Legends Howe, Gretzky low-balled brethren

September 22, 1991|By Keith Gave | Keith Gave,Knight-Ridder News Service

Hockey legends Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky were victimized by their own naivete -- and it cost their NHL brethren millions of dollars in artificially low salaries, according to a book by two Canadians.

"Net Worth: Exploding the Myths of Pro Hockey" tells of owner greed and player abuse dating to the 1930s.

Authors David Cruise and Alison Griffiths, hockey outsiders who have two other business-related books to their credit, have deftly chronicled the players' futile attempts to get their share of the huge profits owners have made for decades. The only exception perhaps came during the days the NHL struggled in a battle with the old World Hockey Association.

It is an important book for fans who want to better understand why -- in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement that expired Sunday -- the players might best help themselves by calling a strike, and probably won't.

Red Wings' fans will find it especially interesting because nearly a fourth of the 362-page book is centered in Detroit, where teammates in the Wings' Olympia locker room lined up on opposite sides in Ted Lindsay's ill-fated attempt to organize players into a union.

Here are some noteworthy excerpts:

"Each year during training camp, the Red Wings' general manager, Jack Adams, would offer Howe a completed contract, with only the salary left blank. 'Just fill in what you're worth, Gord.' Every year, regardless of the growing list of records and awards, Howe dutifully added a mere $1,000 annual raise. . . . Adams always warned Howe to keep his salary secret. 'It would make the other players jealous,' he said with a conspiratorial wink.

"For his part, Gordie Howe trusted Adams and owner Bruce Norris to look after him. 'I'd always had an agreement with the Red Wings that, because I was one of the best players in the game, I'd always be the highest-paid player of the team -- in fact, the highest in the league,' Howe said."

When Bob Baun was traded to Detroit in 1968, he told Howe he unwittingly had held down players' salaries.

"You set the standard and we all had to live by it, and it's from you not negotiating properly," Baun is quoted as saying. "If that's what you think you're worth, then you put a very low price on your ability.' . . .

"Gretzky has always been an advocate of the Gordie Howe school of negotiating -- 'Pay me what you think I'm worth.' When he finally happened on an owner who did just that [Bruce McNall], a whispered revelation rippled through the league's 400 players: 'Wayne has been holding us back for a decade.' "

"The NHL players' pension plan dates to 1946, when C. Jean Casper, a Detroit insurance agent and avid hockey fan, suggested the idea to a few players. Until then, he and other local independent agents had restricted themselves to selling injury insurance to the Red Wings.

"Dubbed the per-stitch policy, one of the provisions awarded players compensation based on the number of stitches required to repair their injuries. Consequently, visible damage was always preferred to hidden problems like twisted knees. . . . Players occasionally asked doctors to add a few extra stitches to close a cut."

"No one would ever have dreamt that Ted Lindsay would lead a players' organization. He'd fought every one of the players he called together to meet after the 1956 All-Star Game. . . .

"The league reacted with astonishment. . . . The day after the announcement, an eerie tension crackled in the six NHL arenas. In Detroit, Adams confronted his boys. After a harsh tirade on the subject of loyalty and ingratitude, he stalked from one player to another.

'Are you for this? Are you for this?' he shouted. . . . When he came to Gordie Howe, Adams put his hand on the player's shoulder and said with a quivering voice, 'I know you're not for this Gord, big fella, I don't even have to ask.' Howe's eyes stayed riveted on his skates and not a sound escaped his lips. . . "Then [Adams] moved to Lindsay and stood for a longer moment as a sneer folded his face. 'Time will take care of him.' Lindsay alone met Adams' stare."

The Wings traded Lindsay and goalie Glenn Hall to the Chicago Blackhawks in June 1957. In November, Wings players withdrew from the players association. It died in February 1958, less than a year after it was formed.

"A strike is any labor organization's ultimate weapon. . . . Today, hockey players still believe, as their baseball brethren did 25 years ago, that a strike will kill the game. The owners know this and exploit it unmercifully at every opportunity."

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