MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS

CLARENCE CAMPBELL

March 1 1969
MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS

CLARENCE CAMPBELL

March 1 1969

CLARENCE CAMPBELL

MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS

When you first see him, Clarence Campbell, 63, President of the National Hockey League, gives off all the excitement of a Sunday-school teacher on a wet afternoon. People who think not badly of him consider him inoffensive. Others see him as somehow sinister: a front man for the NHL’s Board of Governors, the handful of millionaire sportsmen who traffic in hockey talent the way stockbrokers wheel and deal in convertible debentures.

When Campbell talks, it is with the enthusiasm of a man telling you the payments on your burial plot are overdue. His suit, his hair and his face are different shades of grey. Yet Clarence Sutherland Campbell has brought real dignity to the office of the president. The turning point in the Campbell game, as they say, came in Montreal on St. Patrick’s night in 1955. The day before, he had personally suspended Rocket Richard from playing for the rest of the season. The next night, when he arrived at the Forum, Campbell ignited a riot among Canadiens’ fans. Defenseless, Gandhi-like in his seat, Campbell took the full force of one rotten tomato right in his chest. For the attacker, André Robinson, this act brought a spurt of fame. But for Campbell, the fact that he never flinched throughout the uproar forced even his severest critics to recognize the character of the man he had always been but rarely demonstrated: tough, cool, stubborn, decisive, a Rhodes scholar, decorated in war.

Since then, good things have happened: a players’ pension that gives a man at 65 $1,000 a year for every year he played in the NHL. But other things have made people bitter: Vancouver left out of expansion, the NHL “sold out” to U.S. interests. It was with these charges in mind that Maclean’s writer John Zichmanis recently sat across the table from Clarence Campbell, the same table that every contract of every NHL player must cross:

Maclean’s: Alan Eagleson, who organized the Players Association, has charged that NHL clubs discourage young players from completing their education. He’s said the clubs are impatient to “whisk their boys out of the classroom and onto the ice” and that many youngsters miss university as a result. How close is Eagleson to the truth?

Campbell: Well, we’ve never taken that position at all. I’m fully aware of the odds against a player’s getting into one of the teams in the NHL, so I have always urged parents to provide the best education for their sons, so they have I something to fall back on.

“Fighting on the ice is a safety valve. Stop it and players would no doubt develop more subtle forms of viciousness”

Maclean’s: Has the NHL ever tried to help with scholarships or money? Campbell: We’ve tried for years and years to find some way, but there are big problems. For one, the university year coincides with the hockey season; so it is very difficult for the student to be good at both at the same time. Also, there has been very little interest in hockey on the part of the universities themselves. Until the national team was developed, there was practically none. Even today, Simon Fraser is the only university to have athletic scholarships.

Maclean’s: But what about the hockey scholarships in the U.S.?

Campbell: Over the past 10 years, between 300 and 400 graduates of our sponsored amateur teams have left on these scholarships. Naturally, this was a great talent drain, but we didn’t fully realize it until it suddenly became clear that we weren’t getting any of these players back. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to return or didn’t have enough talent; their playing had simply deteriorated to the point where they simply couldn’t make it in the NHL.

Maclean’s: Because of the low calibre of play in the colleges?

Campbell: Yes, but they also play different rules. For instance, they have no red line, so you can pass the puck from anywhere up to the attacking blue line. And this, of course, takes away the necessity of being a good skater to bring the puck out. Also, there is no body checking by the attacking team beyond the centre of the rink, so they don’t know how to forecheck as we know it.

Maclean’s: How much talent has actually made it back to the NHL?

Campbell: I think I could name them all on the fingers of one hand. Bill Hay, Red Berenson, George Konik and the late Bill Masterton — they’re the ones who come to mind.

Maclean’s: Can you see the day when Canadian university hockey improves enough to become a good training ground for an NHL career '

Campbell: With minor exceptions, it hasn’t been of high calibre in the past, and I don’t see much difference in the attitude of the Canadian colleges now. Generally, the national team plays much higher quality hockey than the intercollegiate teams.

Maclean’s: Has the NHL considered giving money to support the national team? Campbell: Well, the problem is that the national team means Canadian, so there is no sense of obligation on the part of the 10 United States teams of the NHL. Hence the responsibility of helping the national team falls mainly on Toronto and Montreal as well as on the players themselves who might be interested. The last time Canada won the world championship was in 1961. The last time we won the Olympics was in 1952. Since then, Canada has deteriorated while the competition has improved. And it’s likely the competition will continue to improve. Now, look at the other side of the coin: expansion in the NHL has made more jobs with more money available to good young hockey players. Naturally, this is a tremendous inducement to play in the NHL, with the result that the prospects of talent winding up playing in the universities is definitely not good. Maclean’s: It all seems to wind up in the NHL. Is this why the NHL is often thought of as being too autocratic, too domineering?

Campbell: Let’s put it this way — it’s the “Establishment,” this is what you shoot at. And I don’t think the image is likely to change. The more successful the league is, the more it is subject to this type of reaction.

Maclean’s: How much of it is the NHL’s own fault?

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CAMPBELL from page 15

Campbell: We contributed to some degree with the intensity with which we developed our players. In the early days, we pretty well directed the whole amateur system ourselves. We provided the coaches, did all the scouting, provided the money, assembled the teams. Frankly, this formula for developing players can’t be matched. But the old system had inherent inequalities in it that had to be eliminated with expansion. The old teams had built up a monopoly on young hockey players in the different parts of Canada. The expansion teams couldn’t live and breathe because there would be no place for them to start up their own player-development systems. Maclean’s: They had nowhere to get their raw talent?

