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A Game In Search of Some Contests
Ken Dryden
October 08, 1979
Hockey hasn't boomed because it has spent too much time expanding and brawling—and not enough on improvement
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October 08, 1979

A Game In Search Of Some Contests

Hockey hasn't boomed because it has spent too much time expanding and brawling—and not enough on improvement

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Once upon a time there was a World Boxing League. It was a small league, but it was much loved in its 10 cities. To get a network TV contract, President Gary Donaldson decided that the league would expand into 10 new cities.

Donaldson, an enlightened sort, recalled the ill effect of expansion drafts in other sports and decreed that the new franchises would not be obliged to suffer the leftovers of the existing franchises. Instead, they could go out and sign their own fighters. There was one catch: to ensure the preeminent position of the existing franchises, fighters for the expansion teams had to box with one arm tied behind their backs for two years.

When the season opened, people in the expansion cities flocked to the arenas. Seeing two one-armed fighters was a rather curious spectacle, but anything was better than nothing. Not long after, teams of two-armed fighters came to town. This was cause for great joy; finally, a chance to see real boxing. Even greater numbers came to the arenas, but they went away disappointed. The two-armed fighters were too good. The one-armed fighters could only clinch and dance. And they could inflict damage only by butting and heeling.

The referees remained strangely aloof, rarely trying to stop these dangerous tactics. They knew that the fans came to see a contest, and if they stopped the clinching and butting and heeling, the one-armed fighters would be defenseless.

By midseason the novelty of having their own team began to fade for the hometown fans. And the expansion owners grew worried. Wasn't there some way to provide better fights and better entertainment? Well, there was one way. The owners knew draft picks represented their future and that they should do nothing to jeopardize that future. But the losses were mounting, and they figured they had to do something. By trading only a few of their draft picks, they could pick up some two-armed fighters from the railroad squads of the original teams. The temptation was too great to resist.

As owner Jerry Bust of the foundering Hollywood Seeing Stars exclaimed, "What else can you do with one arm tied behind your back?"

The decade that was to see hockey become the next great American sport has come and almost gone, and like the comet Kohoutek, we are still waiting for it to happen. To say that hockey has made some gains may win the argument but lose the point. Its meager accomplishments have been accompanied by a loss of something much more critical—its once spectacular promise. But promise does not stand still. It gives and goes and must be constantly re-earned, or else it will go—unfulfilled. Hockey had it. Now other sports do.

For hockey, promise in the '70s meant U.S. promise. All the definitions came in U.S. terms. "Big League" meant L.A., Atlanta and Kansas City, not Edmonton, Quebec and Winnipeg. "Success" meant network TV contracts—ABC, NBC or CBS, not CBC or CTV. If I seem to concentrate too much on the U.S. in this article, it is because hockey has aimed itself at the U.S. during the past decade, and its success or failure must be judged on how well it has done in the U.S.

It started well. The decade began in the midst of a sports boom, and hockey seemed well placed to ride and feed it. Although hockey was a Canadian export, it was a foreign game with a difference, a game built on proven U.S. attractions—speed, excitement and violence. And the game didn't seem quite so exclusively Canadian as it once did. Winning has a way of bringing a game (or anything else) home, and the Stanley Cup resided in Boston and Philadelphia as often as it did in Montreal or Toronto. With such success, one could almost forget that when Phil Esposito said he was from the Soo, he meant Ontario, not Michigan.

If hockey wasn't as "American" as hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet, in time it could become as "American" as tacos, pizza pie and Volkswagen. Hockey could make it big in the U.S., and the U.S. could make it big in hockey.

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