Is Pro Hockey "on the level"

H. H. ROXBOROUGH January 1 1936

Is Pro Hockey "on the level"

H. H. ROXBOROUGH January 1 1936

Is Pro Hockey "on the level"

H. H. ROXBOROUGH

YOU WILL recall that late last March, Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs were playing a series of games to decide the National Hockey League championship. Boston had won the first contest, Toronto had taken the next two, the series would be concluded when either team obtained three victories.

On the evening of the fourth game, a customer entered a barber shop in a town not far from Toronto, and confided to the master clipper that he intended to combine necessity and enjoyment by receiving a haircut while the tonsorial radio transmitted Foster Hewitt’s description of the important game.

“Glad to trim you,” said the barber, “but I’m not tuning in on the hockey tonight.”

“Why not?” asked the surprised fan.

“Oh, there’s nothing doing to this game. Boston just has to win. Those promoters ain’t crazy; they ain’t goin’ to wind up the series in four games when a fifth’ll bring ’em twentyfive grand. And I’m not sap enough to listen to the fake.” However, good customers still have some rights left; so dials were twisted until eventually the broadcaster reported: “The clock shows ten minutes yet to go, and Boston are still leading by 1 to 0.”

“There you are,” said the haircutter, with a flourish of snapping blades. “Didn’t I tell you Boston had to win?” Down in the big city, the Leafs hadn’t heard the barber’s smug prophecies, yet they proceeded to make him a liar. With about two minutes left Cotton scored, but the goal was disallowed. A scrap ensued, and Cotton, Siebert and O’Neil were chased to the penalty bench. The game continued; and as the big sportimer indicated only one minute and forty-six seconds to play, Pep Kell y t drilled the puck past Tiny Thompson and the score was even.

Was the barber fit to be tied? Not by a brush ful. You couldn’t fool him. He knew the boys were just making the game close to fool the public. The Bruins were still sure winners.

The overtime period began. In just one minute and thirty-seven seconds the same Mr. Kelly scored again, gave the Leafs the game and ended the series in four games.

Surely, with the sacrifice of what might have been a $25,000 gate, the big scissor-and-razor man would have admitted that the game couldn’t have been “fixed.” But no, there was still another poisoned arrow in his quiver.

“That game doesn’t convince me of anything. The gamblers must have got to Kelly and made it worth his while to doublecross the crooked bosses.”

Smythe’s Forceful Argument

THAT STORY isn’t imaginary. The incident was related to me by the customer; and the barber’s opinion is typical of many.

Here is another instance. After the Leafs had defeated

Bruins for the 1935 National Hockey League title, they still had to play Montreal Maroons for the Stanley Cup, the most treasured of hockey trophies. The prevailing judgment was that Dick Irvin’s lads would defeat the Gorman-coached Montrealers. Even when Maroons won the first two games, the smart guys sneered a couple of “Oh, yeahs” and wondered why everybody else couldn’t see that the Leafs had been holding back for bets and would win the next three games without raising a sweat.

What happened? The third game was played in Montreal and the Maroons won by four goals to one. They captured the battered mug in three straight games, and thus lost an opportunity to obtain the revenue from two more matches that might have been played.

Was the amalgamated order of finger-pointers, noseholders and headshakers completely subdued? Hardly, for they began whispering stories of this type: “A friend of mine has a cousin who lives next door to one of the National Hockey League goalkeepers, and this player told my friend’s relative that the Maroons were losing lots of money and were trying to sell their franchise. So, to give them a chance to make some dough and keep them in the circuit, the league directors agreed to let them win the championship. Thus they’d have the drawing power of title-holders and pick up real money during the 1935-36 season.” If such a story wasn’t funny, it would have been pathetic.

Generally, the mud-slingers toss their dirt in centres where fans are far removed from actual contact with authorities who really know hockey’s honesty. But not infrequently the snipers invade the rinks and hurl their challenges directly at the players and officials.

During that final Maroon-Leafs series in Toronto last April, one of these innuendo heavers shouted ; “What are you trying to do, Smythe? Throwing the game?”

The fact that the Toronto managing-director left the bench, climbed into a box and smacked Mr. Fan square in the eye is not to be wondered at so much as that professional hockey’s honesty is sometimes questioned right in the arena.

