Hog-tied Hockey

They don't have to ask a player's consent before they nab him. From then on he knuckles under or stays out of the NHL

SCOTT YOUNG December 15 1945

Hog-tied Hockey

They don't have to ask a player's consent before they nab him. From then on he knuckles under or stays out of the NHL

SCOTT YOUNG December 15 1945

Hog-tied Hockey

They don't have to ask a player's consent before they nab him. From then on he knuckles under or stays out of the NHL


A GOOD democrat probably would weep with rage and pain if he ever happened to develop into a good hockey player and decided to try to make the National Hockey League.

First he would have to stop thinking about certain rights of the common man—the right to pick his employer, for instance. In the NHL this just isn’t done, old boy, and if you think we’re stretching a point just stick around while we give big-time hockey’s play er-pic king system the once over.

Suppose Joe Smoke is burning up an Edmonton amateur league. He’s 17. Twelve years ago he stopped having baths on Saturday night and started listening to the hockey broadcasts from Toronto. He lies in bed at night and dreams about playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Between bedtime and breakfast for several seasons he has averaged 12 goals a night. Now the dream is about to come true.

That’s wjiat he thinks. A New York Hanger scout sees him one night, recognizes talent. • The scout wires Hangers. Hangers wire NHL headquarters to put the name of Joe Smoke on their negotiation list. All other clubs in the league are notified. And from then until his name comes off that list, not one of those other clubs would so much as hand Joe a splint if he broke a leg. Dealing with him while he was on Hangers’ list could mean a $1,000 fine!

But Joe knows nothing of this. He’s blissfully ignorant that his pro-hockey future has been determined without his knowledge.

Then a month or so later somebody from the Hangers stalks up one night with a hand onequarter full of $10 bills, and tells Smoke he is on Rangers’ negotiation list.

“Not for me,” Smoke cries proudly. “I’m going to play for Toronto!”

The Hanger man stuffs one half of the $10 bills back in his pocket.

“Sit down, kid,” he says, “and I’ll tell you the facts of life.”

Story of the One-year Limit

HE TELLS Joe the setup. Joe’s name is on Hangers’ negotiation list, and there's nothing Joe can do about it. If this had happened a few months ago he could have told Joe that his name could be kept on the Hangers’ list indefinitely. Now the limit is a year.

According to official account this limit was put on last June 15, but as of mid-November no announcement had been made. Could be, of course, that such an announcement would have had a poor psychological effect on pro prospects. They might got notions.

Under this new rule it would be possible theoretically fora stoical player to wait until he finally got on the list of the club he wanted to play for. Might take years though. By that time the pros probably wouldn’t be hiring people with long white beards.

This one-year limit on the negotiation list deserves further mention. When I first got into this story all sources said there was no limit. Then one source, an NHL director, changed his mind about it. But he explained he didn't know when the new limit had corne in. When I finally did get that information I phoned a couple of amateur big shots to check, and was in the happy position of being the first to tell them of an important new rule I had been told was five months old! Alexander Graham Bell and Marconi may as well have stood in bed for all the help they’ve been to the NHL’s publicity practices.

Some people can get pretty indignant about things like this, but most of them either write for western Canadian newspapers or don’t write at all. There is an alarming paucity of comment from newspapermen in NHL cities about anything but the problems to hand what wide-brimmed hats Wally Stanowski wears, or doesn’t wear, and what a taciturn fellow Dick Irvin is at times. The few people who do take the occasional crack at the system are shunned by fellow workers or treated as wide-eyed idealists.

But it does seem unfair. In the first place a young amateur hockey player can be tied a pro hockey club originally without his knowledge and it doesn’t matter whether the limit is one day or 30 years so far as the principle is concerned. In the second place, even if he does sign something and takes money, not many boys of 18 are developed enough to make decisions which may be binding for an entire career.

What do the players think about all this? The question was put to a member of the current Boston Bruins, a pretty hot junior in his day.

“What can we do?” he said. “For instance, if I didn’t sign when Boston approached me, I was still tied up by the club’s negotiation list (there was no limit then), and if I did sign I had a chance to break into the NHL. Either way, signing or not, I still was tied up by Boston. I figured I may as well collect 100 beans. I signed.” He had wanted to play for another club.

