What this country needs is a sport it can call its own. We used to have one. Hockey
What this country needs is a sport it can call its own. We used to have one. Hockey
IN OUR VIEW — AND YOURS
THIS MONTH'S COLUMN may seem odd for the time of the year but it is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. and the more I think about it the madder I get. I hope you will get mad, too, because I’m talking about the rip-off of our national sport.
"Rip-off’’ is a street term. It has a nasty little sound, but then it is a nasty
thing. Rip-off means theft, viewed not legally but morally. It is not a rip-off when a poor man steals a loaf of bread. It is a rip-off, however, when the management of a theatre intentionally stocks only large paper cups so that it can get away with charging 25 cents for all soft drinks. Still, that's just a minor rip-off; it involves only money. A worse kind occurs when someone takes away something that belongs to all of us for his private benefit. It's a big rip-off when a logging company gets a chunk of Algonquin Park. Stripmining in the mountains of British Columbia is a rip-off, and so is pollution of the Great Lakes. And, finally, what 1 started out to say is that the National Hockey League is a rip-off.
When I was young, mv father read me a story about some crooks who stole the letter “O" and would not let anyone use it. I thought it was a good story, but silly. I didn't know much then about what was happening to Canadian hockey. Hockey is ours. We create and nurture it from the time we are kids. There were only two seasons when I was growing up. Hockey and Other. And even during Other we played hockey on the road or in the school yard, poking at a tennis ball with last season’s broken-bladed stick, wrapped in black tape all frayed at the bottom from scraping along the ground. We made a goal out of twoC by-fours and burlap, or just out ofJá couple of bunched-up windbreakers. The goalie wore a baseball glove. When I was 11 or 12. I noticed that people over 16 no longer played street hockey, and I dreaded being that old. I haven’t played for nearly a decade but, by
Nationalize the Leafs! Nationalize the____ Canadiens! Give hockey back to the people (BELOW) Glum thoughts on divorce, Canadian-style:_ Quick now, how many happily married young Canadian couples do yo uknow? lt;p. m Plus! Our readers’ revenge—more hot last words on inflation, the rich, the poor, sweet suffering womanhood, and other grabbers for our time lt;p 20 3o>_________
God, if someone came to the door today with a couple of sticks trailing their friction tape down the hall. I’d follow him out to the asphalt.
Come winter, we played hockey on school-yard rinks or. if you belonged to one of a thousand sponsored teams, you played at the local arena, wearing a sweater that said something like “Menzies’ Variety Store.'' I wonder if anyone has ever lost a finger to frostbite while holding the nozzle of a garden hose and spraying the backyard on a 10-degree night in December. As teenagers, we’d pile into a friend's oid Mercury at 1 a.m. and find a deserted rink where we could break into the fuse box to turn on a light. We’d play for a couple of hours, or until the cops showed up, and then rest in the old Merc and drink bottles of pop, if they hadn’t frozen.
Being from Toronto we got to see the Leafs play, too. The only tickets we could get were General Admission, and that meant standing. You got there early and lined up against the wall while all the seat-holders were let in, and then, five minutes before the game, you charged up three or four sets of stairs in order to stand for the next couple of hours behind the end blues, which were the prize standing-room spots, or behind the greens, for which you stili had to be early and fast on your feet, or way up behind the greys, where you would stare down the crowded cavern to the ice. Even then you had to deke and shove because they always oversold General Admissions and, ten minutes into the first period, people were standing three and four deep. One year,
Maple Leaf Gardens developed a class of “preferred” standing room, charging two dollars a ticket, which none of us could afford. Preferred standees got in first, and they made up the front layer. I was about five-feet-five at the time, and just quit going.
I’ll stop reminiscing about hockey, although it would be easy to go on and on. It would be easy for millions of Canadians to go on and on about hockey. And that is the main reason why it is so maddening that, except on television, most of us never get to see the final, richest result of our devotion to the sport. Why is it that there’s no major league team in Halifax, St. John’s, Quebec, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary or Victoria? And even if you live in Toronto or Montreal, why is it that you haven’t a chance to buy a seat, except from scalpers? And why is it that the NHL clubs put virtually no money back into community hockey projects, when these same clubs earn a million dollars a year out of our passion for our game? Recently, when faced with taxation reforms that would end tax-deductible season tickets for businesses, the managements of both Maple Leaf Gardens and the Montreal Canadiens threatened to sell their franchises to American cities. The Miami Maple Leafs. How could they even talk that way?
The answer is that hockey has been ripped-off. The community good has become private property and already, in the sale of NHL franchises, the owners have done what it was most in their own interest to do: sell out to the United States.
