CLARENCE, THERE’S SOMETHING WE’VE BEEN MEANING TO TELL YOU . . .
CLARENCE, THERE’S SOMETHING WE’VE BEEN MEANING TO TELL YOU . . .
On any given day in any given year between 1946 and 1975, the National Hockey League has been treated by the media as if it were the veritable commonwealth of Clarence Sutherland Campbell. He has been president of the NHL for 28 years; longer than Napoleon ruled France, longer than Hitler dictated to Germany and longer than Mackenzie King presided over the Canadian government.
This year, his bosses, the NHL team owners, have finally decided, barring a last-minute change of plans, that Campbell has to go: the sooner the better.
Editorial page writers from the Toronto Star to the New York Times and even the Atlanta Journal have recently condemned NHL quality and deplored the violence in the games. Franchises such as Oakland and Pittsburgh have weakened the league’s image. Campbell’s pompous “it’ll never get off the ground” attitude toward the World Hockey Association backfired in his face. It encouraged the new league’s growth and ultimately led to the defection of such former NHL “institutions” as Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull. The NHL “spectacle,” as Campbell likes to call his product, has deteriorated in sales value to the point where, for the first time in years, the league is in serious danger of losing its lucrative U.S. network television contract.
It is possible that the NHL would not have run up all these debits if Campbell’s employers, the owners, had put Clarence out to pasture in 1970 when he reached the age of 65. But probably a good part of the responsibility for the NHL’s troubles lies with the owners themselves. In the last few years of Campbell’s reign, it has become more than apparent that the owners were pulling him in a dozen different directions. In any showdown, the governors invariably overruled Campbell. A stronger man might have fought back harder but Campbell has acted more like a puppet tangled in its strings than the decisive president of a huge operation.
“Campbell never had the guts to take a big stand on an important issue,” says Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Scott Young. “He had the responsibility to bloody well lay his job on the line over an issue. If the owners wouldn’t listen, he should have walked out the door and quit.”
Instead of quitting, Campbell has remained in office, sitting, as sports critic Jack Olsen once put it, “like the man dunked by baseballs at the carnival.” Clarence has absorbed all the curves and spitballs his bosses could throw at him.
The supreme example of Campbell’s “flexibility” was his stand over the issue of NHL expansion. In the early Sixties, Clarence openly ridiculed the idea. “Expansion talk,” Campbell said mockingly in 1965, “is newspaper talk.”
But the NHL’s balance of power was rapidly shifting toward a group of expansionists headed by New York Rangers’ president Bill Jennings. And when the league voted to expand in 1966, Clarence said, with no sign of embarrassment, that he thought expansion was a wonderful idea.
One of his bosses summed up this acrobatic performance rather bluntly. “Clarence Campbell,” the NHL governor as-
serted, “is nothing but a parliamentary clerk.”
In the spring of 1971, Campbell fined Stafford Smythe’s Maple Leafs and Bill Jennings’ Rangers $5,000 apiece for a fight in the Stanley Cup play-offs. Jennings and Smythe balked at the fine. Backed against the boardroom wall, Campbell reduced the fines by $3,000 for each team.
Like the schoolyard bully, Campbell traditionally has been tough on the league’s 98-pound weaklings and knee-wobbly when confronted with NHL heavyweights. Thus he felt no compunction about suspending players Don Gallinger and Billy Taylor from the NHL for life in 1948 after they had admitted betting on hockey games. But he would not bar convicted criminals such as Harold Ballard and Tom Scallen (above) from owning teams. By contrast, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn bounced New York Yankees’ boss George Steinbrenner out of baseball for two years last winter after Steinbrenner had been convicted and fined for making illegal election contributions to Richard Nixon in 1972.
“Loyalty,” says Campbell-supporter Jim Coleman, Southam News Service columnist, “is one of his virtues.”
Perhaps. But according to several NHL players, fairness isn’t. Especially when it comes to penalizing violent players.
Campbell will rush to penalize third-rate players but will spread his protective cocoon around the likes of Bobby Orr. During a Leafs-Bruins play-off game in April, 1971, Orr went into a tantrum over a call by referee John Ashley. Instead of severely punishing Orr, Campbell fudged. “There’s no justification for me to act in this case,” he said. “If I did, I would have to referee every game after it was played.” Chicago Black Hawks’ forward Jim Pappin drew a fivegame suspension for abusing referee Bob Myers early this season and charged that Campbell has one code of rules for average players and another for the stars. “I’ve lost all respect for the man,” snapped Pappin. Philadelphia Flyers’ captain Bobby Clarke followed Pappin’s blast with a demand of his own that Campbell resign.
The overriding sentiment among the owners this spring was that Campbell is just too old to be president. An unknown attorney for the St. Louis Blues, James D. Cullen, emerged for a time as a favorite in the race to fill his footsteps, with support from owner-heavyweights Bruce (Detroit) Norris and Bill (Chicago) Wirtz. The thought of an American heading the NHL grated on some Canadian interests and Toronto Maple Leafs’ governor Robert M. Sedgewick has now moved into the picture as an eleventh-hour entry.
Campbell has obviously been fielding a lot of criticism and abuse but despite that and the fact that the skids have been greased for his immediate exit, he appears as sanguine about his job and performance as the Pharaoh Ramses II.
“After all,” says Clarence, “the sun doesn’t have to say it shines.”
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