Sam Pollock, the peppery little general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, kept jumping up and rushing over to whisper trade suggestions to Wren Blair of the new Minnesota team. Emile Francis of New York bit his nails as he looked around the room and wondered if he would get away with his bold attempt to sneak Boom Boom Geoffrion through the draft without protecting him. Nervous groups huddled at each of the 12 green-covered rectangular tables in the Grand Salon of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, and executives called out names of players involved in the expansion of the National Hockey League from six teams to 12. The transfer of 120 men to new clubs—the largest single draft of so-called major league talent in sports history—was going smoothly at 11 of the tables.
But at the 12th, headquarters of the Los Angeles Kings, Jack Kent Cooke was in trouble. While other new clubs selected the best of the available players, Cooke kept coming up with minor-leaguers. While more experienced hockey men engineered deals and agreements, Cooke floundered along on his own. And midway through the daylong draft, the most flamboyant new owner in the NHL found himself in a head-on confrontation with the shrewdest and toughest executive in all hockey, Toronto's George (Punch) Imlach. "Does he think he's playing with kids here?" Imlach wondered aloud. "Well, he's not. I guess we'll have to show him that he can't come in here and start pushing us all around." When Imlach finished showing Cooke, the Los Angeles owner had temporarily lost his coach and permanently lost a lot of the brash confidence he had brought to the meetings.
Cooke had swept into town as if riding a white horse. The night before the draft he called a press conference to announce the acquisition of the minor league Springfield Indians. Suave and dapper, smiling graciously into every television camera, Cooke treated his deal as a coup ranking with the Louisiana Purchase. He barged on to predict that Los Angeles would break even with three of the established NHL clubs in its first season of play.
This little fantasy faded very early in the meeting. Cooke had made three important mistakes in preparing for the draft. First, he had too few aides with a knowledge of hockey talent. Second, he seemed so anxious to keep the spotlight on himself that he consistently undermined the authority of the most experienced hockey man he did have, Larry Regan. Cooke made a point of calling Regan his chief scout, although he was soon to make him general manager, and appeared to take pleasure in giving loud orders to Regan in front of other people. Finally, he underestimated Punch Imlach in the tug of war over his prospective coach, Red Kelly.
Ultimately Cooke drafted a group of players that make Los Angeles a near-unanimous selection for last place in the National Hockey League's new Western Division. He wound up with only one man who finished last season with an NHL club—and that man is Goalie Terry Sawchuk, who has been plagued by injuries and may well decide to retire after pondering the list of men who will be playing in front of him. After the goalie draft, Cooke stunned other owners by choosing a minor-leaguer, Gord Labossiere, in the first round when such NHL workhorses as Eric Nesterenko and Dick Duff were available. Looking for a defenseman in the next round, he chose the undistinguished Bob Wall over Boston's fine prospect, Joe Watson. His later choices seemed even more dubious. "He was coming up with such unbelievable selections," said one of Francis' assistants, "we wondered if, for the good of the league, we shouldn't send somebody over to help him."
But no help came, and as the lunch break approached Punch Imlach began to have thoughts of his own about Cooke. "Here this guy had made a lot of noise about wanting Red Kelly as coach, and then he started drafting all kinds of players who couldn't compare to Kelly," Imlach said. "I got a little tired of waiting around." Under the terms of the draft session, each old team could protect one goalie and 11 other men; after a club lost a player, it was allowed to protect an additional player. Therefore, if Cooke had drafted Kelly in an early round, Imlach might have been able to "fill" with Brit Selby or Larry Jeffrey, two young left wings he eventually lost.
Cooke claimed he didn't draft Kelly because he thought he had an unwritten agreement with Imlach and Toronto Owner Stafford Smythe, by which Kelly would be allowed to retire from the Leafs to coach Los Angeles. One of the NHL's more feudal rules makes such an agreement necessary; a player who retires cannot take any other job in hockey for a full year unless his old club agrees to release him. So, Imlach held Kelly in virtual serfdom, whether he wanted to quit or not, unless Cooke drafted him. "We made no agreement of any kind to release Kelly to them," said Smythe. "We own Kelly, and Cooke has offered us nothing for him."
