After dropping a game 3-2 to the Minnesota Gophers in late December, Harvard Hockey Coach Cooney Weiland had some on-the-line things to say about the Wild-West style of play of the Western Intercollegiate Hockey League. In tones of deep-seated displeasure, Coach Weiland laid down: "It wouldn't be tolerated in the East. The way it was played Saturday night you might as well use picks and shovels for hockey sticks. No hockey player worth the name will complain about a legitimate body check in the open. But when they charge a guy into the fence, put elbows and sticks in his face, use threatening gestures, and molest a player when he doesn't have the puck, it is time to call a halt."
Weiland and his easterners are entitled to their indictment, but it is an opinion altogether wasted on the western hockey fans. Indeed, it is doubtful that he could have found even one sympathetic listener among the thousands that crowded into the University of Denver's big arena or the Broadmoor Ice Palace in Colorado Springs last weekend. To those screaming fans, the fierce, brawling Canadian-style hockey that put Denver's Pioneers and Colorado's Tigers in a three-way tie with North Dakota was the best collegiate hockey being played in the U.S. And, as they had no concern for the method of the game, they had none for the fact that nearly every player was the product of such places as Portage La Prairie in Manitoba and Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, however this last is resting uneasy with many league members. In January, the Big Ten members of the WIHL—Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota—announced they were withdrawing from the league. Later, Michigan Tech said it was leaving too.
The dispute breaking up the seven-year-old league is primarily because all but one of the teams are almost wholly Canadian and they cannot exist without constant importations from north of the border. In addition, the league, composed of seven teams from five different conferences, has always been an unwieldy, synthetic affair, racked by distrust and dissatisfaction since it was born in 1951.
There is no doubt about Canadian domination. But there is also no doubt these young Canadians are entirely responsible for the superior brand of hockey played by western teams. The seven teams have 150 players certified for eligibility, and of this number 109 are Canadians and 41 are listed as American. And certainly, some of these latter may have stepped across the line fairly recently to such places as International Falls, Minn. The University of Denver has 17 Canadians and one American; Colorado College has 18 Canadians and one American; North Dakota has 13 Canadians and three Americans; the University of Michigan has 17 Canadians and one American; Michigan State has 18 Canadians and eight Americans; Michigan College of Mining and Technology has 23 Canadians and two Americans. The University of Minnesota, coached by John Mariucci, an American who has been critical of the league and its Canadian domination, has but three Canadians and 19 Americans. Mariucci is among those who feel that many of the Canadian players have more at stake than college competition and that the WIHL may be in a sense a farm league for pro hockey. In a recent statement Mariucci summed it up: "You can't tell me that some players have not gone to professional tryout camps and had their expenses paid."
Actually, the incident that triggered the Big Ten withdrawal occurred in March 1957, when Colorado College raised a question regarding the eligibility of three Michigan players—John Randall, Neill Buchanan and Wally Maxwell—all of whom were declared ineligible by the NCAA eligibility committee on the eve of the national tournament in Colorado Springs. There were threats then to break up the league. Big Ten policymakers, who had not paid too much attention to hockey, took a long look at the WIHL and decided it was not for them. There were a number of other reasons: the difference in size and prestige of the schools, constantly mounting pressure for more American players, lack of league leadership and finally a Big Ten rule which provides that a player who is over 19 when he matriculates loses one year of competition for each year he is past 19. Interestingly enough, the rule applies only to foreign-born students.
Denver, Colorado College, Michigan Tech and North Dakota, where hockey is a major winter attraction and hence a high-revenue sport, feel that the age rule is aimed straight at their use of Canadian players.
The University of Denver's dapper 41-year-old Coach Murray Armstrong, a veteran of 10 years of professional hockey with New York, Syracuse and Detroit and coach of the Regina team in the Western Canada Junior Hockey League for nine years, was indignant about the Big Ten rule. When it was brought up, he said angrily:
"The usual reason for an age rule is to protect younger boys from more mature players. But in this case the Big Ten wants to protect players only from mature foreign students. If an American student is older that is quite all right. We just cannot go along with this type of discrimination at all. If the rule were applied to all sports and to Americans as well as foreign students we would be glad to comply. Western League hockey is top-grade hockey because we do have Canadian players. Our players are attending the University of Denver because they want educations. They are good students, and they are not here just to play hockey. But they are good players; most have been playing since they were children."
