BOOKS

Slaves on ice

A new book documents hockey owners’ greed

TRENT FRAYNE October 7 1991
BOOKS

Slaves on ice

A new book documents hockey owners’ greed

TRENT FRAYNE October 7 1991

Slaves on ice

BOOKS

A new book documents hockey owners’ greed

NET WORTH: EXPLODING THE MYTHS OF PRO HOCKEY By David Cruise and Alison Griffiths (Penguin, 391 pages, $27.99)

Few people are more grossly overpaid than professional athletes, the looming hulks who draw down millions for playing games that you and I outgrew years ago. Even so, Victoria-based writers David Cruise and Alison Griffiths have undertaken to examine another aspect of this economic phenomenon: the greed and avarice of hockey’s owners and entrepreneurs, who bilked the muscled serfs for roughly half a century. As they write, “Hockey owners have always been as flint-edged and parsimonious a group as exists in professional sport.”

That pretty well sets the tone for Net Worth, which the authors say is the product of “2V2 years, four filing cabinets of documents, 19 research trips and over 400 interviews.”

Cruise and Griffiths have uncovered some mighty fascinating nuggets, ranging from the long-ago wily manoeuvring of Conn Smythe and James E. Norris to the modern-day skirmishing around Wayne Gretzky and Eric Lindros. And in between, there are some intriguing vignettes concerning the foulmouthed agent Alan Eagleson.

Still, it’s an uneven work.

In spite of 16 pages of “endnotes”—a mishmash bibliography—numerous allegations go undocumented. Such as this one about Norris, the bulky grain baron who owned or controlled the Detroit Red Wings, the Chicago Black Hawks and the New York Rangers: “Norris strode through life with a bull-like arrogance, but his demeanor masked consider-

able subtlety. When no one was looking, he could slide off with the hush of a snake, negotiate some quiet but monumental deal and reappear in another place entirely, with neither his name nor his fingerprints visible anywhere on the transaction.” (Norris was once so powerful in hockey that then Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Jim Coleman often wrote of the NHL as “the Norris House League.”)

About Smythe, the authors note that this man who built Maple Leaf Gardens was often applauded as a hockey purist because he refused to expand the seating beyond its sold-out capacity of 12,737 (it is now close to 16,000). “In truth, keeping the Gardens underdeveloped and underutilized deflated the share price and allowed him to slowly pick up undervalued stock at a bargain,” they write. “The books were poked, prodded and curried masterfully to show no hint of either the hockey team’s or the arena’s real profitability.” Noting that Smythe had a hand in breaking up efforts by

players to form a union in

1956, the authors come up with another extraordinary statement. They write that Smythe instructed his lawyer, Ian S. Johnston, to find a way to block the union, and that Johnston was successful in ferreting out an unnamed informant in the Maple Leafs’ dress-

ing room. This informant’s reports, the authors say, “allowed the owners to put tremendous pressure on specific players.”

Cruise and Griffiths’ research unveiled some light moments, too. James Norris’s son, Jim, who also became a boxing czar, was often accompanied by an “austere figure, who lurked in the corridors at NHL board of governors’ meetings.” It was Sammy (Golf Bag) Hunt, a hit man who got the nickname by carrying a machine-gun in a golf bag. The guy would shout “Fore!” before blowing somebody away.

An enduring mystery has been the cause of the breakup between agent Eagleson and Bobby Orr. The Eagle took on Orr when Bobby was 18 and about to join the Boston Bruins. The success of this union had a lot to do with the formation of the National Hockey League Players Association, of which Eagleson became executive director, ruling the players like a plantation owner. But early in 1980, with his career prematurely ended by knee injuries, Orr became disillusioned with his arrangement with Eagleson. Three years earlier, Eagleson

had proclaimed that Bobby Orr Enterprises was generating $400,000 a year. Now it had “few assets and no future,” the authors write.

“Worst of all,” they continue, “Eagleson, who had once said Orr was ‘fixed for life,’ now told him it was all his fault for spending too much and ignoring Eagleson’s sound investment advice. Angry at the turn of events, nearly broken inside over the loss of his career and hurt by Eagleson’s clear message that he had become a liability, Orr walked away from the man he had once called a brother.”

Even non-fans are familiar with much of the ongoing saga of hockey’s foremost child prodigy, Eric Lindros, but even fans will be engrossed by the account of his awakening to the fact that hockey is a dog-eat-dog business. He was 16, and had been drafted by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound juniors, a team then owned by former NHL star Phil Esposito, who had been told by Lindros’s parents and his agent that he would not report if the Greyhounds selected him. Even so, they went ahead. “I thought my life was over,” Lindros says. “There were a lot of lessons in that. Phil Esposito didn’t really care about where a 16-year-old kid was going to end up playing hockey. Didn’t really care about his life.” Then he adds: “And what goes around comes around.”

As it has in his current squabble with the Quebec Nordiques. The authors are on top of that one, too, as they are in almost everything in their absorbing book.

TRENT FRAYNE