Review of Andrew J. Ross’ Joining the Clubs

Ross, J. Andrew. Joining the Clubs: The Business of the National Hockey League to 1945. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015. Pp. 326. Appendix, bibliography, and index. $49.95 clothback.

Reviewed by Tom Rorke

In what is now an annual early summer ritual, fans keen to see the Stanley Cup roundly boo its presenter, National Hockey League (NHL) Commissioner Gary Bettman. They do this even when deliriously happy that their hometown heroes have won the Cup, without the grievances of fans who think the current systems may be rigged against their teams. One explanation for the yearly jeering may be that fans see Bettman and the NHL raking in the bucks, selling what they want, but maybe, they also wonder if that something shouldn’t be sold. Certainly poets and writers have often waxed lyrical about the great frozen game, evoking visions of backyard rinks, pond hockey, and rivers you can skate away on. Scholars Bruce Kidd and John MacFarlane write that “hockey is the dance of life, an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter, we are alive.”

Joining the Clubs

Syracuse University Press, 2015

The question of how the National Hockey League gained power to monopolize the sale of hockey is addressed by hockey historian J. Andrew Ross in Joining the Clubs: The Business of the National Hockey League to 1945. In Joining the Clubs, Ross’ central thesis is that “the consideration of business in its social context is crucial” for understanding sports industries (p. 4). Thus, Ross uses business history to narrate and analyze the early evolution of the NHL, producing an engaging account of the individual business choices and strategies that shaped the growth of the league.

Ross begins with a useful synthesis of current thinking on the early days of the sport, following the development of hockey as an organized game in Montreal in 1875. The game spread from there through Ontario, Quebec, and New England, and in all of those places hockey promoters and administrators experimented with ways to organize–and sell–the game.

Ross manages to steer a smooth course past the whirlpools of the amateur vs. professional and commerce vs. community debates that roiled the newspapers of the era, and which have obsessed historians ever since. He recognizes these issues, but then steps away from the fray, looking instead at the institutional structures that promoted, and sold, hockey in the early twentieth century. Of the many possibilities and experiments of the first decades of the twentieth century, it was the National Hockey League that eventually emerged as the stable structure that set the standard for elite (men’s) hockey in North America and worldwide.

Joining the Clubs stakes out a specific niche in recent hockey scholarship. There is a clear genre of hockey literature that uses the methods of literary criticism and myth analysis to seek insights into why people want hockey and how they consume it. Ross, instead, looks at how professional hockey was produced, following in the footsteps of John Wong’s Lords of the Rinks. While his analysis is on the production side, Ross does clearly acknowledge the importance of culture and consumption for sport organizations, citing a recent text that notes that both as an economic enterprise, Major League Baseball is slightly smaller than the American paper envelope industry, and one-third the size of the cardboard box industry, but that “There is no cardboard box page in the daily paper” (p. 3). This, of course, is why sport scholars have used the tools of myth and literary criticism in their work, but Ross shows that business analysis nevertheless offers scholars significant insights, important to understand the production of the hockey sold by Bettman and the NHL.

Joining the Clubs opens with a quotation from long time NHL president Clarence Campbell, who, in 1963 at the Empire Club in Toronto, claimed that the NHL was a “unique sort of organization” with “no parallel” anywhere (p. 1). Campbell went on to claim that he simply could not define it as anything other than a “league.” Of course, as Ross makes clear, Campbell needed to avoid describing the league’s business model as a “cartel,” even though, as Ross later argues, the NHL needed to be a cartel to survive, although the goal of the cartel was not to set prices, but rather, to control the supply (p. 317-318). For the NHL, like the other North American major leagues, is indeed in the powerful economic position of being both a monopolist, as the only seller of elite professional hockey, and a monopsonist, as the only buyer that matters of elite hockey talent (p. 2). But to maintain this status, the clubs need to cooperate with each other, which makes this arrangement unusually durable (p. 317). It took some time for the NHL to establish this position, and the process by which its (ever-changing) leadership worked out the strategies to obtain this status is fundamentally the story that Ross tells in Joining the Clubs.

