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The NHL, a thing of corporate beauty

On the eve of the NHL’s centennial anniversary, this 1971 story takes you back to the “fragrance of money and secrecy in the air” as NHL execs met at the Queen Elizabeth hotel in Montreal.


 

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The Queen Elizabeth hotel on Dorchester Street in Montreal is affiliated with the chain of Conrad Hilton hotels. On the wall of the lobby, next to the line of cash registers, there is a little glass plate, behind which is displayed the brochure of every Hilton hotel in the world, from the San Francisco Hilton to the Rabat Hilton and the Hiltons in London and Bangkok. The Queen Elizabeth, then, is a very modern hotel. And so, like other modern hotels, it is not so much a place for businessmen to stay as a place for businessmen to stay and do their business in. It is, in fact, an immense boardroom with beds, a structure quite removed and different from the city that surrounds it. Many businessmen find this atmosphere of corporate security extremely reassuring; some convention delegates, in fact, have been known to take limousines directly from the Montreal airport to the Queen Elizabeth hotel, transact their business within it for days at a time, and then take the limousines back to the airport without ever having ventured beyond the cool reach of Hilton air-conditioning and the sweet, civilized tinkle of Hilton ice cubes in Hilton glasses.

In this atmosphere, last June 7 to 10, the owners, managers, publicists, coaches, lawyers and accountants of the National Hockey League met for their annual convention. It was held on that floor of the Queen Elizabeth reserved for meetings of this kind; but although many conventions are merely an officially sanctioned locale for the consumption of liquor and uplifting speeches, the atmosphere at the NHL convention was delicately tense, for the results of the main business of the week, the players’ draft, would affect, directly and perhaps drastically, the outcome of the games to be played in the current hockey season. At the same time, and on the same floor, there was a meeting of port and harbor executives, who played delightedly with a large-scale model of a device to transfer cargo from ships to trains, and a gathering of mysterious ladies in hats who held a private series of discussions behind large, locked, wooden doors. There was a fragrance of money and secrecy in the air.

The sports writers, who attend this convention every year in strength, gathered immediately at the hospitality suite, which is convention language for “free bar.” The sports writers, as they always do, knew everything that was going to happen and everything that could not possibly happen at the convention. John Robertson, a sports columnist for the Montreal Star, stared into his drink beside the green-striped awning above the bar and said, “The National Hockey League is a business like any other business. Well, not exactly. It’s one big corporation with 14 branch offices and no head office, and every year the guys from the branch offices show up here and look each other over. The junior staff of the teams all sit around and get smashed and talk about the days they played hockey, and the owners all sit around with their lawyers and look at the field and try to figure out how to stop the other owners cutting their guts out.”

It was this gut cutting that was the real point to the National Hockey League convention, and even now, on the morning of the first day of the meeting, everyone looked as if he had a knife up his sleeve. For every year at the National Hockey League convention, the owners and managers gather in a large room to draft players — amateurs and those professionals who are not considered absolutely indispensable to the team that owns them — and this draft, in great part, controls the flow of new talent and dispersal of old talent around the league. The arrangement of talent affects the arrangement of strength between the clubs, and that affects the performance of the clubs, and that in turn affects the box-office receipts of the clubs, and that in final turn affects profits. And that is why the owners bring their lawyers and accountants along, in case of ambush.

There were those, of course, who did not feel that any of it made any difference. In one corner of the hospitality suite, beside the neglected silver coffee urn, a guy from a New York newspaper, who gave the impression that he had Been Around, was disillusioning the kids; “Nothing’s going to happen here anyway. Look, you got four drafts, right? The interleague, where the major-league clubs draft from the minors — and they can only nail one player from each minor-league club. The intra-league draft, where the majors draft from each other — they’re already protecting the guys everybody wants. The reverse draft, where the minor teams draft from the majors, and nothing’s happening there. And the amateur draft, which is the real draft for the new kids, and everybody knows who’s going to get the good ones. It’s like a big ceremony. It doesn’t make any difference, but it makes people feel important.”

“Crap,” said one of the kids. “You can do a lot of damage to a club with this kind of draft. You remember Watson, a couple of years back? He got stripped in the draft.”

“Well, he was dumb,” said the guy who had Been Around.

