Articles

WHAT PUT HOCKEY ON THE SKIDS ?

TRENT FRAYNE March 15 1953
Articles

WHAT PUT HOCKEY ON THE SKIDS ?

TRENT FRAYNE March 15 1953

WHAT PUT HOCKEY ON THE SKIDS ?

TRENT FRAYNE

N A January day in 1946 Frank Boucher, manager of the New York Rangers, predicted the early demise of big-time hockey in Canada, lo Boucher it was not, however, a melancholy prediction. He simply thought the game’s future was so bright that its centre of gravity would move south to the vast rich entertainment-hungry cities of the United States.

Although his own team was ensconced firmly in the National Hockey League’s cellar, Boucher pointed out that the Rangers seldom played to fewer than fifteen thousand people in Madison Square Garden. The Boston fire department, he noted, had demanded that a maximum of 13,900 people be permitted to watch the Bruins in the Boston Garden, turning away hundreds of ticket-seekers every game. In Chicago, he reminded assembled sports writers, there were generally more tha'n seventeen thousand enthusiasts in the barnlike Chicago Stadium.

That wasn’t all. The day was not far off, he surmised, when hockey would be a thriving thing in Texas. College teams were stirring up interest in southern California. Amateur teams were thrilling vast numbers of matinee patrons in New York and Baltimore and Washington. Nothing could stop the exodus of the best Canadian players to the United States now that the war was over.

In the intervening seven years a great deal has, indeed, happened to Canada’s national sport. But it hasn’t been engulfed by applauding Americans. On the contrary, there is room for real apprehension about the game’s future in the United States and concern for what’s happened to it in some parts of Canada.

Although hockey is st ill flourishing in isolated sections as a spectator sport there is no question that there’s something wrong with it in numerous others. Cities where it blossomed— New York and Omaha, Regina and Kansas City, Moncton and Minneapolis, Boston and even Winnipeg, traditional home of sell-out crowds and great players have either abandoned the game completely or regard it with indifference. The prairie provinces once abounded with top-flight senior teams and the Maritimes always had a strong senior team contending for the Allan Cup. Not any more.

Today the Allan Cup final is of little more than intermediate calibre and hardly anyone but the teams involved could name last spring’s finalists. Superseding the Allan Cup in pseudo-amateur prominence is the Alexandra Trophy which is of interest to virtually no one except followers of the Quebec

Senior Hockey League. Such familiar and fascinating names as those of the Trail Smoke Eaters, the Port Arthur Bearcats, the Sydney Millionaires, the Moncton Hawks, the Regina Caps and the Kimberley Dynamiters are gone from the senior scene altogether or have a small local following.

The Memorial Cup junior final bears not a vestige of its former appeal. People who thrilled to national junior finals between the Winnipeg Monarchs and the Copper Cliff Redmen, the St. Boniface Seals and the Oshawa Generals or the Winnipeg Rangers and the Montreal Royals have a difficult time reconciling what they saw with the utter debacle of the last five years in which the western challenger had trouble winning a single game, much less a series. The Memorial Cup series attracted more than a hundred thousand people to the seven games involving the Winnipeg Monarchs and the Toronto St. Michael’s in 1945. Last spring, attendance barely reached twenty thousand as the Guelph Biltmores routed the Regina Pats. Ten or twelve years ago it was almost as difficult to get a ticket for the Memorial Cup final as it was for last year’s Grey Cup football game. Attendance was so poor for the ReginaGuelph series last spring that one game was transferred from Maple Leaf Gardens to Guelph on the accurate assumption that at least the home-town adherents would exhibit enthusiasm.

Professionally, the United States Hockey League, involving such cities as Omaha, Tulsa, St. Paul and Kansas City, folded its tent and quietly disappeared. The American Hockey League, the game’s top minor circuit, dropped four teams — Indianapolis, New Haven, Cincinnati and Springfield — from its two divisions, added Syracuse and consolidated into a seven-team division. One of these, Buffalo, has offered two admissions for the price of one, matinee games and ladies’ nights in an effort to attract customers this season. A couple of years earlier the Eastern United States Hockey League, involving the New York Rovers and the Atlantic City Sea Gulls among others, gave up the ghost.

