HEY, STUKE! Now what are you promoting that’s the greatest thing sports fans have ever seen?
Look, who promoted, gabbed and ballyhooed football into Canada’s only real national sport? Annis Stukus. So who’s going to bulldoze Vancouver into the National Hockey League? Take it from him: Big Stuke
THE DAY THIS SUMMER that Annis Stukus returned to Vancouver, an old sportswriter friend helped carry his bags to the hotel. “It took us 30 minues to walk the one block,” the friend recalls. “He stopped four times to make speeches.”
Four days later when the BC Lions fired their coach, a favorite pastime in Vancouver on dull days, who was that dominating the press conference, telling everyone what was done wrong and how he would have done it and ending up with his picture on the front page of the Vancouver Sun? Naturally.
Nothing has changed in seven years. Judy Garland grows older, boys look like girls and the deodorant ads on TV, incredibly, become more offensive. But the big-city boy from Ward Five in Toronto is back in western Canada, doing what he does best, and western Canada is lapping it up. The man whose boyhood ambition was to be able to afford a 25-cent tin of sardines has set out once again, in his own peculiar fashion, to bind this disparate country a little tighter by giving us more things in common to argue about and jab our fingers in other people’s chests about and grow red in the face about in beer-parlor debates.
Itwas Annis Stukus who made football a national sport — Canada’s only real national sport — by promoting and selling the professional game to first Edmonton and then Vancouver.
The result is that a raw autumn Saturday becomes the one day in the year when all Canadians have one thing in common and indulge in the strange Grey Cup rite that the sportswriters call the Grand National Drunk. Now Annis Stukus is giving it a second attempt, trying to stretch major-league hockey out to the coast from its tight little pocket in the east where it has squatted for 41 years.
If Stukus is successful in his new job, which is to fill the 15,000 seats of the newest rink on the continent (a rink which has more seats than any one of three of the established NHL clubs), everyone seems agreed that the nasty old NHL will not long be able to resist the pressure to bring lonely Vancouver into the fold.
There is, you see, an embarrassment seeping across the land. It grows out of the realization that when the NHL cynically chopped down the Vancouver application to join the league — in favor of such hockey hotbeds as St. Louis and Philadelphia — it was not only the Narcissus of the Pacific that was hurt; it was Canada itself.
Canadians who could never fathom what Walter Gordon was complaining about slowly came to realize that our national game, the one schtick that Canada guarded from the world, was being swallowed by osmosis by those dreadful Yankee imperialists. A dozen years ago there were 26 professional hockey teams / continued on page 83
HEY, STUKE! continued from page 29
“Last time I played hockey, I was 14. I got 12 penalties”
in North America, 15 of them in Canada and 11 in the United States. Today there are just four pro clubs in Canada, 29 in the U.S. The Quebec Hockey League has folded. The Western Hockey League, which had one American city among its seven clubs, now has only one Canadian city to go with four American teams. The Central Pro League has moved en masse from small Ontario cities to such American unhockey - like spots as Tulsa and Memphis.
The 12 shamateur teams of the International and Eastern Leagues are now exclusively American. The stirrings of economic nationalism. in short — jock-strap nationalism, if Walter will pardon the plagiarism—are getting to the chap in the $3.50 seats behind the penalty box.
When the decision to exclude Vancouver was announced there was even sympathy in Toronto, a city not prone to waste time feeling sorry for Vancouver. Toronto papers cited the old maxim of New York sportswriter Dan Parker: “Hockey is a great game. It has to be to survive the people who run it.” There were demands in the Commons that the NHL be investigated, protest meetings in Vancouver, and for a while it looked as if the country was going to set up a Committee of UnCanadian Activities.
And so, leading this backlash in favor of discriminated neighbor Vancouver, comes Annis Stukus, now a 53-year-old grandfather who wears blue - suede shoes with buckles, but still Annis Stukus. There’s just no duplicate around.
He is a Canadian original. His athletic credentials stand up to anyone’s:
11 years in senior football, a dominant player on two Grey Cup champions. He is an old pro in the newspaper business, with 21 years at the Toronto Star (“I survived seven purges." he says proudly ). But most of all, most important of all, he has all that blab, that Lithuanian equivalent of blarney.
