise when the Norris and Wirtz families controlled three of the six teams in the old NHL.
On top of that, some other NHL owners recently embarrassed President Clarence Campbell by scheduling secret merger talks with some WHA owners. "I don't like to use scurrilous terms," Campbell says bitterly, "but what they did was a form of internal...well, you could almost say conspiracy. Fortunately for the NHL, though, some owners sat those talks out and acted rationally." Once word of the discussions leaked, the word merger was dropped from the NHL's vocabulary, mostly because the league's players' association threatened strong legal action.
Finally, the NHL faces a serious television problem. Indeed, NBC officials say that for all the grief the NHL gives them they would rather run a soap opera than a hockey schedule. "They demand blackouts in Chicago, rigid scheduling made up 10 months in advance and, believe it or not, a free feed to the theaters owned by the Black Hawks when their games are blacked out," says Chet Simmons, general manager of NBC Sports. Several weeks ago NBC officials and an NHL publicist argued bitterly in a control truck when the NHL man objected too loudly to NBC's mention on the air of the fact that Chicago Coach Billy Reay had invented a designated-speaker rule to keep the media away from his star players.
"All these are interim difficulties that will pass," Campbell says hopefully. "Unless the game is completely loused up by misdirection, it always will be a major sport because of its intrinsic nature." Maybe so, but as Simmons says and as Campbell admits, the NHL at present suffers from the lack of a centralized authority. "Who runs it, anyway?" Simmons asks. "We never know whether the NHL official we are talking with has any power." Campbell blames this on the fact that too many corporations that do not know much about hockey have become actively involved in franchise ownership. "If we could," he says, "we would go back to individual ownership, believe me. To get the type of control that Pete Rozelle has, you must have a final and definite source of authority in each club. Right now, I'm sorry to say, we don't have that."
Over in the WHA, meanwhile, Davidson is presiding over a number of franchise shifts and grants that will provide the league with greater financial stability. Last week the Philadelphia Blazers were sold to a Vancouver millionaire named Jim Pattison and he will move the team to his hometown. The WHA's most troubled franchise, the Ottawa Nationals, has gone to Toronto. The New York Raiders will become the New York Golden Blades, with new management and money. "There also is a chance that Denver and Phoenix will be leaving the Western Hockey League and joining us this summer, and Cincinnati is set for 1974," Davidson says. "Believe me, right now the WHA is in 100% better shape than the American Basketball Association was after one season."