A particularly convenient thing about the negotia-

tion list is that although each club in the league is allowed only four players on it, as soon as a player accepts a few dollars and signs his name to a contract his name comes off. If he’s going to play in the big time immediately, or if he’s going to be optioned to the minors for seasoning, he goes on the club’s reserve list (limit: 25 players and three goalies per club). If he wants to go back to school for a while he goes on what is called the contingent reserve list (no limit). Either way, room is left on the negotiation list for another bright young prospect who doesn’t know what’s being done with his future.

If you are broad-minded enough the system has its points. During the war a professional tied up in a war job or in the services also went on the contingent reserve list. When he was free again his old club had to offer him a contract. If he refused he was made a free agent. Then he could deal with anyone he wanted— get the highest price going.

There was another list (honestly, this is the last) called the contingent negotiation list. If an amateur on a negotiation list joined up, his name went on this contingent negotiation list. When he was discharged he had to be offered a contract. If he refused he had to be turned loose. And he might be loose as long as five or 10 minutes before some other club (or even the first one) slapped him back to the starting point—the original negotiation list.

Not Any More

YOU’VE probably read a lot about the rugged individualists who run hockey today, how they used to work in laundries and chew tobacco and all that stuff. But their rugged individualism quails like a frightened hummingbird when it comes to spending, if spending can be avoided. That’s why no club ever has tried to break the negotiation list. A player could be a judicious combination of Ching Johnson, Eddie Shore and Howie Morenz and he still couldn’t get much more than $150 for signing a contract.

In baseball a man with talent usually gets thousands for signing his first contract. A few year ago a college boy got $52,000 for signing a ball contract with Detroit Tigers. In hockey, before the boys devised the negotiation list, one player—Herbie Lewis— got $22,000 to move into the NHL from Duluth. You could get enough hockey players for an entire league, and a pretty good one, for that price now.

Obviously, it would be better, from the player’s point of view, if some other league would come along and offer him $160 instead of $150. Next best to the NHL, the American Hockey League may have aspirations along that line but hasn’t been able to do much about them. It is not bound to the NHL by any agreement right now, but several AHL clubs are owned as farm teams by NHL clubs. The rest of them haven’t as much money as NHL clubs. So if the AHL ever tried to pirate a player the NHL was after, the NHL according to one of its directors would turn around and start grabbing AHL players. At that game the AHL probably could be cracked in a few weeks.

What does the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association think about all this? It’s hard to tell. For 10 years now —ever since the CAHA decided not to complain about amateurs getting paid — professional and so-called amateur hockey have been drifting closer together. I’m told the CAHA once questioned the negotiation list as being unfair. The NHL replied coldly that it was an internal NHL arrangement. That ended it.

The agreement signed annually between the NHL and CAHA contains a few clauses, however, that the CAHA pushed through to protect amateurs. An NHL club, for instance, can't put a player on a negotiation list before he’s 16 and can’t sign him to a contract before lie’s 18. But in their most recent agreement, which contains the regular annual renewal of the negotiation list, the NHL didn't even bother to tell the CAHA that a one-year limit had been put on the negotiation list. That new limit sure got ignored by great numbers of people.

One other point the CAHA carried. It used to beef because its clubs spent money developing players and

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the professionals got the benefit for nothing. Now the CAHA collects $500 for every amateur who enters the NHL and $250 for every one who gets into the minor leagues.

Probably anyone who knows a little about hockey is squirming in his seat and muttering: “Why doesn’t he bring up Laprade?” This gent, a centre from Port Arthur, who is playing his first professional hockey this year with New York Rangers, has quite a history.

Eight years ago, when he was still a junior, Detroit put him on its negotiation list. He didn’t want to turn pro, he said, and he was on and off three times before Detroit turned to greener pastures. Then he was forgotten altogether until he sparked a long-shot Port Arthur team to the Allan Cup (over Montreal Royals) in 1939. Rangers slapped him on their list. He still didn’t want to turn pro. But because he w'as going to be tied up no matter what, he thought he might as well accept the $150 Rangers kept flourishing.

His name came off the negotiation list then, went to the contingent reserve list. There he stayed until this autumn. He had been in the Army a while by then, and, as up to a million Canadians will testify, the services are hard on bank accounts. Laprade needed money to catcb up, so he finally turned pro— and with Rangers.

That is an illustration of how long a club could tie up one man - six years, in this case.

Incidentally, Laprade says newspaper reports that had him getting $30,000 for a three-year contract were away off the beam. He has a two-year contract, probably for around $5,000 a year, with several bonus clauses throw’n in.