The reason for this dissension is that in its present form the draft is a relatively new procedure, only four years old, set up in 1967, the same year the league expanded from six teams to 12. This expansion was undertaken in a search for larger profits, and the owners realized that nobody would pay good money to see the Montreal Canadiens play hockey with a team from a boys’ private school or a seminary, and so some arrangement had to be made to distribute talent — not an overpowering amount of it, nothing dangerous, just a little — to the six new teams. The economic theory behind this is clear: in the sports business, money comes from competition, and while it is easier to make money if you are winning it is not easy to make money if you are obviously the only team that can win, because nobody will come to see you play. The uncertainty creates excitement, and the maintenance of that uncertainty — the protection of the possibility that the California Golden Seals, who are known as the Girl Guides of hockey, might conceivably on a good day give the Chicago Black Hawks a run for their money — means an occasional sacrifice. Still, all things being equal, winning is better. So it occurred to every owner simultaneously that, while some flow of talent from the stronger to the weaker was good for business in general, it would be nice if that flow of talent damaged the other guy more than it did him; and so there is a great tendency on the part of the club owners not to be too generous. Economic theory is all very well, but you do not give away Bobby Orr.

The guy who had Been Around was watching the bartender pour drinks. The bartender would very carefully measure out an ounce of Scotch, tip it into a glass, then remember that after all nobody was paying, and say what the hell and pour another jigger or two in after it. The guy who had Been Around was so fascinated by this process that he was halfway down a bottle himself.

“Look,” he said, “the real deal is the amateur draft, right? Wrong. See, last year the California Golden Seals, who were doing lousy, got desperate and took a couple of average players from Montreal, just so they could survive and finish last with their heads still on. And in return for that Montreal got the rights to the Seals’ first draft choice this season. And that gives Montreal the rights to the best player in the amateurs. And that means Montreal gets Guy Lafleur, this kid in Quebec City who can shoot around corners. Now, if California had held off, they could have gotten Lafleur, but they couldn’t, and so Montreal’s got him. Just like in the old days.”

“What does Lafleur think about that?”

He looked surprised. “Oh, he’s happy enough.”

And the surprise in his face brought a revelation, for right then, in the hospitality suite, as the sports writers and the coaches and the assistant equipment managers stood chunkily over their drinks, one of the disturbing elements in this fusion of sports and business became clear. There were no players here. Not one.

It was strange. Hockey is, after all, a game played by people, highly skilled and trained people, accustomed to inflicting and receiving pain, able to react with the speed of a professional driver, some of them better-known public figures than almost any national politician. And none of them was here.

This, clearly, was the hidden structure of hockey, the unexamined league, and its competitions were related to but quite different from the competitions of the men on the ice. And this league had its own stars: David Molson, the owner of the Montreal Canadiens, director of Molson Industries Limited, member of the Royal St. Lawrence Yacht Club and the Seigniory Club and the Forest and Stream Club, a thin, blond, impeccable man with the look of a carefree Mitchell Sharp and with an area of skin around his eyes white against the tanned face — the result, perhaps, of wearing sunglasses on rich men’s beaches. Sam Pollock, the Canadiens’ general manager, who always looked to be on the point of tears and who had the reputation, among some observers of the hockey world, of being the most perceptive appraiser of talent in the game. And Charles O. Finley, the owner of the California Golden Seals who had been impresario for a series of monumental, comic disasters in the world of high-money sports.

The majority of these corporate stars were from Montreal, and there was reason for it: Montreal had, against all expectations, won the 1970-71 Stanley Cup. Montreal had, to the envy of every other team, pulled Guy Lafleur out of the amateur draft. And Montreal was to use the National Hockey League convention to stage-manage a startling corporate manoeuvre: the firing of Al MacNeil.

MacNeil had coached the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup, and yet here he stood under the hot television lights in the lobby outside the main convention hall. He was a dapper, slim man, with the look of a Sunday-school teacher, sensitive and concerned, but apparently there were passionate ideas below MacNeil’s retiring manner, for some of the Montreal Canadiens hated his guts. During the final series of the Stanley Cup, Henri Richard, a beloved Montreal warhorse, had publicly denounced MacNeil as an incompetent, and MacNeil had to be guarded against possible assassination at the next game in Montreal. Richard later retracted, or almost retracted, his public statement and Montreal beat the odds to win the cup, but the private pressures were formidable, and everyone, players, coaches, the press, knew MacNeil’s head was on the block.

