Longtime New York Rangers announcer Jack Filman was once asked the origins of the word "hockey." He replied that it was from an aboriginal word, hoghee, that meant, "it hurts!" Hockey history is full of such myths, and the purpose of this blog is to take a closer look at them and discuss the surrounding historical issues. (BTW hockey probably originates with the French word, hoquet, which referred to the hooked shape of the sticks used to play similar stick-and-ball games.)

Rest in Peace, Jean Beliveau! (At least you knew that Frank Selke did not buy the Quebec Senior Hockey League!)

The story of how Montreal Canadiens general manager Frank J. Selke had to buy an entire men's senior amateur league in order to get access to one of the enduring stars of the game, Jean Béliveau, is often repeated and has become, as my friend Lloyd Davis called it, “a hoary old chestnut.” The latest references are from Béliveau obituaries (here and here), and has been cited recently in Grantland. (Dave Stubbs got it right in the Gazette).

Time to take the rime off the nut.

The senior amateur QSHL comprised teams from Quebec and Ontario and was the best hockey outside the NHL in that region. Teams were owned and were profit-seeking, but players were amateur (in name at least). This being the case, the QSHL (unlike minor professional leagues) was not obligated to transfer players to the NHL. The players themselves had to decide to become pro, and were under no obligation to do so. Indeed, given the prevailing high QSHL salaries and off-season office jobs for stars, some players were understandably reluctant. This frustrated NHL clubs, who had often paid to develop the players through sponsorship of amateur teams. (In addition, stars remaining in the senior amateur ranks also threatened the supremacy of NHL hockey.)

Jean Béliveau was one of the coveted stars, but the Quebec Aces player repeatedly refused to sign with the Montreal Canadiens, holders of his professional rights. At $20,000 per year, Béliveau's 1952–53 Aces salary was already over double the NHL average, and he seemed in no hurry to play professional. Frank Selke of the Canadiens dangled cash and manoeuvred behind the scenes to oblige Béliveau to sign, and he was helped by the fact that the QSHL was already moving in the direction of professionalization.

After the QSHL's parent, the Quebec Amateur Hockey Association (QAHA), was suspended by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA), the QSHL promptly dropped out of the QAHA to protect its player rights. (If the league had not left, the professional leagues would have been forced to recognize the CAHA suspension and would not have been able to deal with the QSHL teams.) Money was also an issue. The QSHL was not happy with the cut of playoff revenues taken by the CAHA. And at least one money-losing owner, Tommy Gorman of the Ottawa Senators, wanted to realize the value of his player assets by signing players to transferable commercial contracts, thus making them more valuable.

In order to better control revenues and player rights, at a meeting in May 1953 the QSHL owners opted to professionalize as the Quebec Hockey League (QHL). This protected their rights to their players, who would now be put under commercial contract. Their rights could now be traded to NHL teams for $10,000 each. The QSHL clubs were also allowed to "reserve" the rights to negotiate the professional rights to a certain number of amateur players, just like other pro leagues did.

In October 1953, Béliveau signed with the Canadiens, but was there a connection to the professionalization? And where did the story of Selke’s purchase of the league come in? According to the Aces coach, Punch Imlach, Selke had convinced the other owners to professionalize, at least partially with the offer of Canadiens exhibition games in their rinks. Even if true, a few exhibition games seems like a modest price to offer for such a major transition, especially given the greater revenues to be expected from keeping their own playoff money, not to mention the prospect of player sales to the other pro leagues. And the Canadiens did not “own” the QSHL/QHL at any point, not matter how you stretch the definition.

In any case, Béliveau later recalled that he had already decided to sign with the Canadiens for the 1953–54 season before the QSHL professionalized. But since he kept this decision from both Imlach and Selke, it is possible that Selke’s actions to support professionalization in the spring may have been motivated by the idea of forcing Béliveau to sign. For to stay in Quebec, Béliveau would have had to sign a professional contract, and it was the Canadiens who held his professional rights, not Quebec.

R.I.P. Le Gros Bill.(I met him once at a hockey conference. He was regal.)

Sources: Jean Béliveau, Jean Béliveau, pp. 73, 75, 89–90; Punch Imlach, Hockey is a Battle, pp. 35–36, Al Nickleson, “Shouldn't Be Obligated to Go Pro, Says Dudley," Globe & Mail, 15 May 1953, p. 25; “Quebec Seniors Turn Professional,” Globe & Mail, 12 May 1953, p. 24; “Senior Loop Bolts From QAHA Ranks; Goes Independent,” Globe & Mail, 9 March 1953, p. 20.


Kevin van Steendelaar said...

I just came across a copy of Frank Selke's biography, just a few weeks past. I skimmed the chapters and surprisingly found no mention of the signing of Beliveau. I'll have to look again in detail, but you'd think if he went as far as the mythical purchase of the Quebec league he would note it in his bio.

JAR said...

It does suggest he didn't think it was that special (although there's lots of interesting stuff that Selke doesn't mention in his bio).

Dennis said...

How bout this, from Brian McFarlane's book. http://dennis-kane.com/ace-of-diamonds/

JAR said...

Someone should follow this up!