If there is anything wrong with hockey in the NHL it is not reflected in attendance figures in Montreal, Toronto and, to a lesser extent, Detroit. Crowds at these cities, in fact, kept the league’s over-all attendance last year from falling further than the 5.97 percent drop of the preceding season.

Junior hockey gates are healthy in the Ontario Hockey Association A group and in the Quebec Junior Hockey League., which play an interlocking schedule. The Quebec senior league, sparked by Quebec City’s remarkable player, Jean Marc Beliveau, who refuses each year Continued on page 63 to join the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens, is drawing as well, if not better, than it ever did. The Western Hockey League, a professional circuit, is doing well, with even last-place Victoria showing a profit. But only Saskatoon, Edmonton and Calgary are represented in topcalibre professional or amateur hockey from Port Arthur to the Coast.

In New York, Boston and Chicago, hockey is in competition with outstanding attractions, either in sports or other fields of entertainment. Directors of those three NHL clubs in recent years have forbidden the NHL publicity office to release their attendance figures, and have on occasion, according to a National League official, given out figures for public consumption in excess of the actual total. Chicago, which holds the all-time single game attendance record — 20,004 on Feb. 23, 1947—and Boston have resorted to matinee games as experiments to bolster attendances that sometimes slipped below five thousand.

New York, which once supported two teams, the Rangers and the Americans, has skidded to the point where Bob Cooke, sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune, has written columns suggesting the game is on its way out entirely. Recently, speculation that some Ranger home games would be transferred to Quebec City’s new fifteen-thousand-seat arena next season was termed “not impossible” by Ranger manager Boucher.

The New York situation is the most serious confronting the National Hockey League, since few sports enterprises involving the U. S. can exclude the continent’s largest city and still be regarded as big league. Attendance at Madison Square Garden has declined steadily since the war.

As I walked out of the Garden recently after a game between the Rangers and Chicago I caught the name of Eddie Shore. “Eddie Shore, he was with Boston,” a man was saying. “When that guy got the puck behind his own net everybody in the Garden like to drop dead.”

“Yah, and that bald-headed egg the Rangers had on defense, what was his name?” another asked.

“Ching Johnson. You mean Ching Johnson.”

“Yah, Ching Johnson. He used to dump them bums clear up to the gallery. You never see them kind of guys any more.” There’s no question that many New York fans miss the colorful players of an earlier era.

James A. Burchard, veteran hockey writer of the World-Telegram who has been covering the Rangers for twenty years, claims that what hockey needs is the return of overtime play for tie games. Burchard says the NHL’s refusal to recognize this proves that it is “burdened by the shortest-sighted directors in the realm of sports.”

Boucher, the man in the middle of the precarious and significant New York situation, feels American fans have cooled to the game because rule changes, some of which he blushingly confesses he fathered, have eliminated most of the colorful players, reduced the need for stiekhandlers and pattern passing, curtailed the number of clearcut goals and introduced a breed of player who needs small artistic qualities if he has a strong pair of legs and the ability to clutch an opposing player by the sweater, arm or head and jam him against the boards. Boucher believes the game’s greatest evil is the rule that permits players to shoot the puck from the centre red line to any point in the other team’s area and then chase after it. Shooting from centre eliminates clean body-checking by defensemen who must turn and rush for the loose puck. It relieves forward lines of the need to work t he puck toward the other team’s goal by ingenious passing or stickhandling—it’s simpler just to shoot it in and creates the endless scrambles in the goal area. He thinks that in the days when the emphasis was on immediate control of the puck and swift precise pattern plays hockey was a better and easier game to look at.

“When 1 first came to New York,” recalls Boucher, who centred the famed line that included Bill and Bun Cook, “the fans didn’t know much about the game but they did appreciate the passing, the thumping checks of Ching Johnson and Taffy Abel and. most of all, the plays on the net. On half the goals nowadays not ten percent of the fans know who scored.” Ranger coach Bill Cook points out that fans can’t see a play develop as they used to when the old Cook-Boucher-Cook line was functioning, “because everybody shoots the puck in and rushes after it.”

