SPORTS

THE NHL COMES OF AGE

Hal Quinn January 19 1981
SPORTS

THE NHL COMES OF AGE

Hal Quinn January 19 1981

THE NHL COMES OF AGE

SPORTS

Hal Quinn

“Really, I wish I'd played all my life in a Canadian city. It makes you feel something about the game all the time. ” —Ivan Boldirev, Vancouver Canucks

It had been obvious to those who really cared in the 1970s: the kids chasing threadbare tennis balls between parked cars or firing chipped pucks around the weeds, skirting the snowbanks; .the grandmothers enjoying their weekly tot as the anthem played on Saturday night; the regulars in the beer halls sporting their own scars from the game, wearing jackets with crossed sticks on the shoulder and had “a little money riding on the Maple Leafs.” The game of hockey, the uniquely Canadian reflection of life in a vast and, for a good part of the year, inhospitable country, had been diluted ■ beyond recognition and in the Canadian tradition, taken over by well-heeled cousins to the south, with barely a whimper from sea to sea.

For 50 years, the National Hockey League (NHL) had been the most eloquent expression of the game of hockey. Three teams clustered around the Great Lakes, two in themortheast U.S. and one sparkling on an island in the St. Lawrence River, were at the pinnacle of the fastest game on earth. Their 120 players were mythic, indomitable idols in Europe, heroes to the young who scram. bled on ráin-dampened streets on the West Coast, careened over frozen sloughs on the Prairies, bounced over snow-ringed ponds in the East and the Maritimes. Few childhood Christmases were complete without a Maple Leafs or Canadiens sweater. In the U.S., beyond the four American NHL cities, the demigods were, at best, mild curiosities.

It was no small source of pride in a country of impoverished self-esteem seemingly content to be dwarfed, eager to sell off its lifeblood and very soil, that at its own game, its native sons were the best in the world; so good that those not worthy could hell-raise through Europe and win global championships at their leisure. But in the 1950s, the Europeans, and more pragmatically the Soviets, studied the game, mastered it and, most disturbingly, refined and improved it. Canadians were no longer the best; excuses replaced celebrations. What remained would soon be sold down the river.

In the U.S., professional sport went wild in the giddy explosiveness of the 1960s. Through television, football became the sport of the future as the major networks stumbled over each other, spilling millions of dollars in their rush. The NHL watched and waited. Looking back, now-league President John Ziegler says, “The philosophy in the league by 1966-67 was to expand with the idea of becoming the next National Football League, penetrate the U.S. market to get a share of the TV megabucks.” To that singular goal, turning its back on its source and heritage, the league doubled, forcing itself upon a bemused and uninterested public in six American sites—Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Minnesota, St. Louis and Oakland. The networks offered only micro-bucks and briefly aired games to sets tuned to college basketball. And 12 years later, Los Angeles season ticket holder Gord Franks can say, “If you want to talk hockey here, you’d better be prepared to call long distance.” And looking back on his days with the nowdefunct Oakland Seals, Ivan Boldirev says, “I could have walked into a coffee shop there in my full uniform and nobody would have given a damn.”

Just as the NFL spawned a rival in pursuit of megabucks (the American Football League), the NHL gave rise to the World Hockey Association (WHA), which exposed itself in such hockey hotbeds as San Diego, Calif., Birmingham, Ala., and Cincinnati, Ohio, inflating salaries for the untried and tired, diluting and lowering the quality as it went. But as recession and reality melted and the NFL and AFL merged in 11 years, so the WHA was absorbed in 1979 and despite itself, the NHL reluctantly came back, in part, to Canada. Former WHA franchises became NHL teams in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebec City, joining Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, which was added in 1970.

The game, at the NHL level, was by the mid-1970s unrecognizable, more suited to the barrooms than its former fans, unidentifiable to the few grandmothers still watching, broken down into a hodge-podge of meaningless divisions (Smythe, Patrick, Norris, Adams). It had become peopled by anonymous hooligans; a questionable dream for youngsters clutching hockey sticks at bedtime; a myth thoroughly exploded by the Soviets in 1978. Yet as the new decade dawned, with more and more boys and girls shooting soccer balls not pucks, the hope of becoming “the next National Football League” long

crushed, and the troublesome WHA subdued, the NHL had endured and took the first faltering steps toward coming of age.

“For the last three to five years we’ve been fighting fires at our feet,” says NHL President John Ziegler. “We couldn’t draw up schedules, we didn’t even know if some teams could finish the season. Now, instead of fighting fires, we can put our energy into planning.” The first step was to react, however belatedly, to the cries of outraged fans, legislators, and attorneys-general over the increase in violence. “The feelings of the general public have switched away from violent sports in the last five years,” says Alan Eagleson, lawyer, agent and president of the NHL Players’ Association. “Fans now want players who can fight, but also skate, score and play defence.” Accordingly, this season the NHL introduced new rules governing

fighting. In addition to the automatic five-minute penalty for fighting, players on the ice failing to move to a neutral area designated by the referee would be given a 10-minute misconduct and their team a two-minute bench minor. In addition, players on the ice who drop their sticks and gloves would be assessed a second 10-minute misconduct. Any player leaving the bench would be ejected from the game and suspended for the next three.

