"I've been a part of it," says Hull, who has spent 18 storied seasons in the NHL and the WHA. "But if there were the proper people in the front offices and in coaching, this wouldn't be going on. Don't tell me there aren't guys around who want to play hockey the way it should be played. Instead of making hockey a better game, we're tolerating people and things that are forcing a deterioration of the game."
That being the case, why shouldn't Ballard have mouthed off a little, especially if he could blame his team's poor performance on the naughty example set by those "goons" called the Philadelphia Flyers? The fact that the NHL's most penalized team for the past four seasons has also won two straight Stanley Cups and is the hottest draw on the ice is not lost on the money changers. The rationale seems to be something like this: if violence is what it takes to win these days, and winning violently is what makes the turnstiles sing, then bring on the raw meat.
Publicly, of course, depending on who hits who first in any given game, there will be the usual protestations about "back-alley tactics" on the one side and the championing of "aggressive skills" on the other. In fact, more than a mere division of opinion, these contradictory pronouncements by the NHL hierarchy serve only to point out a distressing lack of direction. Consider this sampling of statements from the current year:
January: "There are not more fights in hockey now. It just seems more intensified because of the exposure on TV."
February: Without "any doubt, this has been our worst year ever for sheer violence on the ice."
March: "Fighting is a well-established safety valve for players against other types of violence which would be more vicious and damaging. Insofar as it is part of the show, certainly we sell it."
May: "Fighting is a disadvantage to selling the game. It disrupts the flow of play and is no attraction for the fan who understands the game."
July: "The only thing that is violent about hockey is the language."
What is so extraordinary about these remarks is that they were all made by one man, the man, NHL President Clarence S. Campbell. Significantly, the first was made shortly after Forbes was indicted by a Hennepin County, Minn. grand jury, and the last was delivered a few days before the trial ended in a hung jury.
Like Forbes, the NHL could count the mistrial as a victory, especially after County Attorney Gary Flakne announced that the case would not be retried because a "deep split" in public opinion made a unanimous verdict unlikely. Faced with the most dire and tangible challenge yet to their control of the sport, Campbell & Co. may have thought they escaped with their authority not only intact but strengthened against outside intervention.