Ross organizes the book into seven chapters. The first long chapter deals with the invention and early growth of the Montreal-rules game, up until the formation of the NHL in 1917, a move that re-configured an earlier organization, primarily to cut abrasive Toronto businessman Eddie Livingstone out of the professional circuit. The next two chapters deal with the NHL’s transition from an owner-driven league that mixed teams from Montreal and Ottawa with the new-money of northern Ontario mining boom-towns of Cobalt and Haileybury, to a more gate-driven league in which the small town teams relocated to Quebec City, Hamilton, and Toronto.

Chapter 4, “Creating a Major League,” addresses the challenge of assimilating the players of the collapsing Pacific Coast League, and subordinating upstart American Hockey League teams into a “minor league” position. This era, from 1926-11929, also saw the expansion of the league into the United States, first at Tex Rickard’s Madison Square Gardens, then shortly thereafter with Charles Adams’ Boston Bruins, the Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Chicago Blackhawks.

In Chapter 6, “Integrating the Amateurs,” Ross bridges the period of American expansion with the story of the post-1936 collapse of the tight controls that maintained rigorous amateur regulations in senior hockey. The amateur administrators who had once been at war with the professional leagues made peace with them, and put in rules to allow for professional try-outs, and for senior amateur hockey to function as a sub-system for the NHL. In his final chapter “Managing a Morale Business,” Ross shows how the league finessed itself into a position of favor with the Canadian government as a maintainer of community spirit during the war years, and thus evaded criticism for not interrupting its schedule or sending its players overseas (although a few did enlist). Following the war, the NHL, which had regressed back to a six-team league after its expansion up to ten teams in the 1930’s, entered a twenty-five-year period of stability and growing cultural position through radio and television broadcasts of the “original Six” teams.

From its birth in 1917, affected by the uneven growth of the Great War, to the period of stability and economic boom following the Second World War, the NHL transitioned from its roots in Montreal and Ottawa sports clubs, to “a full blown modern industrial mode geared to North American consumers” (p. 314). Some changes in the rules were simply evolutionary, as more exciting ways to play were found (such as allowing forward passes after 1929); however, much of the development can be demonstrably linked to evolving business strategies, as players, team owners, and arena managers worked out how to make selling hockey into a successful, sustainable business. Eventually, the millionaire dilettantes such as O’Brien family, who bankrolled the Renfrew Creamery Millionaires and the Cobalt Silver Kings in pursuit of the Stanley Cup, were displaced by the more process- and profit-oriented entrepreneurs such as Tex Rickard and James Norris. The structures that emerged out of this in the early twentieth century became one of the preeminent sports organizations in the twenty-first century. Ross ends his story in 1945, the beginning of the stable era of the so-called “Original Six” (the 1970s-era term for the six teams that were left after the contractions of the late 1930s), as the newly stable NHL prospered in its hard-won cartel position in the post-war economic boom, as an “integrated symbiotic network of rinks, sports, media and markets” (p. 316).

Some of the story told in Joining the Clubs was well-known to scholars before Ross put this book together, but this synthesis, which includes plenty of new research in the business records of the clubs, and of the entrepreneurs whose projects failed to become part of the stable NHL, offers important insights into the development of professional hockey. Which parts of the business strategies were accidental and which were deliberate is well worth knowing. The details of the false starts and flashes-in the pan are at times very dense. Some of the minutia on the never-built arena plans and failed expansion bids might have been edited for brevity, or banished to the footnotes, but Ross avoids presenting a history focusing on the paths that led to stability and success. This is important, as much of the early history of the NHL was characterized by chaos and instability, false starts and flashes-in-the-pan. Ross’s model of why the NHL cartel works is particularly important, as a useful description of why schemes to change how hockey works in North America tend to fail, often against the interests of the fans of the game.

The detailed research in Joining the Clubs will be useful to sport journalists, intriguing to academically minded sports fans, and should inspire further scholarly work.

Tom Rorke is a PhD candidate in Kinesiology (History and Philosophy of Sport) at the Pennsylvania State University, where he studies early women’s ice hockey in the United States, as well as a plethora of side-projects. He is a member of NASSH, NASSS, and IAPS, a traumatized Ottawa Senators fan, and almost retired as a rugby player. He can be reached at ter163@psu.edu.