Stukus, in 1967, is a freak. He is an old-time athlete who can talk. Not for him the Joe Louis bit, the museum piece who is shipped from athletic banquet to athletic banquet to mumble his few humble words of thanks. Not for him the new assembly line of college-cut athletes from U.S. campuses, with their sincere ties and degrees in market research and media communications and their pat little speeches in impeccable diction that
lead to careers selling stocks and radio advertising. Stukus can do it all: he can talk and he can tell you how' it was.
He has that rawboned look — now well fleshed out in affluence — that spells gridiron. Knute Rockne-style. He has that grating voice, constantly in need of a valve grind. He has those electric, deepset eyes, those Diefen-
baker eyes that blaze conviction in evangelistic manner. Most of all he has this hot-gospeling style, this Billy Graham conviction that the Second Coming is coming and you had all better get those tickets now or you’ll miss the big show. There’s more than a bit of Elmer Gantry in Stuke.
He’s a great lapel-clutcher, an armgrabber. a master of the lean-yourway - and - give - ’em - the - confidential - stage - whisper. Like Billy Graham, he has this absolute conviction, this scary sincerity. It sounds
like malarkcy. it undoubtedly is hokum, but he is so intense — how can you be sure, he just might be telling the truth. This is what Stuke has going for him in Vancouver now, in his new' role as general manager of the Vancouver hockey club that “sure as anything” will be getting an NHL franchise in just a few years.
“Hockey's not a bad game,” Stukus
concedes with cunning understatement. “I last played it when I was 14. I got 12 penalties and they threw me out of the game. It made me a little mad. They give you a stick and they don't let you use it.”
Stukus. shrewder than he makes out, knows he is in a town that is dying to go big league, that is full of former Prairie people and that, surprisingly, has a sound hockey background.
They were packing 10,000 a game into an old wooden arena in Vancou-
ver before World War I. Vancouver Millionaires won the Stanley Cup in 1915, and made it to the finals five more times before 1926. the date when the NHL settled into its cosy little enclave in the east. The first artificialice arenas in North America were built in Vancouver and Victoria. Vancouver is the town that displayed the Patricks, L.ester and Frank, Cyclone Taylor. Frank Boucher and Jack Adams.
Vancouver’s recent problem has been that it has had to endure a minor-league hockey team —the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Hockey League—in a hush-league rink. The 35-year-old Vancouver Forum scats only 5,000 and has been a standard nightclub-comedians' joke for years.
"The last time I took my wife there, she tore her nylons on a splintered bench and got mustard all over her coat." says Stukus. “We’ve never been back since." Neither has any Vancouver woman seeking the accoutrements of gracious living. Stukus knows the secret is to lure to the new arena, which will be finished at Christmas. the executives’ wives from the West Vancouver slopes across the water, the martini set that made football de rigueur in Vancouver in the Lions’ salad days. His first move was to order velvet ropes for the choice box seats.
With the new arena on the way, Vancouver felt assured it would be getting a franchise when the NHL finally expanded last year. Instead, in a move that threw the city into a trauma, NHL governors sold the franchises — for two million dollars apiece, thank you — to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh. St. Louis. Minneapolis-St. Paul. Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The announced excuse was that the six American cities provided a better TV market for the lucrative contracts the NHL anticipated. Vancouver's presentation was weak, but even Vancouver's soul brothers, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, turned thumbs down. There is the suspicion that the two Canadian clubs did not wish to split three ways the advertising revenues from their sponsors. Maple Leafs President Stafford Smythe was at least honest: “We can’t get any more TV customers out there in Vancouver because we’ve got them all now with our Saturday-night telecasts.”
Jf there’s one man in Canada who can change all that, it's Stukus. Fourteen years ago Stukus came to Vancouver and warned everyone they had better get their season tickets for this continued on page 85
new fumbling, laughable football team because one day they would be hard to get. Today, despite the low fortunes of the BC Lions, it is almost impossible to get a choice seat in the stadium that attracts the biggest football crowds in the country. Who can really say that it won’t be the same for hockey in, say, five years when the Montreal Canadiens are playing the Vancouver Whatstheirnames for the Stanley Cup in the new 15.000seat arena, built with space available for four cocktail bars that will be needed when the great day arrives. No one can say.
And so Stukus. the master of the imponderable, strides off and clutches the next pair of gabardine lapels.
The Stukus technique is best seen in his Romney story. Big Stuke, in his elder-statesman days, now' bears an uncanny resemblance to Michigan Governor George Romney.
Startled American tourists stop and stare at him in Vancouver hotel lobbies.
