How the NHL and sports accidentally stumbled into globalization
THURSDAY, 23 JUNE 2011 12:26
BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
Sports globalization will again be on display this week as the National Basketball Association holds the league’s annual draft in Newark on Thursday and the National Hockey league holds the league’s annual grab bag in St. Paul, Minnesota on Friday and Saturday.
The NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball have been global entities for a long, long time with baseball signing players from outside of the United States for decades. In the 1960s, the National Hockey league was essentially a closed shop with the league players made up entirely of Canadians with just one American, Tommy Williams and one Swede, Ulf Sterner who played with the New York Rangers.
Today, the National Hockey League teams all feature a good number of young and talented players from around the globe. Canadians, Americans, Swedes, Finns, Swiss, Slovakians, Czechs, Russians and other nationalities who take to the ice but it wasn’t always like that.
The globalization of North American sports escalated in 1972 during the Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union. Team Canada took on the Swedish National Team in a pair of exhibition games in between the four games and Canada and the four scheduled games in Moscow. One NHL general manager, Toronto’s Jim Gregory, took notice of the Swedish team during the two game series and dispatched his scout Gerry McNamara to a Christmas tournament in Sweden a few months later to evaluate talent.
Gregory and McNamara found two players they immediately liked and felt would be good NHL players, defenseman Borje Salming and winger Inge Hammarstrom. That really was the start of the globalization of the National Hockey League. Both players were free agents, so there was no need to worry about taking them in the draft so Toronto was able to sign them under the radar.
The two players signed Maple Leafs contracts in May 1973 and that would start a revolution that would ultimately change how hockey was played. The Canadian game borrowed significantly from the European version of the game and Gregory was at the forefront.
Salming was a Hall of Fame player.
“I brought Hammarstrom in, Gerry McNamara was our scout and we brought Hammarstrom and Salming in and they were welcomed additions to our club despite what (owner) Harold Ballard said,” laughed Gregory who knew Ballard did not like non Canadian players.
“That was his prerogative. Borje Salming was an unbelievable player for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Inge Hammarstrom while he was there did a real good job as well.”
Ballard needed to be sold on the addition of Swedes to his lineup and every though he would eventually warm up to Salming, Ballard did say that Hammarstrom could go into a corner with six eggs in his pocket and not break any of them. Back in the 1970s, the NHL was still a league of mostly Canadians although Gregory did his best to change that.
“Actually the Rangers brought in a player in 1964 (from Sweden) named Ulf Sterner and then Detroit brought over a player (Thommie Bergmann) and we had started scouting and Gerry McNamara went over and we were very lucky to get the players we did.
“We had a couple of other ones that should have been on our team. (Anders) Hedberg and (Ulf) Nilsson. We got into a little bit of bidding (with the World Hockey Association’s Winnipeg Jets) and we did not win out.”
The World Hockey Association was vilified by the sports media for being an inferior product, but the sports media like Pavlov’s dog is conditioned to react in a certain way and putting down upstart leagues like Lamar Hunt’s American Football League, Dennis Murphy’s American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association was par for the course. The truth is that those leagues changed North American sports. Hunt brought new ideas to what was essentially a mom and pop organization—the National Football league. Murphy’s ABA is on display every night dressed as the NBA as the old league “borrowed” from Murphy and his associates ideas which included the three point play and the All Star Weekend. The WHA sold the naming rights to the league’s championship trophy and pioneered international play and welcomed Swedes and Finns into the league.
Established leagues were staid affairs.
Gregory left the Toronto Maple Leafs and joined Central Scouting in 1979. He fought to bring Europeans into the fold shortly after that.
“I had been to Europe very early when I worked with the Leafs and actually I was part of a committee that hired Jack Button, who started Central Scouting, and when I was let go by the Leafs, the league offered me that job. I had been to Europe and had seen the talent that was there and, of course, had Salming and Hammarstrom as part of the organization that I was with and we had some other players as well.
“I contacted a couple of gentlemen, one of whom who had lived in Toronto and was part of the Finnish Ice Hockey Association, and we get together in talking and formed European Central Scouting to augment what was already there for the National Hockey League.”
By 1979, NHL teams were very aware of European talent or at least players who could come over from Sweden and Finland. The Iron Curtain countries also had many talented players but Soviets and Czechoslovakians could only come to North America if they defected.
In 1981, Czechoslovakia allowed Ivan Hlinka and Jiri Bubla to join the Vancouver Canucks not long after the Statsny Brothers defected and signed with the Quebec Nordiques. Hlinka would eventually coach the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2000.
It was not until 1989 that players who played for Russia were able to free join NHL teams. The first Soviet player to legally join an NHL team was Sergei Priakin who signed a contract with Calgary. Later that summer, New Jersey added Vyacheslav Fetisov and Sergei Starikov. Sergei Marakov and Igor Larinov were also cleared to join NHL teams. Fetisov and Larionov are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Gregory said it was inevitable that Europeans would seek to come to North America and NHL teams would hire them “because of the popularity of the World Cup and Canada playing Russia, Sweden and Finland and the US as well.”
The globalization of hockey and looking for hockey talent had an effect on the lifestyles of NHL scouts who back in the six-team league rarely ventured out of Canada looking for talent.
“No, I went close (to the Arctic Circle),” said Gregory of one of his initial trips to Sweden. “Salming’s hometown is right near the Arctic Circle. When I was with the scouting bureau and you have to go look.”
The National Hockey League started the ball rolling in North America as the effort to expand North American branded sports continued in 1974 when the World Hockey Association sent a touring team to play Europeans and the Soviets. The NBA did not catch up to the NHL until Ted Turner developed the Goodwill Games and sent his Atlanta Hawks to the Soviet Union for training camp in the late 1980s. The NHL and NBA finally landed Soviet players in the late 1980s.
The National Basketball Association is hoping to open up a marketplace in India; Major League Baseball is expanding the World Baseball Classic and wants to introduce the game to countries like Ghana. The NHL plays regular season games in Europe. Oddly enough, the National Football league is way behind the other leagues in global expansion. The NFL has not been able to stage any games in China and seems to be content to go to London for annual games. The NFL has to continue finding growth areas in the United States, if possible, because it has limited options outside of North America. People do not play American football elsewhere except in British Columbia, a market that the NFL has cornered.
Sports continues to be a multinational entity. The drafts illustrate that pointedly.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition" is available at bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle.