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Peter Gammons
November 29, 1976
The NHL owners went to Florida to party and sunbathe, but wound up trying to deal with the vexing problems that plague hockey: rising salaries, boring games, sagging attendance and the likely loss of several franchises
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November 29, 1976

A Matter Of Dollars And Sense

The NHL owners went to Florida to party and sunbathe, but wound up trying to deal with the vexing problems that plague hockey: rising salaries, boring games, sagging attendance and the likely loss of several franchises

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Campbell maintains that survival is impossible as long as NHL clubs must commit almost half of their gross income to players' contracts and benefits. "Salaries must get back to 30-32% of the gross pie," he says. "Affluence has taken over, and now many players don't have that spark to do their best. The best incentive for a hockey player is hunger, and we've removed that. We've created a fat cat syndrome, and now we've got to end it—or else."

One obvious way for the NHL to cut back the percentage of income allotted to the players is by eliminating competition through a merger with the rival WHA. "We'll never do that, never," Campbell says. "The WHA clubs we'd want—and there are only two at the most—don't have the resources to indemnify their dropouts or to pay an NHL expansion fee. And a merger would produce too much litigation."

For its part, the WHA understandably would like to merge with the NHL. "The way we're going now, the WHA won't survive two more years," says Dr. Gerry Wilson, a vice-president of the Winnipeg Jets. Bobby Hull, Winnipeg's best player, agrees. "Without a merger this league can't survive, not with 6,000 fans at every game. Almost every team in the WHA is getting worse. We're not getting the top kids, either, because they don't want to play in a second-rate league." Indeed, the jumping trend has reversed: some of the better WHA players, e.g., Rejean Houle, Jim Harrison and Gerry Cheevers, have redefected to the NHL.

Alan Eagleson, the executive director of the NHL's players' association, expects that in the near future hockey's present 30-team establishment will consolidate into one league with a maximum of 20 teams. "The NHL owners think they'll be able to have their tight, neat, little monopoly again," Eagleson says, "but some other types of competition will pop right up. I even see international tournaments along the line of World Championship Tennis as being a very profitable alternative for the players."

For now, the NHL is not thinking about that. "We've got to get people back into our rinks," says Torrey. "Ticket prices may be a problem, but they wouldn't be a problem if we didn't have so many boring games." Boston General Manager Harry Sinden agrees with Torrey. "We're putting people to sleep," he says. "One team came into our building a few weeks ago and spent the entire game icing the puck or freezing it against the boards. We must have had 50 face-offs in their end of the ice. I don't blame the players; they thought they could win the game that way. I'll tell you this, though. Anyone who was at that game looked at the schedule, found out when that club was in town next and made other plans." Sinden has suggested to the NHL governors that visiting teams be given three points—not the present two—for a victory on the road. "It would help stimulate competition," he says. No one has laughed at the idea.

Torrey, Sinden and the other general managers—Campbell, too—also would like the referees to stop blowing their whistles so quickly. To a man, they feel the anti-violence rules installed this season were overreactions that have eliminated much of the hitting from the game.

What the NHL needs most, though, is rivalries. "We've got to build up games between the Islanders and Philadelphia, Boston and Buffalo, Chicago and St. Louis," Torrey says. "We need conference identities based on geographic lines, and plenty of games between conference rivals. Familiarity helps breed rivalries, and rivalries attract fans." Divisional rivals meet six times now, but next season this may be increased to 10 or 12. The old "I won't give up one home date with Montreal" argument no longer makes much sense, not when the Canadiens draw only 8,104 in Minnesota, as they did earlier this month.

"But first of all," Campbell says, "we've got to ride out the storm."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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