The press was divided. Some reporters thought MacNeil was being sacrificed for reasons unrelated to hockey. A fat man in a checkered suit, straining to see over the tops of the reporters’ heads: “Look at him. He looks like a zombie. Those bastards.”

The nature of these private pressures was diverse, but there was one element that apparently had stunned the management of the Canadiens: part of the animosity toward MacNeil had to do with the fact that he is not French Canadian. The owner of the Canadiens, David Molson, is not himself noted for his tenderness toward the aspirations of French Canada (he told an interviewer from Life magazine, who asked for his opinion on Quebec’s national aspirations, “We have a French maid in the house, and the children take advantage of it”); when the furor around MacNeil developed, there must have been a certain impulse to tell French Canada to go to hell. But there was also the suspicion that the MacNeil incident could be the opening wedge in a campaign against the control of the Canadiens by English Canadians. Stan Fischler, a perceptive New York writer, was later to comment in the Toronto Star, “Quebec nationalist influence very slowly but very relentlessly will be making itself felt in the National Hockey League. Some observers believe that it will only be a matter of time before the previously politically unaware French-speaking players adopt the militant posture now carried by many fellow Québécois.” Not if David Molson had anything to do with it. And so, if concessions now could avert disasters later, MacNeil had to go. The reporters craned toward the wooden speaking podium, tasting the blood already.

MacNeil stared at the floor.

It was done with bureaucratic grace. MacNeil was to be transferred to the Maritimes, as coach and general manager of the Canadiens’ Halifax farm team; he was to be replaced by Scotty Bowman, a man of considerable coaching talent and quite perfect bilingualism. Pollock announced the switch, saying, “Al was not asked to resign, and he was not asked to continue as coach.”

“What the hell does that mean?” said the fat man, to nobody.

Bowman proclaimed his pleasure and anticipation, changing without effort from English to French. The camera lights were turned off. The management men of the Montreal Canadiens wiped their brows and sat back to see if that would do it.

The MacNeil incident was consistent in tone with the draft itself; for MacNeil, obviously, had been treated as a piece of meat, and the draft meeting was concerned with the shifting of skilled, valuable and quite faceless pieces of meat from one freezer to another.

The major public drafts took place in the Grand Salon of the hotel, an immense, opulent room with chandeliers apparently made of crystal, and 14 tables arranged for the use of the hockey teams. The spectators were separated from the important by a rope barrier; the press was allowed the use of a stage, and was ranked over the proceedings like spectators at a bearbaiting. There was, inevitably, a bit of socializing.

“Charley! Hey, Charley, howaya? This is my son. Dave, I’d like you to meet Charley from Boston. Dave is going to be one hell of a left-winger in a couple years, Charley . . .”

“Is that right?” said Charley. A large, tight-looking man, a little confused, perhaps, by the camaraderie. Americans do not bring their sons to business conventions; they bring their lawyers.

At the front of the room, at a lectern, stood Clarence Campbell, the president of the National Hockey League. Campbell is a glacial, austere man, with a humorless regality. He presided like a headmaster, but one who is conscious that he has almost no power and that the boys below will cut his head off if they feel like it. And so the first words at the amateur draft came out with a certain sourness. “The first order of choice will be — California . . .”

A metallic blare from the California microphone: “California regretfully yields its draft choice to the Montreal Canadiens.”

Sam Pollock: “Time, Mr. Campbell.” A little bit of hockey humor; Pollock was rejoicing in his certainty and needed no time at all. He had the rights to Guy Lafleur, the most spectacular minor-league player since Bobby Orr, and when the laughter died down he exercised them. Lafleur appeared out of nowhere, a tall, rangy boy with an abused nose, to pose for photographs with his new owners.

There were other players in the room, seated in the public gallery section, sweating out their selection. They were none of them quite as good as Guy Lafleur, perhaps not even half as good, and there was considerable tension. It was possible that they would not be drafted at all, would not make it into professional hockey, would instead face some dull life in a mining town or a suburban factory, bruising ribs in the industrial leagues.

Ten names were called. “Son of a bitch!” said a blond kid in the public gallery. His paper was twisted in his hands. At about the twenty-fourth name, his face broke open into happiness, his friends turned to slap him on the back, and then went back to their private miseries. He was going to an American team, to an NHL farm team somewhere in the southern United States, 2,000 or 3,000 miles away from his home, but he was going, he was to be allowed to play.

