OUR VIEW YOUR VIEW

Canadians (Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Hockey) want their sport back. Militantly and massively, you’re telling us that what this country needs is a NATIONAL National Hockey League!

BOB BOSSIN December 1 1970
OUR VIEW YOUR VIEW

Canadians (Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Hockey) want their sport back. Militantly and massively, you’re telling us that what this country needs is a NATIONAL National Hockey League!

BOB BOSSIN December 1 1970

Canadians (Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Hockey) want their sport back. Militantly and massively, you’re telling us that what this country needs is a NATIONAL National Hockey League!

OUR VIEW YOUR VIEW

BOB BOSSIN

LAST JULY I wrote an article in Maclean’s called What this country needs is a sport it can call its own. We used to have one. Hockey. At the time, I had just read that the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens had threatened to move their franchises to American cities in the face of proposed tax reforms that would end tax-deductible season tickets for businesses. Now I am not particularly nationalistic, but that got me mad. Surely, if anything could be said to be “Canadian,” hockey was it. Not because the British garrison played a version of the game somewhere back in history, but because we create the game ourselves, each generation of us — in school yards, on neighborhood rinks, in church leagues, in our poetry. We pour money and time and attention on it like water from a garden hose, spraying the backyard in mid-December. Yet, we have also done something rare outside of North America. We allowed the final, richest product of all this attention to be turned from a common good into private property. And the men who own the property have done what it was most in their interest to do: sell it to the U.S.

I am really itching to catalogue again the ways in which the NHL

killed or maimed other Canadian hockey leagues and the teams — including the National team — in order to gain a monopoly of top-quality hockey. I would like to describe again how that monopoly has worked with its high prices, long-term season tickets, would like to compare again the NHL’s paltry assistance to the development of amateur hockey to its extraordinary profits. (The owners of the Leafs, for instance, made $987,795 profits last year on $6,424,193 total revenue, or 15% profit — compared with 6% for an average movie theatre and 8% for General Motors.) But, for that kind of information, you will have to turn back to the July Maclean’s, or read Bruce Kidd’s detailed essay in Close The 49th Parallel (University of Toronto Press).

At the end of my July piece, I argued that the government should place controls on (or, better still, nationalize) the Leafs and Canadiens while we could still get our hands on them. And I quoted Bruce Kidd’s suggestion of a second major hockey league with community-owned teams in a dozen Canadian cities. (In the beginning, players could be bid away from the old teams the way they were when the American Football League was formed.) That seemed to make sense to me, and I asked if it made sense to the readers.

Did it ever! Four months after the column was published, letters were still coming in. In fact, the response was the largest drawn by any article in Maclean’s in years — 10 times the amount of mail considered a healthy feedback. Altogether, the letters represented as wide a cross section of Canada as you could imagine. They came from Quesnel, British Columbia, and Bathurst, New Brunswick; from Deux Montagnes, Quebec, and Toronto; from “rural route” addresses and from Mount Royal; from whole businesses, families, high-school students, socialists and grandmothers. Almost a quarter were from women. Only two letters were unfavorable. Many came with personal complaints that the writer

linked to the NHL domination of hockey: dirty play in the kids’ league in Vernon, BC; sportswriters toeing the team owners’ line (from Ottawa); subsidized advertising on Hockey Night In Canada (Kingston). The angriest letters seemed to come from Manitoba and British Columbia, probably because of the people’s direct experience with the Vancouver franchise and the National team. Some letters were highly nationalistic. A few readers expanded on Kidd’s or my solution, with two sending complete essays on the economics of big-league hockey. Excerpts from the letters form the rest of this month’s In Our View/Your View section. It’s really all yours.

In asking what the readers felt, I had said that Prime Minister Trudeau’s favorite excuse for not doing something was to shrug and say, “But that is what the Canadian people want.” I think we have dispelled that one. But I discovered, by approaching a number of people with a portfolio of the letters, that what the Canadian people really want does not seem to make all that much difference.

While the government is “concerned about the state of hockey in Canada,” according to Ian Howard, executive assistant to John Munro, Minister of Health and Welfare, “our method is to try to co-operate with the existing structures rather than get into the hockey business ourselves.” Existing structures means, of course, the NHL. Anyway, throughout Canadian history, the Liberals have represented the soft line on American interest in Canada. Since they have shown little objection to the take-over of some of our other resources, it would be surprising if they took a new stand over hockey. The chances of the Conservatives attacking private industry, including the hockey industry, are pretty slim. That leaves the NDP. While repatriating hockey would fit easily into the new economic nationalism of the party’s Waffle group, the Wafflers are in the minority; and, even if they were to hold sway, a lot of hockey fans

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would have to change their voting pattern before the NDP could do anything about hockey, even if it wanted to.

Outside of the government, there is Hockey Canada, formed by Ottawa two years ago to “foster and support the playing of hockey in Canada.” While it is trying to improve hockey at the grass roots, it is not about to start working on the flower. “We aren't a regulatory body," says Chris Hay, secretary of Hockey Canada. “We’re really just a federation of our member groups.” One of those groups is the NHL, and sitting on the board of Hockey Canada are Stafford Smythe, president of the Leafs, David Molson, president of the Canadiens, and Cyrus MacLean, chairman of the Vancouver Canucks. Those guys get around.

Turning to the private sector, entrepreneurs are not likely to set up higleague hockey in Canada for the same reason that the NHL didn’t: the money is bigger in the States. Scott Young says that the NHL is about as hard to tackle as General Motors, and for the same reasons. Young is one of the few sportswriters who has consistently challenged the NHL.

The one man who doesn’t seem worried about all this is Clarence Campbell, president of the NHL. As to the Americanization of hockey, he told me: “Teams have always shifted north and south of the border. It is only realistic that the best teams will go where the people want them and are able to pay for them.” He figures the difference in market between Canada and the U.S. means that a second league, even one without profits, could never compete with the NHL. It all makes perfect sense, when you start with hockey as private property.

Giving hockey back to the people is not going to be as easy as it first appeared. Actually, I would be pretty pessimistic if it weren’t for the letters, but if that many people stay that mad, and start getting together with more mad people, we sure could unseat some politicians, and maybe even some hockey czars. W. P. Janssen, of Hedlin Menzies in Winnipeg, by all means get together with R. G. Spencer of the Community Planning Association in Vancouver. Miss Timmons, start to organize right there in Deux Montagnes. We had better start soon because it will take some time. Meanwhile, of course, Messrs. Smythe, Molson and company will be laughing all the way to the bank — quite possibly the Bank of America. □

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