“I was down in Michigan recently,” he says, "and stopped in a bar for a beer and a sandw'ich. There 1 was, sipping a beer, smoking a cigarette, my wife on my arm.’’ Romney, a Mormon, is a noted nonsmoker and nondrinker.
Everyone was looking my way and whispering. The word’s probably around by now. I figure it w'ill cost him the Republican nomination.”
Now. was Stukus actually in Michigan? Did he really stop in a bar? Who knows? Who cares? It’s a good story. The Stukus legend marches on.
The point is that undistilled Stukus is a rare, valuable commodity in the big business that masquerades itself as sport. The cold-eyed men in the shiny metallic suits who run professional sport are onto a very lucrative thing in this age when we like to get our thrills vicariously.
There are tremendous profits to be made from strong-backed young men who will go out on a field or rink or diamond and do or die for Dear Old Coach.
Example: In 1960 the backers of the new Minnesota Vikings franchise paid $600.000 to get into the National Football League. Five years later, the Atlanta Falcons had to pay $8,500,000 for the same priviledge.
Example: In 1960 the three U.S. TV networks paid out a total of $ 15million to telecast sports events. In 1966, CBS alone paid $41.600.000 for the lights to broadcast NFL football for 1966-67, One minute of advertising on NFL telecasts costs $70,000, $20,000 more per minute than on Bonanza, which has twice as many viewers.
Example: The men who run Maple Leaf Gardens, by applying every commercial trick imaginable, have taken Gardens stock worth $30 a share, split it five ways — and it’s still worth $30. The betting is they’ll soon sell out to Imperial Oil for a gigantic capital gain.
Promoters no longer even have to put up their own money to provide arenas in which to earn their loot. Cities eager to acquire big-league status have taxpayers foot the bill. Prime Minister Pearson, badly in need
of Liberal support in the west, blushed not at all when he announced in 1965 that the federal government would pay one third the cost of a new six-million-dollar Vancouver ice rink which. Pearson described with a straight face, would be an "allpurpose trade centre."
At the dedication ceremonies, Vancouver-Quadra MP Grant Deachman dropped two silver dollars into the wet concrete to signify the federal contribution. The coins, prophetically, sank from sight.
With all this largesse, the one thing promoters cannot buy is enthusiasm. They cannot purchase on the open market, as they purchase hockey slaves and new franchises, the magic ingredient that will emit propaganda and fervor 18 hours a day and gobble up newspaper ink from jaundiced news editors who guard the front page. Enter Annis Stukus. Long before McLuhan, Stukus knew that the people want involvement, participation, and they get it with wrap-around drama in tales as only Stukus can tell.
Stukus is one of those conversationalists who is uninterruptable. One waits for an opening, a break in the narrative, but the opportunity never comes. There is always the impression that he is building toward some inexorable concluding point, is progressing toward some philosophical truth that will stop only slightly short of Santayana or Kierkegaard. The Olympian conclusion, of course, never arrives. One flees the monologue — exhausted, enthused, but empty. What did he say? Nothing, really. But you
go away inflamed with whatever cause the man is plugging at the moment.
Stukus attributes his gung-ho spirit to his father. Pranas Stukus at 18 was drafted into the Czar’s army from his native Lithuania. On his release, he decided to migrate to Canada. “Can you imagine?” son Annis says. “Setting out in those days halfway around the world, to a strange society, not knowing a word of English? That’s where I got my attitude. Don’t tell me ‘it can’t be done.’ Anything can. My dad is proof of that.”
Pranas Stukus went to work in a Toronto foundry. His three sons, in classic immigrant fashion, used sports as a means of escaping their ghetto.
For the “Stuki.” the ghetto was just off Bathurst. “It was Little Italy, Little Jerusalem . . . Lithuanians, Poles. I don’t think I heard English till I started school.” Anicautis Stukus, as he was christened (the "Annis” comes from a teacher who took the easy way out the first day of school when confronted with “Anicautis” on the roll call), started on football at the age of eight, with a sock stuffed with leaves. At 10 he was a backfielder with the Gore Vale Rats, at 15 a copyboy at the Toronto Star. At 17. by now head copyboy at eight dollars a week, he had organized an entire league of his own, lining up coaches, equipment and parks.