Intricate Play-Offs

EVEN THOUGH the railings of the critics are born of suspicion, there must be some stronger causes for the allegation that professional hockey is not on the level.

Perhaps the big-league magnates themselves have contributed to the lack of confidence. Certainly, the play-off system throws a smoke screen that confuses the lover of sports honesty.

For more than forty years, Canadian hockey teams played games under rules which ensured that the club, having won the most matches when the schedule ended, was automatically the champion. During four decades, play-offs were rarer than quintuplets.

But governors of professional hockey had other ideas. They believed that if one team outclassed the others, public interest would so depreciate that attendances during closing

weeks would greatly shrink. So they gradually evolved a system that would maintain public interest from November to April, and not permit the champion team to be known until the very last game.

Last season, for instance, the nine National Hockey League clubs were divided into two sections and each team played forty-eight games. Then, late in March, six of the nine teams really settled down to decide which should win the cup.

In series A, the two group winners played till one of them won three games. In series B. the two second-place teams played two games with the total number of goals to decide the winner. In series C, the two third-place teams duplicated the plan of series B. Then the winners of series B and C played two more games in series D; and eventually, in the Stanley Cup final, the winners of the A series and the D series played a three-in-five games series which was called series E.

By this time, April Fool’s Day was long past, hockey fans had been satiated, the last gold had been painlessly extracted and baseball had stolen the show.

Such a system, frankly motivated by a desire to shake all the shekels from the pockets of a hockey-loving public, undoubtedly, in the opinions of many fans, rolled the ingots of honesty into a very thin plate.

Yet. strange as it may seem, and despite this final merrygo-round, professional hockey is still an on-the-level, up-andup sport.

Games Not “Fixed”

THE PRIME purpose of the play-offs may be to make money for the promoters, but the assumption that games are therefore “fixed” is as false as a Hallowe’en mask.

In the last four years, the number of games that could have been played in the Stanley Cup finals totalled twenty. Surely, if dollars were the paramount consideration, every one of those games would have been played.

The fact is that the number of matches actually played in anyone of those four years never once reached the maximum. The total number contested was fourteen. If an approximate gate amounts to $20,000, then, in the final series alone, the money-wise governors in four years permitted probable receipts of $120,000 to slip away. No group of “fixers” would let that amount of money get past them.

Here is another illustration.

Last November, the first National Hockey League game was played in St. Louis. Missouri business men had bought a league franchise, and invested heavily in players, equipment and rink; the sport-famous city was to become a strategic centre for big-time hockey.

If money-making had been the prime consideration, if control of games had prevailed, this new unit would have been nursed along, aided with cash and players until its establishment was sound. Certainly, the team would have been accorded a play-off berth, and the Missourians given a chance to cheer for a home team.

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Is Pro Hockey "on the level?"

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What happened? St. Louis had good players and were capably coached; but, instead of being carried by the other clubs, they were outscored by nearly sixty goals, won only eleven games out of forty-eight, finished an undisputed last in an entry of nine, and were eventually compelled to sell the three best players to meet operating expenses.

Form Reversals Are Natural

T ET’S SKIP the answer to that story, say the cynics. But how about those reversals of form that defy explanation? Howie Morenz scores forty goals in one season and only fourteen in the succeeding year; the Maple Leafs win ten straight games and then lose three in a row; Boston defeats Maroons in Montreal and loses to the lowly Eagles on home ice; or Roy Worters stops all shots for 200 successive minutes and then is fooled by four shots in one period. What’s the answer?

The answer is simply that nature takes her course. Players are not robots; they are human beings subjected to aches, ills and moods, just like the fans who “pan” them. Injuries take their toll; players suffer from cuts, bruises, colds, long train rides, extreme nervous and physical strains that are unknown to those who heave allegations of dishonesty.

Moreover, the margin between victory or defeat is so slim that it is often beyond a player’s control.