When we intimated at the staff of this piece that a good democrat would go nuts in pro hockey, we also could have added that even athletes from other professional sports would have several new restrictions to get used to. For instance, if a baseball player stays in the minors for three years without making a big-league place with the team that owns him, he must be placed on what is called a draft list. Each year each club in the major leagues is

allowed to draw one player from this list. If there is a place for him anywhere in the majors, he’ll get it. Hockey has nothing like that.

Percy Jackson, a goalie contracted to ! Boston, spent his best playing years working on a Boston farm team because the parent club had Tiny Thompson in goal. Bert Gardiner was up against the same thing while Rangers owned his contract. Rangers had Davie Kerr, and Gardiner stuck it out for years with Philadelphia RamblersRangers’ farm club in the AHL. Most hockey critics agree that Gardiner and Jackson could have made places in the NHL had they not been leashed so tightly. Gardiner did hit the NHL later, after Rangers sold him.

Arguments by Smythe

Conny Smythe, managing director of Toronto Maple Leafs and an NHL director, argues strongly for the existing system, and says that if I had anything better to suggest he’d like to hear about it—although he thought that bringing up the subject at all was nonsense; a teapot tempest.

His main point is that the system is operated benevolently.

“It’s no use talking about how long a player could be kept on a negotiation list no matter what the rule is,” he said. “We couldn’t afford to keep him on long. Any businessman can see that j angle. One name is 25% of yourscout! ing power. If he doesn’t want to play j for us, off he goes. There are plenty j more.”

I asked him if that would hold good if the player concerned were someone sure to be a star, the kind of a player who comes along only once in years.

“It would be our business to make , him an offer so good he’d accept it,” he j said. But he wouldn’t put any definite ! limit on the time he would keep the man on his negotiation list trying to i convince him he should sign—except the previous one: that he couldn’t afford I to keep him on long.

Smythe says the negotiation list is simply common sense. Hockey has no high-priced scouts with big bank rolls, like baseball. Most western scouts, for I instance, are local businessmen with i little power except to wire the home I club a good prospect’s name. If there were no negotiation list, Smythe argues, he or someone else whose judgment he trusted would have to go hopping around the country all winter long looking at prospects. Chances were, he said, he’d find them signed by somebody else by the time he got there.

This way it’s simple—the price of a couple of 10-word messages to the telegraph companies, and the NHL club can wait with lordly indulgence for the ! hog-tied amateur to come down and Í show his wares at a training camp. The

clubs spring for expenses in these cases, of course.

Conny Smythe also thinks that the fact an NHL team places a boy’s name on its negotiation list should be a source of satisfaction to the boy, although he allowed in our conversation that certain of these youths did not show the proper amount of respect and appreciation. Some of them, after accepting the terms offered them by this peremptory destiny, even had gone so far as to change their minds about going into pro hockey at all.

“But,” he added, “most young players are only too anxious to get a chance to make the NHL—no matter what club gives them that chance.”

True. The youths want to make a lot of money in a hurry, and if hockey is what they’re good at—the NHL pays the most. Also, it gets the most publicity. No matter how much money a man might make in amateur (there’s that word again) hockey, he isn’t going to have street-hockey urchins calling themselves after him unless he hits the NHL.

Another of Smythe’s arguments for the negotiation list was that it eliminates cutthroat competition for talent, in which the club with the biggest roll of bills would get the best players. The inference was that the NHL couldn’t

afford it, and Smythe backs up his contention by pointing out that several clubs have folded financially in the last decade or so—among them Montreal Maroons, Philadelphia and Brooklyn.

It seems odd that every other sport can fight with money for players and survive. But that’s what the man said.

Salaries in the NHL range from $4,000 to a top of about $7,000—although a few players have been paid more than that. Bonuses are extra, and Smythe tells of one man who played last year for only $4,000 salary but collected an additional $3,200 in bonuses.

Summing up, he thinks hockey players are well paid and well treated. He denies that pro hockey is a closed monopoly, denies that the negotiation list plays hardship on a player—and emphasizes that out of all the hockey players in this country and the United States it ties up only 24 at a time.

“At that, it doesn’t really tie them up,” he says. “If a man doesn’t want to play for us, for instance, we don’t want him. No club—mine or any other —can afford to have dissension in its ranks.”

So they’d cut him loose. And as soon as the other clubs heard about it, he could be put on somebody else’s list— again without the necessity of consulting him. That’s where we came in.