The rules (the second misconduct was later dropped because it was “meaningless and not acting as a deterrent” according to Ziegler) have not stopped fighting altogether. On Jan. 3 in Denver, the Boston Bruins and the Colorado Rockies collected 287 minutes in penal-

ties. Boston general manager Harry Sinden and acting coach Gary Doak were ejected and the Bruins finished the game with four players on the ice, two on the bench and no coach. It was the first all-out brawl of the season.

The second step into the ’80s was actually a realignment, grouping the 21 teams more or less geographically, as agreed upon by the league governors last December. It has been heralded by its authors as a great leap forward. By abandoning the present “balanced” schedule, wherein teams play each other an equal number of times, and switching next season to an “unbalanced” schedule, wherein teams play those within their division more frequently, the governors hope to foster regional rivalries and fan identification of opposing teams and players. More to the point, the change will not only save but make money for the league.

It is a decision, more than any other, that reflects the NHL’s new maturity. The league has finally realized, and admitted, that the U.S. network megabucks are not now and never were forthcoming. “We’ve given up on the network contract,” says Ziegler. “We’ve learned that we’re not going to have kids playing hockey all over the U.S. in the foreseeable future.” But kids still do in Canada and with the transfer of the Atlanta Flames franchise to Calgary this season, there are now seven of 21 NHL teams in the game’s birthplace. “The attendance figures in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebec City prove that you can always count on Canadian hockey fans to support hockey,” says Ziegler. The kid with the stick could have told them that long ago.

One of the major reasons for the restructuring was to prepare the league to take advantage of developments in what Ziegler terms “neovideo”—cable and pay-TV. Three divisions of five teams are now grouped in the same time zone to facilitate broadcasts back to the visiting team’s city. As Joel Nixon, the NHL’s director of communications, explains, “In the past, in order to have a sensible TV schedule, games in Vancouver or Los Angeles might have to start at four o’clock in the afternoon to have the best viewing time for all concerned.” At least of equal importance, Nixon adds, “For pure [cable] lines alone, forgetting all the hardware involved, it costs around $9,000 to go from Vancouver to New York, where it might cost around $500 to go from New York to Philadelphia.” In the U.S., the Entertainment Sports Programming Network (ESPN), an all-sports network, carries games of 17 teams and the U.S.A. Network, broadcasts a Monday night game of the week. “Next to baseball, hockey is the most televised sport in North America,” Ziegler claims. “In New York, you can watch hockey as often as five nights a week, in Detroit, three. We have realized that we can’t force people to take our product, so we are concentrating on giving it to those who want it.”

Another prime motivation for realignment was the dramatic increase in travel costs. “Up to now,” says Emile Francis, president and general manager of the St. Louis Blues, “we were working for the airlines.” Vancouver Canuck Dave (Tiger) Williams says, “We’re away from home so much, I have to take a picture of my kids each time we leave so that I’ll remember what they look like.” And, too, the governors hope it will recreate regional rivalries, such a vital part of the pre-expansionist era. “The way it is now, you’ll play against a guy in October and you won’t see him again until March,” says Toronto’s Dan Maloney. “It’s [realignment] got to be better for the fans.” Grouped in the Adams division, Quebec Nordique President Marcel Aubut couldn’t be happier. “With just 10,300 seats, we have averaged over 10,000 fans per game. But on Jan. 21, the expansion of the Coliseum will be complete and we will have 15,200 seats. And when Montreal comes to town, I could sell 50,000 tickets.”

The future, though rearranged, is not universally so bright. As of last week, all but one of the original six teams were mired in mediocrity with few portents of change. The Chicago Black Hawks and Boston Bruins have been reduced to censoring fans’ banners commenting on their teams’ management and play. The Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers rival each other in front office turmoil and yawn-inducing ineptitude on the ice, and the weak cast and script of the Toronto Maple Leafs soap opera gets lower ratings each

c week. Only the legendary Montreal Canadiens, after surviving a series of injuries, are playing as if they remember that there was ever a pinnacle at all. But giving heart and substance to optimism in the decade is the resurgence of the St. Louis franchise (see box, page 38), occasional sell-out crowds in Washington thanks to goalie Mike Palmateer and the Capitals’ precocious 27-year-old coach Gary Green; the new-found legitimacy of the Vancouver Canucks (see box, below); the well-founded strength of the Flyers and defending champion New York Islanders; the heartfelt wel-

come of the Flames to Calgary, even at $25 for the top seats; the box-office magnet Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton; the letter of intent to purchase the team in Denver penned by Peter Gilbert, owner of the fifth largest cable TV network in the U.S.; and the flamboyant Dr. Jerry Buss promising trips to Hawaii and other perks to keep his Kings thinking hockey amid the palms and smog of Los Angeles.

Clouding the dawn, however, is the need for a new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association. The vital clause concerns compensation (the NHL calls it “equalization”) to teams whose players become free agents. Team owners and league governors pray for compromise, dreading demands for baseball-like free-agency and its ruinous multimillion-dollar contracts. “If we achieve a new agreement (at the all-star break Feb. 9-10), the most important pieces of a foundation for the next five years would be in place,” says Ziegler. “Our prospects for success as a business and an entertainment have never been better. A new agreement would give us the best opportunity for growth of any major sport.”

And then there’s Alan Eagleson, poised for another transatlantic flight later this month to put the finishing touches on a pact to resurrect the Canada Cup international tournament. “It should be all set to go,” he says, “unless something happens in Poland.” The steps taken and the Canada Cup may not be enough to refill the beer halls, or get the grandmothers back watching, but they may start kids dreaming again,