Campbell: That’s right. The outcome was that getting good young players became intensely competitive to the point that it was becoming the equivalent of an auction sale. You see our problem? The parents were giving us problems because they wanted, above all, to get good contracts for their kids.

Maclean’s: But even after a player matures, the league still dominates his life. He cannot, for instance, change teams by his own decision by playing out an option, as in football.

Campbell: We’re exactly the same as baseball. We don’t acknowledge any such arrangements. If a team has developed a player and invested substantial sums in him, you can hardly expect that club to say, “Well, I’m sorry that you don’t like us any more; now you go your way.” All that would happen would be that the rich teams would get richer because they would outbid the others. This sport cannot be operated on that basis. Maclean’s: Now the Establishment has a new problem with the coming of an anti-Establishment organization — with Al Eagleson and company. How has that affected your relationships with players? Campbell: Through the years, we’ve had as good relations with the players as one could hope for. The coming of Mr. Eagleson is part of a universal pattern not peculiar to hockey, and I don’t believe he has made that great a contribution in any event. He had no trouble getting recognition as a bargaining agent in matters of common interest. But I don’t think you’ll ever have union representation or an association negotiating individual contracts.

Maclean’s: But could it not be in the form of an agent representing a player in the bargaining?

Campbell: Yes, I’m 100 percent for it. It’s no problem with me. Anybody who enters into any contract is entitled to whatever advice he wishes to have. Maclean’s: Bargaining advisers, tax consultants and so on seem to put the hockey player very much into a grey-flannel suit.

Campbell: That’s right, and it’s a good image for him.

Maclean’s: But how does this affect his hockey?

Campbell: Well, the more mature players have always paced themselves to

stretch out their careers. Now, with the bigger salaries and the pension, they’re even more conscious of it.

Maclean’s: Isn’t that dangerous for hockey as a sport?

Campbell: Not if we provide a good incentive system to make him go all out. All you have to do is watch a team in the Stanley Cup and you soon realize no one is saving himself.

Maclean’s: If a player gets into some sort of disciplinary trouble, he winds up here in your office. You are the judge, but is there a supreme court even above you?

Campbell: Only in respect to suspensions and fines over $200. If a player chooses, he can appeal these to the Board of Directors.

Maclean’s: Do they?

Campbell: In 23 years, there has only been one that I remember—Ted Lindsay of the Detroit Red Wings. I suspended him for 10 days. The club appealed, but the Board of Governors upheld my decision.

Maclean’s: If the NHL really wants to stop players fighting on the ice, why doesn’t it put heavier penalties on anyone who gets into a fight?

Campbell: Our philosophy toward fighting is that if tempers reach the point where players are not content to go on and play without some sort of assault, far better that they should drop their sticks and fight. It works as a safety valve.

Maclean’s: Could fighting be stopped altogether if you wanted to stop it?

Campbell: Sure, no doubt about that. We could put down a rule that calls for automatic suspension from the game. But if we were to remove this safety valve, the players would no doubt develop a more subtle form of viciousness. You would get butt ends and kicks and spearing, which are ultimately much more dangerous and revolting than fighting. Maclean’s: Now that the NHL has two Canadian-based teams and 10 U.S.-based clubs many people feel that expansion sold Canada out to the U.S. money interests. Is there any way to offset the U.S. dominance?

Campbell: No. Basically, hockey is one phase of the entertainment world, it’s a business. And to stay in business, you place your operations in places that will keep you in business. The difficulty is that there are no places in Canada outside Toronto and Montreal that have the consumer spending to support an NHL organization.

Maclean’s: Vancouver?

Campbell: From the standpoint of consumer spending, Vancouver is only half as big as the smallest city in the league. Maclean’s: When will this change

enough to support a team?

Campbell: My recollection of the projections made in 1966 indicated it would take eight or nine years. In the meantime, another factor has intervened — rising costs. It costs 25 percent more to operate a team in 1968-69 than it did in 1966-67.

Maclean’s: You were once described as the man who turned hockey from a

game into a business. Just how big is the business?

Campbell: It’s extremely difficult to arrive at total figures, but hockey is the principal support for approximately $300million worth of buildings.

Maclean’s: Will the increased use of television change this a great deal? Campbell: I don’t think hockey can break into prime-time U.S. television. I don’t think the big payoff in television is likely to come. We’re obliged to play in the afternoon. We think the ratings would be better if we played later in the afternoon, but here we have to remember that we have a three-hour time difference from coast to coast.

Maclean’s: Is it not possible for hockey to compete against general-interest shows? Campbell: Up to now, no. Nor can any other sport. No sport is carried in prime time. I suppose the World Series might do it, but even that is questionable. Bonanza still has a better draw, a broader draw, and obviously the sponsor is interested only in your ratings.

Maclean’s: In your 23 years as president, how have you seen the hockey player himself change?

Campbell: The calibre of the people today is different. They enjoy a higher status in the community. Now, hockey is treated as a legitimate career and a lot of the players have been extremely successful both in hockey and in business. Maclean’s: In those 23 years how has Clarence Campbell changed?

Campbell: Well, most people would say not for the better. □