The bidding continued. Some of the men moved away from the tables and stood in the aisles; self-confident, meaty, with the appearance of smart cookies who had made a bundle in tractors. Almost always, they stood in groups of three — one talking, one listening, one making up his mind.

The teams, apparently, had shuffled their draft choices around like baseball cards. Campbell’s face was a mask of displeasure. Ron Andrews, the NHL statistician, had said earlier, “Campbell tried to persuade the expansion teams not to trade their draft choices, at least not until they knew what order their draft choices would be. He wanted to make it illegal to trade choices. But they wouldn’t listen.” Montreal had traded for the first draft choice from California, and had taken Guy Lafleur, and had acquired the seventh draft choice from Minnesota and taken Chuck Arnason from Flin Flon; they retained their own draft choice, in eleventh place, and picked up Murray Wilson from Ottawa. In other words, they had managed to pick off three of the top 11 amateur players available; California, the last-place club, would have to wait for the fifteenth player drafted to add to its starved roster of talent. Campbell’s headmaster look intensified.

Four young players standing like scared bouncers outside the doors of the convention room. Two of them had been chosen, two not, or not yet. Did they object to this method of doing business? No, they hadn’t thought about it, and when they tried to think about it they couldn’t conceive of any change: “That’s the way they do it, I guess.” “It’s okay.”

In the hospitality suite, away from the convention floor and the draft, at last, a recognizable face, an NHL player: Jacques Plante, no less, talking about the Stanley Cup. Plante is a man of one enthusiasm. When asked about Richard’s spectacular goal in the last game of the cup series, Plante chivied the questioner over to a blackboard in the press room and began to draw diagrams.

“Old Henri, when I was playing in Montreal, I used to tell him, don’t shoot so fast when you go in, you always like to cut into the net and let go too soon, just wait for the goaltender to go down and backhand it past him. And he would say yes, and go out onto the ice and do the same old thing, and then say, well, I forgot. Well, this time, in that game, I guess maybe he heard me talking to him, and he beat Esposito by shoveling it in after going around him.”

“What do you think of expansion? Is it the same as the old days?”

Plante’s face darkened. “No. In the old days, there were fewer than 200 jobs and a lot of competition for them. Everybody was dangerous, everybody had a good shot. Now only about 50% of them can shoot. Maybe less than that. It was better in the old days.”

It was strange: a touch of hockey, a touch of the game itself, in the middle of the business negotiations. Plante was out of place, a craftsman with a passion in a world of lawyers with options.

Plante is not alone. Many people have observed a dilution of the standards of hockey since the NHL’s great expansion into the money markets to the south. The game has taken on a character some Canadians think of as American: scrappy, obvious, with a lot of show biz and blood in the corners. The finesse has gone. At the National Hockey League convention, however, there was no particular agonizing about this sort of thing. Campbell brought in legislation that would mildly stiffen the punishments for teams that empty their benches in an ice brawl, but there was no talk about the standards of the game, or the style of the play, or, in fact, about the performance of hockey at all. The talk was about gate receipts and new arenas and whether or not the game was going to make it on American television.

“How did I get the franchise?” mused a minor-league owner. “Well, I was out of town, I was introducing Richard Nixon at a dinner, and somebody told me Salt Lake might not get a team at all. So I jumped on a plane and went to see every major-league owner, well, all but two or three . . .”

The convention was without players, except for the agonized amateurs in the stands and lonely Plante with his blackboard. So, finally, it was curiously oppressive. Not necessarily because the owners were being inhuman to the players. Before expansion players were entirely at the mercy of the clubs that owned them, and a bit of backchat could land a player in the minor leagues forever. No, the players have it better today, even as chattels; there is a high minimum wage and, on some teams, even the freedom to grow one’s hair. The oppression came from the extreme separation of the sport from the box office. The real business of hockey is carried on in places like the Queen Elizabeth hotel, not in the arenas. The tool of the trade is not a hockey stick but a long-distance telephone.

John Robertson leaned back over his drink in the hospitality suite. “This isn’t a hockey convention. This is a manufacturers’ convention. And this is where the real decisions are made. Up there on the twenty-second floor, the owners are sitting back over a bottle and swapping bodies around.”

And farther down the convention floor, near the elevators, four Japanese businessmen were playing with the scale model of the freight handler. They looked delighted, as though they had found a new and wonderful toy.

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