Friday, 15 January 2016

THE MILLION DOLLAR OFFER

1960-61 Parkhurst card of Frank Mahovlich
(Canadian Public Domain)
On the evening of Friday, October 6, 1962, the National Hockey League played its annual pre-season All-Star Game at Maple Leaf Gardens, hosted by the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 1961-62 NHL champs. All-Star Games during the Original Six saw the Stanley Cup champs from the previous spring squaring off against the best of the other five clubs at the winner’s home rink. The game was a 4-1 yawner in favor of the Leafs, but what occurred mere hours after it stunned the sports world.

The story needs a little background first…

There’s two main characters, and a few supporting ones. Enter handsome, six-foot-one, 205-pound, 24-year-old star left winger Frank “The Big M” Mahovlich, soon to enter his sixth season as a Toronto Maple Leaf. Jumping straight from Junior A Hockey with the Ontario Hockey Association St Michaels Majors, he was named NHL Rookie of the Year in 1957-58, beating out Chicago Black Hawks Bobby Hull by a slim margin. In his first three NHL seasons, Mahovlich scored 20, 22, and 18 goals.

Then for the 1960-61 season, coach Punch Imlach put him on a line with center Red Kelly and rookie right winger Bob Nevin. There, Mahovlich excelled, scoring 48 goals and assisting on 36 others for his best season to date. In 1961-62, he collected 71 points, of which 33 were goals, bringing us to the October, 1962 All-Star Game. For the coming 1962-63 season, Mahovlich was now without a contract and demanded more money for his services: this in the era before agents. Leaf management had come in too low for his liking and the team’s top scorer and most popular player walked out of training camp.

Now, enter James Norris Jr, co-owner of the Chicago Black Hawks. The Norris family was renowned in the hockey world. James Sr had purchased the Detroit Red Wings in 1932 and turned them from a lousy operation into a league powerhouse. Son, James Jr, shared in the business side of running the team, along with co-owner Arthur Wirtz. Then James Jr and Wirtz left the nest and purchased the lowly Black Hawks, along with Bill Tobin, in 1946. Although the Hawks were the laughingstock of the NHL for the next several years making the playoffs only twice from 1946 to 1958, Wirtz and James Jr stuck with them.

In 1951, Tobin bowed out, leaving Norris and Wirtz running the show. In 1954, following a season where the Hawks had won only 12 games, the partners brought Detroit’s coach-GM Tommy Ivan west as their new GM. They also set up a Junior A farm system in St Catharines, Ontario that ultimately produced such future stars Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, and Pierre Pilote. By the end of the 1950’s, bettered by a trade where they stole Ted Lindsay and Glenn Hall in a trade with Detroit, the Hawks began to make the playoffs consistently, before finally winning a Stanley Cup in 1961, their first one in 23 years. I might add, James Jr was supposedly worth a cool $250 million at this point, a deciding factor for what is to come.

Getting back to 1962…following the October 6 All-Star Game, the annual All-Star dinner took place at Toronto’s famed Royal York Hotel. During the food and cocktails (maybe quite a few cocktails), James Norris Jr overheard Leafs’ vice-president Harold Ballard complaining about his team not signing Mahovlich. Approaching Ballard, Norris went into action, telling the Leaf executive that he would pay “any” amount for Mahovlich, a player whom Norris had always admired.

“Yeah, how much?” Ballard asked

“A million dollars!” Norris replied.

“Really? It’s a deal!”

Norris and Ballard then shook hands. Norris handed over ten $100 bills as a deposit in front of several witnesses who all signed a sheet of paper stating the money was a down payment with the rest coming later. Norris then phoned Johnny Gottselig, the team’s publicity director, and told him to break the news of the Mahovlich purchase, which Gottselig did by contacting Associated Press and United Press International sometime after midnight. From there, every major daily newspaper and radio station picked up the story and ran it that Saturday. In case you didn’t know, if this deal for Mahovlich was for real it would have been the largest amount ever paid for an athlete anywhere up to that time. When Mahovlich’s father heard the news over the radio later that morning, he called his son to say: “You’ve been sold to Chicago for a million dollars. Make sure somebody pays for moving your furniture.”

Cooler heads quickly prevailed, however, before things got out of hand.

It started when Detroit owner Bruce Norris called Conn Smythe (one time owner of the Leafs and a minority shareholder in 1962, but still calling the shots) in Toronto, who in turn called his son, Stafford, who was running the club, to inform those concerned that the deal was off. Bruce’s biggest concern was that his half-brother’s Chicago Black Hawks would have two sharpshooters from the left side: Mahovlich and Bobby Hull. The other five teams wouldn’t be able to cope with that. Stafford Smythe and the rest of the Leaf brass didn’t need much convincing, anyway, and decided that they just couldn’t go through with the transaction. Besides, if the deal became official, the Leaf fans would probably have lynched the whole bunch of Leaf executives.
1963-64 Parkhurst card of Leafs coach
Punch Imlach (Canadian Public Domain)

Meanwhile, at noon Saturday, accompanied by a roomful of reporters, Hawks GM Tommy Ivan arrived at Maple Leaf Gardens with a check made out to the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club for $1 million from the First National Bank of Chicago “For Payment in full for player Frank Mahovlich,” as it was typed on the check, only to be told the deal was a no-go. Stafford Smythe returned the $1000 deposit on the spot and said that it was all a misunderstanding because Harold Ballard did not have the authority to speak for the team on his own without the board of directors involved. “I will not consider such a deal made at a party,” Stafford finally had to admit. When word got back to Norris, he was furious, accusing the Leafs of welching on what was decided on in good faith a few hours before.

After the transaction fell through, Mahovlich eventually signed with Toronto. But from then on his relationship with coach Imlach was shaky, at the best of times. Facing constant criticism from Imlach (who always pronounced Mahovlich’s name wrong) in the press, as well as relentless booing from Leaf fans who thought he was loafing, Mahovlich suffered through bouts of fatigue and depression in the coming seasons. On two occasions he was hospitalized in mid-season. He still managed to lead his team in scoring most years and was on four Stanley Cup winners. In his biography years later, Mahovlich said: “Instead of going to Chicago, I ended up playing for a team that didn’t want me—and yet, wouldn’t trade me.”

Then part-way through the 1967-68 season, it happened: Mahovlich was mercifully traded to the Detroit Red Wings in a blockbuster deal involving eight other players. In January, 1971, he was traded again: this time to Montreal where he was a big part of another two Stanley Cup championships for a grand total of six in his career.

Mahovlich retired in 1979 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1981, a member on three NHL First All-Star Teams, and six Second All-Star Teams. He scored a total of 533 goals in the NHL and another 89 in the WHA. For those of us who remember his playing career, we will never forget how he would streak down that left wing with his long strides climaxed by his long windup and powerful slapshot on net.

In the 1998 ranking of The Hockey News list of 100 Greatest Hockey Players, Mahovlich came in at 27, ironically his uniform number.

To this day, some people feel the whole million dollar offer was either a publicity stunt to steal the front pages away from the 1962 World Series between the New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants or was a silly transaction made by two parties over too many drinks too late at night. Take your pick.


Either way, it turned out be to the biggest darn sports story of the year and kept everybody talking about it for a long, long time.

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