The two most famous goals in modern hockey were scored on Nov. 8, 1952 —when Maurice Richard, of the Canadiens, set his all-time NHL record of 325 goals; and on April 3, 1933 when Ken Doraty, of Toronto, ended one of the longest contests in the game’s history by scoring against Boston after 104 minutes and 46 seconds of overtime. The most notable difference between the two goals was that practically all of the fourteen thousand people in Maple Leaf Gardens saw Doraty beat Boston goaler Tiny Thompson with a wideopen shot, and practically none of the fourteen thousand-plus people in the Forum actually saw Richard’s shot bounce and carom through a pileup and enter the net behind a sprawling AÍ Rollins, of Chicago.

The vast, majority of goals scored in today’s traffic jams are delivered by an unseen hand—or leg or stick. With eleven players alternately knotted in front of one goal and then the other, most of the people who go to hockey games have conditioned themselves to recognize a goal by watching for the glare of the red light behind the net. The phrase “screened shot” has become a familiar part of hockey’s lexicon; what it means is that the players jamming and shuffling in front of the goalkeeper completely blindfold him. Players taking these hope-to-goodness shots from well out seldom know whether the puck is in the net, then they aren’t sure who’s going to get credit for the goal until the referee decides, often by consulting players, whether the shot was deflected and by whom.

Boucher feels another reason the game has lost its colorful and individual personalities is that the playing squads are too large. “In order to shine,” he says, “you have to be on the ice. With sixteen players in uniform, not many get more than twenty minutes’ icetime a game.” At one time most teams had an outstanding line—Toronto’s Kid Line, Boston’s Kraut Line, Montreal Maroons’ Big S Line—-but, when they discovered there weren’t enough superstars to go around, the NHL governors tried to build a balanced league by permitting larger rosters. This created a leveling process. Then, as the schedule was increased to fifty games in 1944, to sixty in 1946 and to seventy in 1949, still more players were permitted and the leveling process was further emphasized. Stiekhandlers went out as boarding and grabbing were condoned. “There was no sense trying to knock the puck off the stick of a good stickhandler if all you had to do was j reach out and grab him as he went by,”

! Bill Cook observed recently.

Many hockey officials insist stanchly that the game’s troubles are only temporary and not of its own devising. Art Ross, general manager of the Boston Bruins, and Lester Patrick, former Ranger boss, believe the impact of television on attendance cannot be overemphasized. “Not the televising of games themselves,” Ross remarks, “but of the medium’s general entertainment quality. I live in the suburbs; I’ll stay home many a winter’s night to watch a few good television programs rather than venture out for other entertainment. The entertainment might be better, but my fireplace is warmer.”

Patrick says radio had the same early effect before providing sports with new followers and thinks TV will j follow the same course. He feels j hockey’s shaky position in the U. S. is not unnatural. To most Americans it’s still a foreign game. “What one learns I at the family table is never forgotten,” Patrick says.

But thousands of Canadians are forgetting the sport they grew up on. Winnipeg, which once sent more players to the National Hockey League than any other qjty, now lists only eleven in the NHL Guide and most of these are veterans like Billy Reay, Sugar Jim Henry, Bill Mosienko, Cal Gardner, Bones Raleigh and Jim Thomson. Winnipeg has sent only Wally Hergesheimer and Terry Sawchuck to the NHL in the last three or four years. In the junior days of Henry and Reay and Mosienko—and, before that of Babe Pratt and Alex Shibicky and Turk Broda—Manitoba had two leagues, the Junior South division and the Junior North division, involving ten teams which included seven from Winnipeg and one each from Kenora, Portage la Prairie and Brandon. Today there is only one fourteam league and Brandon is the lone survivor among outside points. In Regina, another incubator, there are no senior teams and only one junior team in operation today. The old Saskatchewan Senior Hockey league, involving the Caps and Vies from Regina, Saskatoon, Weyburn, Moose Jaw and Yorkton, is defunct.

AÍ Ritchie, one of the oldest and most able hockey men in Regina, now a scout for the New York Rangers, believes •sponsorship has killed the game in many parts of the prairies and hurt it in others, notably Regina and Winnipeg. A sponsored team is one which gets a financial grant from a professional club. In most cases the coach and some players are provided by the pro team as well. All NHL teams have so-called sponsored clubs—in fact, the pros spent two and a half million dollars during the last five years trying to foster the development of young players. In return for their financial outlay, pro clubs get title to eighteen players on the sponsored city’s junior, juvenile, midget or bantam team.