Indeed, game results are so uncertain that there seems to be some great god of sport who exalts the losers and humbles the victors. Proof of this sport uncertainty is indicated in the contests that have taken place between Oxford and Cambridge universities. Not even those who rave about fixed hockey would dare suggest that these two English institutions would attempt to so control their sports that every meet would be a crucial affair. Yet in eighty-seven rowing races, one was a tie, forty were won by Oxford and forty-six by Cambridge; while in track and field there have been sixty-seven meets and Cambridge has defeated Oxford by thirty-four to thirty-three. Close? Sure, hut honest.

Cricket, too, is a game admittedly beyond the touch of fixers. Certainly the men who represent England and Australia in test matches would not participate in any arrangement to keep the victories evenly divided and thus give an edge to the interest and a swing to the “gate.” Yet without any outside control, the wheel of fortune has so spun that since 1885, twenty-nine matches were drawn, England won fifty-two and Australia fifty-three. Fixed? Of course not. Still, if Boston should win a home hockey game from Montreal on Thursday night and lose to Maroons in Montreal on a Saturday night, there’s always somebody to say, “It’s a gyp.” Why should critics demand in hockey a certainty that is absent in such admittedly honest pastimes as rowing and cricket?

Recently I put the question to Lionel Conacher. “Conny,” I asked bluntly, “how honest is professional hockey?”

This veteran player with a ten-year record in National League hockey, with experience in Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago and Montreal, and the only member of both the 1934 and 1935 Stanley Cup champions, must have heard this question a thousand times.

Naturally, the query did not invite any animated response. Indeed, the witness for the defense countered by asking: “What do you think of it?”

“I’m so convinced pro hockey is honest,”

I replied, “that I want to make a lot of other people burn their hammers.”

“All right,” said Conny. “I’ll tell you how honest it is. But I’ve stopped discussing it with people who think it’s fixed. They don’t listen to reason. They seem so cocksure, and

they don’t know what they are talking about.

“I have played in the N.H.L. since 1924. In all that time no one has ever even suggested that I should be a party to throwing a game. I never heard gambling or betting discussed by club officers or players. 1 never knew a player to bet against his own team, and if I wanted to wager on a game I would not know where to go to put up the money. I guess I’ve played more than 300 pro hockey games, and nobody ever approached me to buy or sell a match.

“There was a time,” continued Lionel, “when rinks were smaller, and players mixed with the spectators and knew what they were thinking and saying. Now the players go in and out through separate entrances; they don’t contact anyone who might ask them to put a price on a game.

“It seems to me,” he continued, “that only a goalkeeper could deliberately lose a game. But even a goalkeeper couldn’t prevent his team-mates from scoring enough to offset his own weakness. Furthermore, every goalie stops a lot of shots he never sees, just couldn’t let them in if he wanted to. Besides, the honesty of goalkeepers is never questioned, for they remain longer in the league than any other players.”

The truth of the matter, though, is that, in the last analysis, hockey is honest because honesty pays.

It pays the players. Hockeyists in the N.H.L. have salary possibilities, dependent upon ability and years of service, that may

approach or even exceed $50,000. The profession is so lucrative to a young man that a player would be crazy to listen to a fixer’s proposal. Particularly when discovery would be likely and expulsion assured.

No player could be dishonest alone. If the arrangement was made with gamblers, then the history of baseball proves that the gamblers will some day squeal or doublecross. Or, if the instructions to lose were received from the management, then, the player has the club officers “on the hip,” for he could hold them up for hush money upon penalty of exposing the fixing. It is significant that, while perhaps 500 players have performed in the National Hockey League, not one has ever even hinted at duplicity by the bosses.

Honesty not only pays the players, it also pays the owners. Men who have heavily invested in hockey are not pikers, gamblers, or public enemies dependent upon the success of a racket. They are invariably successful business leaders, with reputations for service and honesty. They have no desire to risk personal integrity and their business fortunes in a public hoax.

More than $25,000,000 is invested in franchises, players, equipment and real estate associated with major league operations. Any managing group that Would permit gamblers or other manipulators to play hob with the earning power of this amount of capital would be just a bunch of suckers. Which is just what they are not.

No; professional hockey, by any test you want to make, is honest; and the prevalence of so much loose talk is nothing more than a reflection upon those who themselves believe everybody has his price, that dishonesty pays, and that the dangling of dollars makes all men crooked.