One person who has done a lot of thinking about this is Bruce Kidd, whom you may remember as Canada’s young long-distance runner with the floppy arms. Kidd is a civil servant.
“Even in strictly economic terms,” he says, “you can’t justify what happens in big-league hockey. A good hockey player doesn’t become an investment at 20 when a club starts to pay him. He starts playing at four, and his development is subsidized by schools, churches, service clubs. Every village in Canada builds an arena with public funds and volunteer labor, putting off all other priorities. Canada and the U.S. are the only two countries in the world that don’t recognize this. In every other country, at least some of the profits frcm sport go back into the community sports program.”
The profits are enormous. Maple Leaf Gardens in the last fiscal year had a gross revenue of $6,424,193 and a net profit, after taxes, of $987,795. Their annual profit was
15% of gross revenue, which is not bad when you consider that General Motors’ profit runs at about 8%, and the average movie theatre makes about 6% or 7%. Big grocery chains claim to operate at 1.5% profit. Last year Maple Leaf Gardens made more money than ever, and the annual report states, “Most of this increase resulted from raising the price of hockey tickets.” The report adds, “The increase in gross revenue more than offset the increase in operating expenses.” And, as if that weren’t enough, the owners attempted to claim $2,160,000 they made from the sale of the new American franchises as capital gain, and therefore not taxable. I have forgotten where the snake that descended from the “greed” square in the old Snakes and Ladders game led, but that’s where I hope the club owners go.
Bruce Kidd is more kind. “Stafford Smythe and the NHL Board just personify what we allowed, and
What the Maritimes really need is twice as few experts telling them what the Maritimes really need.
Prof. Simon Leigh, Fredericton
even encouraged, to happen when we commercialized sports. They have merely tried to maximize profit for their hockey corporations. It’s the byproducts that are so unpleasant.”
One of these by - products is the Americanization of the game. Of 45 commercial hockey teams, only five are located in Canada. Ten of the 12 NHL directorships are American. In fact, Clarence Campbell has said that the main reason the NHL head office is located in Canada is to avoid American congressional investigation.
“It’s natural that profit - centred sports would locate in the U.S.,” Kidd explains, “because the market is bigger and the average annual income is higher. And there are the American TV rights. Look at the Vancouver franchise. In the first expansion, the city was turned down because the NHL directors wanted to crash the U.S. TV market, and CBC was already paying for a full season of shows. Then, when CBS threatened to drop the games because ratings were so low, and when five of the six new clubs lost friQiney at the gate — well then the 1|IHL became more patriotic and gavera franchise to Vancouver. Although they still charged so much for it that only an American group could afford it.”
Kidd blames the near demise of Canada’s senior hockey on the NHL's
buying away any talent that might offer a rival attraction. The league is now beginning to have the same effect on junior hockey. The NHL got the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association to lower the age of junior competition by a year. When the regional association, representing 200,000 of the 265,000 registered players, asked that the higher age be reinstated, the NHL refused to reconsider. Kidd also talks about how the NHL used the CAHA to keep Father Bauer’s national team from getting even the best amateur players, and thus possibly turning into a competitor for gate receipts. The quality of the hockey was not considered. “That’s the worst thing: all down the line the values of the sport are replaced by the values of cutthroat business competition. It hurts everybody.”
If the problem is large, the solution is simple, and just involves catching up with the rest of the world: we should insist, by law, that the Canadian NHL teams act responsibly, that they share profits with community sports programs and set a ticket policy that doesn’t discriminate against all but the very rich. Or even better, we could make the Canadian NHL teams into community co - operatives, or simply nationalize them. Bruce Kidd suggests an even more radical step: start a second major hockey league, with teams in a dozen Canadian cities. To begin, players could be bid away from the old teams, the way they were when the American Football League was formed. There would be other advantages to playing hockey in a league that was not based strictly on profit: a shorter and less debilitating schedule than the NHL’s; a new degree of player control over league policy; an intelligent approach to university study programs and to off-season employment. And the players would not have to live the better part of the year in the United States.
All that is needed to make these things happen is the drive to demand it, and that’s where getting mad comes in. The push will not come from sportswriters, who are mostly apologists for the club owners, and it will not come from the Liberal government, Canada’s traditional party of big business and American interest in the country. Trudeau’s favorite justification for not changing something is to shrug and say, “But this is what the Canadian people want.” We can put an end to that argument straight off. I am presupposing that most readers agree with me. If you do, then write to me at Maclean’s. We can start the campaign right now. And if it works, we might take a look at the insurance companies. □
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