As hockey begins a new and lucrative season, it is quite understandable why Gordie Howe and Jean Beliveau both retired with tears in their eyes. They dominated the game during the 1950s and '60s, but until very recently their salaries were microscopic compared to those paid the superstars in other sports. Howe and Beliveau never made more than $40,000 a year, including all bonuses, until they reached their late 30s.
Then came Bobby Orr with his lawyer, expansion into six and later seven top markets in the United States and a network television contract. Madison Avenue, naturally, followed right behind. Now, while Howe and Beliveau only move pucks as paperweights on desks in the corporate suites of the Detroit Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens, National Hockey League players everywhere—from A for Syl Apps Jr. to Z for Rod Zaine—are entering an age of affluence.
Orr, the 23-year-old nerve center of all hockey, has signed a five-year contract with the Boston Bruins that guarantees him a minimum of $1 million, and Bobby's commercial ventures should more than double his $200,000 salary per year from the Bruins. Phil Esposito, Boston's amazing goal-scorer (76), was rewarded with a four-year contract for more than $500,000. "When I left the Soo [Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario] to play junior hockey, I never dreamed that someday it would be like this," Esposito says. "I just hoped to have a nice house and a small bank account when I retired."
Bobby Hull of the Chicago Black Hawks and Tim Horton of the Pittsburgh Penguins also will be paid more than $100,000 this season. Chicago's Stan Mikita, Montreal's Frank Mahovlich, Toronto's Dave Keon and St. Louis' Carl Brewer will pay taxes on more than $80,000, and such recent sensations as St. Louis' Garry Unger and Boston's Derek Sanderson will earn almost $70,000. Indeed, the NHL's average base salary will be more than $30,000, with another $3,000 tacked on in fringe benefits. Prized rookies such as Guy Lafleur of Montreal, Marcel Dionne of Detroit and Jocelyn Guevremont of Vancouver demanded—and received—bonuses of at least $25,000 when they negotiated their sweet inaugural contracts.
Off the ice, NHL players increasingly are being asked to do the shaving cream and razor blade and hair spray and clothing commercials that never were available to the Howes and Beliveaus in the U.S. And every big book publisher wants a hockey volume on his shelves. One picture book, Orr on Ice, has sold a stunning 60,000 copies for Prentice-Hall. Nor need one be an Orr to, well, mine the publishing business. Bill Goldsworthy of the Minnesota North Stars, for example, has written a book called The Goldy Shuffle, whatever that is.
So intense is the hockey heat that plans are moving forward for another "big" league. Gary Davidson and Dennis Murphy, two Californians who helped launch the American Basketball Association, hope to have a group called the World Hockey Association in operation next year. Ten cities—New York, Chicago, Miami, St. Paul, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Los Angeles in the U.S., Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg in Canada—reportedly have produced well-heeled potential club owners. If the WHA does get going, it surely will have to raid the NHL for talent. "I'm certain my $40,000 salary would double or triple overnight," says one NHL goaltender.
While club owners shudder at that prospect, they have been doing O.K., too: net receipts increased $4,211,070 last year as the league played to 88.73% of seating capacity. However, in confidential notes that found their way into a Montreal newspaper, NHL President Clarence Campbell warned the owners they must face up to two paramount problems: the search for parity between East and West and the need for more spectators in Los Angeles and Oakland. "Progress toward parity has been very scanty," Campbell said with perfect truth.
When the league expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967, Campbell told the owners they should not permit the trading of first-round selections in the amateur draft. Unfortunately for hockey, the owners rejected Campbell's plea, packaged their fringe players and traded them to the expansion clubs for first-round draft choices. Montreal acquired the pro rights to the glittering young Guy
Lafleur in just such a deal with the Seals. And that was just for openers: the Canadiens will have at least eight first-round choices in the next three drafts. Los Angeles and Oakland have a grand total of one each. Such shortsightedness will scarcely help the Kings and the Seals acquire new hockey fans in California.
But at least the owners have acceded to two other good moves proposed by Campbell. For years they have regarded those frequent mass riots on the ice as necessary entertainment for the spectators, no matter how much they cheapened the product. Campbell disagreed, and at last he has won his point.
This year the "third man" in a fight, the player who turns a simple one-on-one tussle into a major brawl, will be given a game-misconduct penalty. The second anti-brawl rule pertains to mass charges from the bench. Now the first identifiable player to leave his bench and join a fight on the ice will be given a game-misconduct penalty plus a five-minute major. Remember, five-minute majors must be served in their entirety, even if the team with the man advantage scores 10 goals.
The season offers one more significant new wrinkle: the league has junked the old 1-3, 2-4 match-ups in the first round of the Stanley Cup and instead will try a 1-4, 2-3 arrangement. This is to discourage any inclination to drop a position at season's end in order to draw a weaker cup opponent, as Minnesota was accused of doing last spring. After the first round, the winners of the two 1-4 series will cross divisional lines and play the winners of the 2-3 series.
So the game should be richer this season for everyone—players and fans alike. Will anybody be poorer? Well, don't be surprised if Montreal guns down Boston's triggermen for first place in the East. Chicago, meanwhile, might win in the West by Christmas.