On a cold winter day in March of 1965, Clarence Campbell, President of the National Hockey League, emerged from a long and difficult board meeting, bringing with him the announcement that North America’s fastest sport would double the number of league franchises to 12 teams.
The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed the NHL Forever explores this event in detail, profiling the power brokers and analyzing the decision and its revolutionary impact on the game. Made much to the dismay of fans loyal to the “Original Six,” the decision to expand the league changed the game they’d loved for over 25 years.
Thoroughly researched, including many primary interviews, The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed the NHL Forever reaches into the past, uncovering the mystery and mystique of a behind-closed-doors decision that seemed improbable at the time.
Interviews and first person accounts make you feel a part of the process, there with the powerful owners, media moguls and sportsmen involved in the politics and backroom dealings that contributed to the monumental decision that gave a new face to professional hockey in North America.
The following is an excerpt from the book:
“The National Hockey League makes a mockery of its title by restricting its franchises to six teams, waging a kind of private little tournament of 70 games just to eliminate two teams,” wrote columnist Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times. “Other big money sports are expanding, but hockey likes it there in the back of the cave. Any businessman will tell you that in a dynamic economy you either grow or perish. Baseball had to be dragged kicking and screaming out of its rut. Football groped its way on the end of a short rope. Hockey just can’t sit there in the dark forever, braiding buggy whips.”
To an extent, the league agreed with Murray’s statement. Of course, they did not believe they would have to be dragged towards expansion kicking and screaming, as did baseball. But with the NHL playing to 94.5 percent capacity in the 1963-64 season, they could tell hockey was growing beyond their beliefs. In order to increase their revenue and perhaps their television contract, the NHL was going to have to expand itself throughout the United States. After all, what interest would a 19-year-old man in San Diego have in the National Hockey League if it were not quite National. Honestly, it was more like the Regional Hockey League.
“The league…is not actively promoting or encouraging expansion of the number of its members at this time,” league president Clarence Campbell explained, “But it is prepared to consider each individual application on its own merits.”
“Right now we’re a pretty successful operation,” said Campbell at another time. “When you come right down to it, nobody can match it. We’d only be buying a headache and what for?”
“Increasing the league doesn’t increase your revenue five cents per club,” Campbell told the press during a news conference in the ’60s. “You’d simply have more hockey and all diluted. If you expanded by only two clubs, each NHL team would have to provide six players. You just tell me what the result would be if you took six players off any team in the NHL. Any team! And what the hell do you think it’s gonna do to the spectacle? It has to dilute it. These six players at the bottom echelon couldn’t sell tickets, they couldn’t sell a show, you couldn’t put them on the ice by themselves. They are the fillers.”
Campbell continued by explaining the scheduling problem that would occur if the league expanded. “You can’t schedule Montreal or Toronto at home on Saturday and then on the Coast on Sunday,” he explained. “Who the hell would run the risk? You could get snowed in…and in order to go to the Coast, Toronto would have to give up three or four of its Canadian television dates and that’s revenue.”
“[Maple Leafs President] Stafford [Smythe] and [Leafs owner Harold] Ballard were as vehemently opposed to expansion as [former Leafs president] Conn Smythe had been,” say David Cruise and Alison Griffiths, authors of Net Worth: Exploding the Myths of NHL Hockey. “Bill Jennings…spent many fruitless hours trying to convince both men that the NHL should add at least two new teams to thwart the creation of a rival league, protect themselves from anti-trust action and lure network television. At least seven times between 1962 and 1964, Jennings tried to persuade the other governors to put expansion on the agenda at annual and semi-annual owners’ meetings.”
But some of the owners disagreed with Stafford and Smythe. Even Ballard admitted that he was willing to expand for the right price.
“If the right kind of people come to us with $5 million and the right kind of plans, we’ll listen,” said Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard. “We’d be crazy not to.”
But Smythe and Ballard still did not like the idea of expansion. “Great idea,” suggested Smythe sarcastically. “You figure out a way to put the franchise fee in my pocket and I’ll go along. But a bunch of guys in San Francisco who have never seen hockey aren’t getting any of my players.” His partner, Harold Ballard, was more direct with his view: “[sic] ‘em!”
Though expansion seemed to be imminent, regardless of the owners’ opinions, the NHL was known as a conservative league. In fact, hockey historian Stan Fischler claims that it was simply a cultural issue, contrary to popular belief. “Hockey was always conservative. Canadians are conservative-thinking people,” Fischler explained. “They like the status quo. They liked the fact that they were selling out in every arena. It was a nice, comfortable situation. So why disturb it?”
The league had numerous reasons why it did not make sense to expand at that time. For one, expansion would cause the league’s expenses to drastically increase, but it did not guarantee that revenues would go up as well. Travel was one of the biggest expenses at that time and adding teams would further increase this cost.
In Major League Baseball, a visiting team travels to one city and stays there for three or four days to play a full series. In the NHL, teams are traveling for upwards of 35 games per year—and that does not include any playoff games.
New teams being brought into the league would also suffer from a lack of talent. With dominant players on NHL rosters in the ’60s, including Bobby Hull, Frank Mahovlich and Jean Beliveau, new teams would simply not be able to match up. If six new teams began their NHL careers, they would be starting with players of minor league caliber. This would cause a drastic imbalance of competition in the league that could last more than a decade.
Lastly, the NHL did not want what Clarence Campbell referred to as numerous “clown clubs.” Citing the New York Mets’ experience in joining MLB, to be discussed in Chapter 14, he believed that there were not enough dominant players in the league to create two more teams, let alone an entirely new six-team division. But the league was becoming more popular than ever, and many media members believed it was time to extend their game across the continent.
“Hockey never has pretended to be the national sport, except in Canada,” said Shirley Povice of the St. Petersburg Times in 1966, “But its major league franchises are dearly coveted. There is no fan more incorrigible than the hockey buff. It is in Boston that best proof of this is offered, in the complaints of the Boston Celtics basketball owners. The Celtics have won the last seven NBA pennants yet are consistently out-drawn in their own home town by the Boston Bruins hockey team that hasn’t won the NHL title in 25 years.”
Even the Celtics’ legendary coach, Red Auerbach, could see the difference in popularity between the sports. “The Bruins open the door and the Boston Garden fills up every night they play,” said Auerbach. “We keep winning titles and have to hustle and scratch to draw a sellout crowd.”
Contributing to hockey’s increase in popularity was that, as previously mentioned, NHL arenas were filling to almost 95 percent capacity in the mid-sixties. “Television is the new box office for every sport,” said Campbell. “In the NHL we are in a tighter straightjacket than most sports because we can’t sell more tickets. Last year we played to 93 percent of capacity in the league’s six cities. Selling tickets is not likely to be a problem for a while.
“That leaves us with a problem of where to get additional revenue. The only answer is television. Expansion is not going to sell more tickets because we do not have more tickets to sell.”
Alan Bass, a writer for The Hockey News and THN.com, is the author of The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed the NHL Forever The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed The NHL Forever. He has also worked for the Philadelphia Flyers' Fan Development department, going to schools throughout the tri-state area to teach about fitness and the importance of teamwork. He is the General Manager of the Muhlenberg College Division II hockey team as well. You can contact him at Alanbasswriting@aol.com.