It was the depths of the Depression, 1933, which explains that fixation for sardines. “I used to have to share a four-cent tin of Canadian sardines with my brother. My dream, my life ambition was to make enough money to buy one of those 25-cent tins of sardines — and eat it all by myself.” Stukus always tried harder. He played four years with the Toronto Argonauts before he learned that the other players were getting paid for it. His 1938 wedding to Doris Shannon, a CBC girl from Ottawa, had to wait until his football game was over. He limped down the aisle.
Big Stuke seemed destined for the story-telling oblivion that comes to overage athletes, serving out his time with the Star, when Edmonton beckoned in 1949. The oil centre had just seen the little cowtown to the south, Calgary, capture the nation with its boisterous show at the 1948 Grey Cup in Toronto. It was the occasion that turned a mere football game into a festival. It became apparent that Edmonton, as capital of the province, needed to take another look at this game that it had abandoned years earlier. They called for Stuke.
Stukus trekked west, dragging a
HEY, STUKE! continued
“Since Stuke’s come, the phone’s gone mad. They want him”
passie of old Argo buddies with him. He even strolled out onto the field himself to kick field goals and converts, wearing his wristwatch, no helmet and no pads. “A bit of psychology,” he confides. “It gave our boys confidence.” He lasted three years, got into the western finals twice—hut the nucleus he established became the
dynasty that captured the Grey Cup in 1954, 1955 and 1956.
By this time Vancouver wanted in on the party. The beautiful Pacific city had always heen content in its isolation, but on that boisterous Saturday each year when the nation turned its attention to football and drinking, Vancouver was the wallflower. A
group of Vancouver businessmen, gathered to watch the 1952 Grey Cup on TV, decided that enough was enough. Again the call went out to the sports desk at the Star where Stuke had retreated to lick his wounds.
Vancouver was fertile ground for the Stukus legend. He averaged a speech a day for the first 11 months,
sold 7,500 season tickets before Vancouver really had a team, and wound up with every attendance record in the country in Empire Stadium.
When he went to where all football coaches go, to the chopping block, he merely continued the legend for five years as a sportswriter at the Vancouver Sun. The 1958 crisis over the offshore Chinese islands of Quemoy and Matsu erupted while Sun columnist Jack Scott was having a flamboyant six-month try at running the paper.
Who best to cover a crisis that threatened world war? Scott decided football editor Stukus was the man.
Preparing for all eventualities, Stukus and a photographer armed with a shovel first headed for the sand of Vancouver’s English Bay. Long before he arrived in Formosa to interview Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the photographs of Stukus “in a foxhole at the front lines,” were all ready in the Sun darkroom.
Stukus naturally operates better in smaller cities (on what street corner in Toronto would a man stand to clutch lapels?), so his latest sevenyear escapade as football expert for the Toronto Telegram and CFTO-TV have been relatively quiet.
Out west, he feels free to fly untrameled. “Since he’s arrived.” says hockey program manager Hugh Watson, “the phone’s been going like mad. Board of Trade . . . Rotary . . . all the big ones — they want him to speak. This is the type of publicity we’d pay $1,000 to get — and they're coming to us. They want him.”
What they want, of course, is Stukus, and they’ll endure a little hockey propaganda on the side. And Stukus has a story to tell that he couldn’t have told, say. six or eight months ago. For, after the first flushes of enthusiasm for hockey in the U.S., the reaction has set in. The anticipated TV response has not materialized, and several of the newly enfranchised American cities arc managing to subdue eagerness to watch this strange Canadian game. The Philadelphia entry has changed hands already. “We’ll be in the league within three years,” says Coleman E. Hall, the cagey hockey veteran who is bossing the Vancouver operation.
Even the Americans, it seems, can now see the disadvantage of having only two Canadian clubs — against 10 American teams — displaying the game that is supposed to be Canada's gift to the world.
To add to the Stukus good fortune, Vancouver has soured on its onccbeloved Lions. Grey Cup champions only three years ago, the Lions have since been concentrating on such pastimes as climbing lamp posts in their cars, suspending their star quarterback and — in the celebrated case of linebacker Rudy Reschke — taking a bite out of the posterior of a beer-parlor waitress. (“He bit the hind that fed him,” wrote Sun columnist Denny Boyd.)
Meanwhile, Stukus charges about in glee, exuding supreme confidence. The Canucks sold about 800 season tickets last year. “I’ll sell 5,000 easy, says Stuke. “If he sells 2,000 I’ll be happy,” growls Hall. “The main problem is getting him out of my office. Man, he talks.” ★