“In Winnipeg,” says Ritchie, “three pro teams sponsor the three junior clubs. No ordinary merchant can sponsor a team in competition against the money and talent the pros provide. Consequently, if a young fellow isn’t good enough to play for one of the sponsored teams there’s no place for him to turn. He quits hockey.”

Ritchie, who coached the famous Pats juniors for years, recalls there was once a community spirit to hockey in Regina “because the boys were playing for the home town and the fans knew them or knew their dads. Now it’s commercialized and there’s no reason to go to a game for the sake of supporting it.”

He thinks longer schedules have Juirt hockey. “There are so many games that it doesn’t matter if you miss one,” he contends. “That’s dangerous; the first thing you know you’ve missed ten and discovered you’ve lost interest. Now with football there are only eight home games so even if your money’s low you manage to budget for eight games, sometimes at hockey’s expense.”

Jack Adams, general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, feels that sponsorship of amateur teahis by the pros, far from being harmful, may have been hockey’s salvation in Canada. “This is no business for the corner grocer any more,” he says bluntly. “It costs between fifty thousand and sixty thousand dollars a season to operate a top junior club. Some juniors are making a hundred and fifty a week. In the Maritimes they’re struggling because they tried to pay those prices and some

of the rinks won’t hold four thousand people. It can’t be done.”

The man in the street is the most important witness of all. If he con! tinues going to hockey games, hockey ! thrives; if he starts staying away, it j languishes. John Milne, of Toronto, is Í one of the fans who have started staying away. He used to attend Maple Leaf Gardens regularly when Joe j Primeau, Harvey Jackson and Charlie Conacher were the prime attraction, j “They’d pass that, puck around like j they had a string on it,” Milne recalls. “Today one or two people do all the stickhandling; the rest bang into one another or shoot the puck harumscarum and chase after it. The trickiness has given way to clutching and grabbing.”

Clarence Gardner, of Detroit, is one of the many fans who are still going; he hasn’t missed a Red Wing game in three seasons. “I used to go when we had the Barry, Aurie and Lewis line but there were lots of games when I almost fell asleep,” he remarked. “1 don’t think those guys could keep up to today’s players. I never saw such speed as there is now and I never saw a hockey player who could carry Gordie Howe’s stick.”

Clarence Campbell, president of the NHL, admits hockey’s centre of gravity is moving hack north of the border and says the common-sense thing to do is to promote the game in the places where people want to see it. The trouble with the Memorial Cup final, he declares, is that highly populated eastern Canada has concentrated its good junior players into nine teams in Ontario and four in Quebec.

“On the other hand,” Campbell adds, “the west, with far less population, has spread its juniors over twenty-five clubs. Thus, when the winner emerges there are a few good players but nothing like the balance and strength of the eastern winner.

I’d like to see the pros, with the coj operation of the CAHA, provide for a concentration of players on a fewer | number of teams in the west.”

While stanchly defending hockey j as it exists today, Con Smythe, presiI dent of the Toronto Maple Leafs, unwittingly admits there’s something ¡ lacking. “We’re right in the middle of needing some more stars,” he says. “When you spread forty-eight games into seventy you’re spreading the cast; I yet we have to have seventy games to finance the rinks and pay salaries large enough to attract and keep players in the game.”

Smythe scoffs at those who claim (he j individual stars have disappeared, j “Why, there never were two greater [ wingmen than Lindsay and Howe, of | Detroit. I’ll stack Max Bentley as a | stickhandler against anybody. Ching I Johnson couldn’t carry that Detroit ! defenseman Red Kelly’s skates and j Kelly would score twenty goals while I Johnson was trying to catch up to him. j One time, twenty or more years ago, ¡ George Hainsworth scored twenty-two shutouts in forty-four games. Where j were all those great goal-scorers and | stickhandlers while he was doing that? j Every sport that can be measured in j either time or distance has improved j over the years. Do you mean to tell ¡ me hockey is the only exception?”

Maybe it isn’t. But once the rafters j rang in New York and Boston and • Winnipeg and Regina and Minneapolis | and Trail and Moncton and once upon ; a time fourteen thousand people in Maple Leaf Cardens recognized the scorer of nine goals in ten without waiting for the red light’s glow or the public announcement. That’s not true today, even when the scorer is Maurice (Rocket) Richard, the greatest goalI getter in hockey’s history, it