“Don’t you know this league is insolvent?”
That’s what NHL Chief Financial Officer Jim Ford said to John Ziegler shortly after Ziegler became league president in 1977. It’s one of many eye-opening events in D’Arcy Jenish’s new book, The NHL: A Centennial History: 100 Years of On-Ice Action & Boardroom Battles (Doubleday Canada, 2013).
Hockey fans who know their history are well aware of the 1970s battle between the National Hockey League and the World Hockey Association, which resulted in the demise of the WHA. What many fans don’t know, however, is that the fight almost killed the NHL, too. In his thoroughly-researched and well-written book, Jenish ably fills in the blanks in the NHL’s storied past, presenting a more detailed portrait of league history than ever before.
If you’ve ever wondered how the NHL grew from the Original Four – yes, in the beginning, there were just four teams in the league – to thirty clubs today, The NHL: A Centennial History provides the answer in fascinating detail. From the American expansion of the Roaring Twenties to Depression-era contraction to six clubs to the dramatic 1967 expansion and beyond, it’s all in the book. As someone who is currently writing a biography of New York Rangers’ founder Tex Rickard, I was particularly pleased to see him beginning to receive long-overdue credit regarding his role in bringing the NHL to America. Drawing on meeting minutes archived at the Hockey Hall of Fame, Jenish offers a fly-on-the-wall view of NHL Board of Governors meetings throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Did you know the league first considered expanding to California shortly after World War II? Neither did I, until I read the book.
The NHL: A Centennial History also addresses the league’s more recent past, including franchise instability, the spectacular rise and fall of Alan Eagleson and battles between the Players Association and the NHL. Jenish’s portrayal of the causes for the NHL’s two lockout-shortened seasons (1994-95 and 2012-13) and one cancelled season (2004-05) is even-handed, though it’s difficult to look at the cold, hard facts and remain sympathetic to the players. In particular, former NHLPA head Bob Goodenow comes out smelling less like a rose than its fertilizer. On the other hand, league commissioner Gary Bettman was interviewed for the book, the final chapter of which is titled, “The Knock Against Gary.” Preconceived notions aside, you’ll at least come away with a better understanding of, and respect for, the “Most Hated Man in Hockey.”
Frankly, coming up with any serious criticism of this book was a struggle. My biggest complaint falls into the “nit-picking” category: Though the author touches on the subject at a couple of points in the book, I would’ve liked to read in more detail about the tension between the league’s pro-expansionists and Canadians who fear their national sport is being taken over by outside (American) interests. Alas, that’s probably a book unto itself.
Long-time readers of this blog know I don’t normally do book reviews. I felt compelled to make an exception because, well, it’s an excellent read. At first glance, you might think a book focused on the business side of the NHL would be dry, even boring, compared to the league’s legendary on-ice past. You would be wrong. If you have any interest whatsoever in the off-ice history of the NHL and you only read one book this year, make it The NHL: A Centennial History by D’Arcy Jenish.
Follow Matt Pryor on Twitter: @BigTex1926