8 thoughts on “Review of Andrew J. Ross’ Joining the Clubs

  1. I really like this blog and especially because of hockey. I think this is very important that clubs nedeed to cooperate toghether and this was the beggining of NHL grow after a long arrangement, This was a huge jump forward in NHL history from the Great War and after Great War 2 and especially it was stable economical and rules of the game have evolved. Also it was a huge moment that is mentioned in this article a stable era “Original six “. I really enjoyed reading about rules and strategies at that time and I think hockey is a great sport. I love watching NHL with my dad because he used to play hockey and this article was a great opportunity to learn something new in hockey history but I have a question: It is saying that in period of World War and following the Second World War 2 there was an economic boom at that time. The question is how is that possible to have an economic boom between wars?

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  3. I think it was important to highlight the thesis of Ross’ primary thesis in this review. To consider business in a social context is not only crucial to understanding sports industries, but also to maintaining a successful business within the industry. While professional hockey has traditionally done a great job of giving the fans what they have wanted and stayed true to the heart of the sport, the powers that be have also had to make some unpopular business decisions. The “Original Six” in professional hockey were maintained for a very long time before adding new teams and still saw continued interest amongst fans. What do you feel makes hockey so special to be able to have such a longtime and continued presence in both the United States and Canada in a joint league as opposed to other professional sports who have tried and failed?

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  4. It diffidently seems like the cartel model was the best way for the NHL to survive its early chaotic years. The relocation of teams from mining boom-towns to cities for the sake of greater attendance was a smart business move and one that any modern fan would probably agree was necessary. Also subordinating other leagues such as the AHL to a minor-league position and assimilating the players of collapsing leagues and amateur leagues was the best way for a hockey league to create the best product possible. While having a monopoly over the sport may not always lead to what is best for the fan, in the case of the NHL, these seemed like the necessary steps to create a stable league. Should fans really be critical of the NHL acting as a cartel?

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  5. It was interesting that the NHL started off as a cartel that didn’t intend to set prices, but rather controlled the availability of hockey. You could not have good teams in areas that did not have the fan base to create ideal revenue for the league. Those teams were moved to larger outlets, and allowed more people to see live games at the professional level. My question is; do you think the consistency of a 6 team league was necessary to generate the fan base in America? Basically, I’m stating that it was not a watered down league in terms of talent distribution, so even though there were only 6 teams for the longest time, was this key to setting up the future of hockey in America?

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  6. The best part of this review for me is the fact that it makes comparisons to other theses. The comparison to how other authors focus on consumption over production brings up a rather interesting point. To me this breaks down to this: are certain sports more popular because we prefer to specifically consume it or are certain sports more popular because they are produced, managed and sold better? In my opinion it is some of both however from the stand point of this book according to the review it seems production may play a larger role than I may have suspected. What are your thoughts on this break down?

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  7. I personally love the article review being a hockey fan, and also a fan of hockey history. The author Tom Rorke does a great job of not only explaining the most important part of the book, but also going into greater detail of how things were and why they were that way. I like the way that he starts off his article review giving you an insight into hockey today, and how the commissioner Gary Bettman is booed because the system is rigged or because fans don’t want their great game sold, or locked out once again. Rorke shows the importance of the league not only being for pleasure but also for the business. My question to the author would be with the league being such a business and becoming how big it is today, do you think the league should keep expanding or should it stay the same way?

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  8. This book review on Joining the Clubs: The Business of the National Hockey League to 1945 was an extremely insightful review. The introduction really caught my attention, the way you incorporated Gary Bettman was mind catching, most likely because I am one of those fans that boo’s him. I myself am a huge Ice Hockey fan and I never really thought about how the National Hockey League (NHL) has come to be. Learning that there were ups and down to the creation of this sport made me wonder is the NHL the only sport that was brought up with both ups and downs? As it seems to me after reading this review there were a lot more behind the scenes issues that were faced by these organizations that started the league. Although that is the case, it seems as though rule changing was a major part of the upcoming of this professional league. If the commissioners had not changed rules around, for example the rule where players were only aloud to pass backwards, how would that have affected the up come of this league? If rules like that one had not changed, would it have been more difficult for the NHL to become as popular as it is today or would the NHL have folded due to the fact that it started to bore the crowds with the same plays over and over again?

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