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THE HOCKEY REBELLION
Dan Parker
October 28, 1957
The players have sued their National Hockey League bosses for $3 million. Here Dan Parker, the hard-hitting sports editor of the 'New York Mirror,' explains the controversy that led to the suit and cites other reasons why the owners are skating on thin ice
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October 28, 1957

The Hockey Rebellion

The players have sued their National Hockey League bosses for $3 million. Here Dan Parker, the hard-hitting sports editor of the 'New York Mirror,' explains the controversy that led to the suit and cites other reasons why the owners are skating on thin ice

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The weak sister of the NHL is James D. Norris' Black Hawks club. Having wound up in last place for seven out of the last eight seasons, the Hawks last season hit an understandable low of 140,000 paid admissions for home games. The year before, Norris had warned Chicago that the 1955-56 season would be his last as sponsor of the club if the fans didn't give it more support. But last fall, Owner Norris changed his line. Instead of tossing hockey to the wolves, he announced that it was his first love and said if the Supreme Court ruled that his International Boxing Club was a monopoly, he would concentrate on building the Black Hawks into a team worthy of the Norris escutcheon.

In any case, it isn't likely that Norris would surrender his Black Hawks franchise, and with it control of the balance of power in the NHL, even if he and his partner Arthur Wirtz have (as they claim) dropped a half million into their B.H. of C—which could mean either Black Hawks of Chicago or Black Hole of Calcutta. Anyway, the Detroit Red Wings, the blue ribbon club of the Norris family, makes up the Hawks' deficit both in money and prestige. The Wings have won the NHL championship in eight of the last nine seasons and the Stanley Cup in four of these.

There are no financial problems in Canada, where hockey comes close to being a religion. If the Montreal Forum's seating capacity of 13,531 were increased by 10,000, every game would still be a sellout. It has been impossible to buy a reserved seat at the Forum box office for a decade. All of them are subscribed and paid for months in advance of the opening of each season. Premiums of from $100 to $500 are offered for occasional pairs of season tickets which fall into the hands of brokers. The humbler French-Canadian fans who can't afford season tickets gobble up the rush seats like pea soup, habitant style, but thousands of them are shut out.

Attendance figures are given out by the NHL office in Montreal. For some unexplained reason, those supplied by Madison Square Garden in New York for its own arena don't tally with the official figures. For instance, the Garden's version of 1956-57 attendance was 439,719. For the 1954-55 season, the Garden claimed 313,026, whereas NHL headquarters said it was 235,000. Despite these discrepancies, the NHL table does show the trend around the league:

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

Because of the NHL's peculiar setup, it is sometimes called the Norris House League, and there's more truth than impudence in this piece of flippancy. As we have noted, the Norris interests own two of the six NHL franchises outright and have heavy holdings in a third, a situation which virtually gives them control of the league. Jim Norris is chairman of the board of the Chicago Black Hawks. His brother, Bruce, is listed as president of the Detroit Red Wings. His sisters, Eleanor and Marguerite, are co-owners with Bruce. The family owns a controlling interest in the Madison Square Garden Corporation, which operates the New York Rangers, so that this club also is a Norris enterprise. When the Norris interests took over control of Madison Square Garden in 1955, with Jim as president, he appointed General John Reed Kilpatrick president of the Rangers as a concession to public opinion (something which rarely bothers Jim much). The three Norris clubs swap players as needed, in odd or ton lots, without giving the matter a second thought (see box).

With three of the six votes on the NHL Board of Governors, the Norris family runs things in the league, a custom established by the ruggedly individualistic founder of the dynasty, James Norris the Elder. The white-haired multimillionaire, who made a good portion of his fortune in the Chicago wheat market, was a hockey player in his youth at McGill University and remained an ardent fan up to the time of his death. Sometimes he forgot that he was also an owner, as was the case one night in 1939 at the Chicago Stadium when he rode Referee Bill Stewart unmercifully from rinkside until Stewart in exasperation skated up alongside his box and said: "You ought to be ashamed of yourself for such conduct."

"I'm going to turn you in for this and have you fired," roared Norris.

"Do as you please," retorted Stewart quietly, "but you can't referee from the box while I'm working."

The NHL took Stewart off the ice shortly after this but never would admit that it was because of Norris' complaint. The Board of Governors knew who was boss if Stewart didn't. The elder Norris demonstrated his power in another way in 1952, when Cleveland attempted to enter a team in the league. Norris was against it—and demanded that the sponsors prove their solvency by getting up $425,652.12. They got it up, but were still rejected when Norris persuaded the Board of Governors that part of the sum was "gambling money."

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