During the ninth round of selections the fight surfaced. Imlach sent his assistant, King Clancy, to tell Kelly that Toronto would put him on its protected list if Cooke did not draft him. "I'm committed to Los Angeles," Kelly said. "Please don't take me back." Clancy made it clear that Imlach certainly would take Kelly back—and Kelly, Cooke and other Los Angeles officials adjourned to lunch. "They had a whole hour to talk it over," said Imlach. "Then they marched back in and took another bush-leaguer instead of Kelly. Maybe Cooke thought I was kidding, or maybe he thinks we're running some kind of charity here." Hardly pausing for the dramatic emphasis that Cooke undoubtedly would have appreciated, Punch barked, "Toronto fills with Red Kelly."
"I'm shocked," said Kelly, who shouldn't have been after 7½ years with Imlach. "I'll take this to the Prime Minister if necessary."
"I'll take it to the league president," said Cooke. "I'm filing a formal protest." But the protest he presented to Clarence Campbell had little chance of success; league rules, however archaic or even illegal, clearly gave Imlach the right to tie up Kelly and keep him from taking the Los Angeles coaching job.
"I want to emphasize," said Imlach, "that I'm not trying to hurt Kelly in any way. Hell, give me any two players in the world and I take him and George Armstrong. But these new guys better learn that we're not in the habit of giving things away for nothing in this league." In the late rounds of the draft, Toronto offered Cooke two deals involving Kelly. "Draft Bernie Geoffrion," said Smythe, "and we'll give you Kelly for him." But Cooke, like every other new owner, had made a secret deal with Francis to leave Boom Boom in New York. They will all be reimbursed by the Rangers. Smythe also offered Kelly and an unnamed goaltender for Sawchuk—a move that would have left Toronto's Stanley Cup team virtually intact and would have completed Cooke's humiliation by leaving him without a single legitimate NHL player.
Cooke refused that offer, too, and went on charging Imlach and Smythe with breaking a gentleman's agreement. "What will I do about his protest?" Smythe said. "I'll laugh at it." Other people were already laughing. Cooke stopped enjoying the TV interviews because newsmen insisted on asking how he had come up with such a curious team. He lost his self-assured smile and ultimately his temper—calling a Toronto newspaperman a liar over one of the issues in the Kelly dispute. Imlach watched this with pleasure and after two days of it decided that he had exacted his pound of flesh. Influenced largely by his affection for Kelly, he let Red go to Los Angeles for a minor league defenseman named Ken Block.
Cooke, who also owns pro basketball and soccer teams and one-fourth of pro football's Washington Redskins, insisted that he was undisturbed by his apparent setbacks in Montreal. "Oh, I've been in a lot rougher spots than this," he said. "The only time the turbulence gets too rough for me is when I have a suspicion that I've made a mistake. I don't have that suspicion now."
While Imlach and Cooke supplied most of the excitement at the draft, the other teams were quietly making deals to gain strength in numbers if not in quality. Two big names, Geoffrion and Montreal's Claude Larose, were left off the original protected lists. But Francis and Pollock spread enough minor-leaguers and cash around to prevent the new clubs from claiming either star. New York, Montreal and Toronto got through the draft virtually untouched, and only last-place Boston lost many players who might have helped the team. In fact, the existing NHL clubs gave up so little under their draft system that Campbell's prediction that the two divisions might be equal in 1970 seems wildly optimistic.
Picking carefully amid the rejects, kids and fringe big-leaguers offered to him, the Philadelphia Flyers' general manager, Bud Poile, put together what looks like the best of the new clubs. Rudy Pilous of San Francisco also did well and may have the sleeper of the entire draft in Kent Douglas. Kent is a very good defenseman who never fit into Imlach's rigid system at Toronto but might develop into a star in new surroundings. Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Minnesota appear evenly matched. And then there is Los Angeles.
"What an intercity rivalry," joked one San Francisco official. "If we don't sweep all 10 games with L.A., everybody on our club will get fired."