Armstrong's counterpart at Colorado College this year, Coach Tom R. Bedecki, 28, a husky 6-foot-2, 200-pound native of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, resigned a couple of days after Michigan Tech withdrew and said he would probably return to school for an advanced degree when his current coaching assignment ends. He agrees with Armstrong that Canadians are a necessity and that their presence in force in the Western League has provided followers of the game with a better brand of hockey than that offered in the East.
"Canadians are better hockey players than Americans, not because they are better athletes, but because they are trained in it from childhood, just as many American boys play baseball from the time they are small," he said. "You don't find in this country a sandlot type of hockey, and not many American high schools offer hockey as a sport. Where they do, a boy usually gets to play about 20 games a year for three years. When he comes to college he has played maybe 60 games. But the Canadian boys start playing as young as seven or eight. There are a number of different divisions for youngsters, and finally they play five years of competitive hockey at the rate of about 40 games a year. When they come to us, they have had about 200 games under their belts. They know how to play hockey."
The Canadians are recruited by U.S. colleges in several ways. Sometimes Canadian players read or hear about the exploits of one of the schools and write the coach, asking if they can enroll. Also, during spring vacations, the U.S. coaches travel to Canada to watch the Canadian playoffs in the hope of spotting talent. And Canadian junior teams are regularly brought into the U.S. for games with U.S. teams which provide the coaches a chance to do some scouting on their home ice. Finally, alumni in Canada watch for good prospects and pass the word on to the coaches.
"We have had to have the Canadian players to provide first-class hockey," Coach Bedecki explains. "It has been a two-way street. The fans have wanted good hockey, and the Canadians have given it to them. In their turn, the Canadians have enjoyed the enthusiasm and the support given hockey in this league. For example, a few days ago an American attendance record for a college arena was set when 17,430 fans watched two games between Minnesota and North Dakota in Minneapolis."
Most of the U.S. schools have their own rinks and artificial ice. They have heavy investments and some of them—for example, the University of Denver—are carrying a large part of their athletic programs on the proceeds from hockey.
In Grand Forks, the fans are even hotter than in the Denver and Colorado Springs areas. Upwards of 5,000 of the town's 34,000 citizens have been regularly jamming into the North Dakota team's antiquated winter sports building to watch the Nodak games. Typical of the enthusiasm being shown is the story of the doctor who had to leave a North Dakota-Denver game in the second period to deliver a baby in a Grand Forks hospital. He and the new father, a little out of wind, made it back in time to see most of the third period.
Denver Coach Armstrong has some faint hopes that the WIHL may find some way of holding together when the WIHL and NCAA hockey rules committees hold their meetings in St. Paul in mid-March. Denver has a big investment and a money raiser to protect. It is Armstrong's hope that a four-team league composed of Denver, Colorado College, North Dakota and a fourth school, possibly the Duluth branch of Minnesota, might be able to carry on a balanced program, but most of those connected with the league consider it a deceased duck.
Colorado College is itself seriously considering withdrawing from the league and may so announce within a week or so. Dr. Louis T. Benezet, president of the college, would like to revamp his school's hockey program to get a more representative team. Said a college official: "We couldn't throw out our Canadians by any means, but we'd like to de-emphasize hockey, get it back on a more amateur basis."
Though college presidents may worry, the fan does not. He likes the sort of hockey he has been getting. One Denver fan put it this way: "All I care about is for our Canadians to beat their Canadians. I don't care where the players come from."
MINNESOTA'S John Mariucci (right) is outspoken foe of Canadian domination.
DENVER'S ARMSTRONG WAS INDIGNANT
COLORADO'S BEDECKI HAS RESIGNED