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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.