In 1962, the notion of paying $1 million to a hockey player—or any professional athlete, for that matter—was unthinkable. But the Blackhawks went a step beyond by trying to buy a hockey player for $1 million. If only for a day or so, the offer reverberated throughout sports in the United States and Canada.
The story unfolded in Toronto, where the annual NHL All-Star Game was to initiate the regular season. Back then, the defending Stanley Cup Champions played a team featuring the best of the rest from the Original Six. The Maple Leafs had dethroned the Blackhawks, in part because of a powerful young left wing, Frank Mahovlich.
League executives gathered prior to the Oct. 6 puck drop; among them were James Norris and Arthur Wirtz, who took over the Blackhawks in the mid-50s and basically saved the franchise. Norris famously introduced the new ownership by saying that he could lose $1 milliion a year and still afford to survive for “two or three centuries.”
While conversing with members of the Maple Leafs front office at the Royal York Hotel, Norris casually mentioned that he would part with $1 million for Mahovlich, who had scored 48 goals the previous season. Mahovlich beat out Bobby Hull for the 1958 Calder Trophy as best rookie and continued to excel. In fact, at age 24, Mahovlich was holding out for a better contract, but Norris expressed no doubt that the Blackhawks would sign him upon acquiring his rights.
Harold Ballard, a vice president on the Maple Leafs’ new management group, was stunned at Norris’ proposal. But Ballard did say that “every man has a price.” Norris then departed to meet with Tommy Ivan, the Blackhawks’ general manager.
“How good a hockey player is Mahovlich?” inquired Norris.
“Pretty good,” responded Ivan.
“Worth $500,000?” continued Norris.
“Yes,” said Ivan.
“Worth $1 million?” Norris went on.
Now, Ivan was speechless.
“I think we can get him,” concluded Norris. “The Maple Leafs are having a problem with him. I’d like to have that problem.”
While visions of Hull and Mahovlich on left wing danced merrily in Ivan’s head, Norris returned to Ballard with ten $100 bills as a down payment.
“You’ve got a deal,” said Ballard.
While the Maple Leafs signed a statement on a piece of stationery, Norris instructed Ivan to call the wire services and Chicago newspapers. John Gottselig, the Blackhawks’ publicity director, burned midnight oil, and Saturday morning’s headlines throughout both countries blasted the bombshell.
“BLACKHAWKS BUY MAHOVLICH FOR MILLION!”
On Saturday morning, Norris autographed a check for the amount, and Ivan took it to the Maple Leafs’ offices. The picture of Ivan holding that check, with a rather ample smile on his face, has become part of hockey lore. But the monumental transaction never was consummated. Stafford Smythe, Toronto’s president, called a meeting of his board of directors, who “reluctantly declined” the business proposition.
“I will not,” added Smythe, “consider such a deal made at a party.”
Indeed, skeptics alleged that the discussion between Norris and Ballard might have been influenced by adult beverages and that the “agreement” from the Maple Leafs surely had to be recorded on a cocktail napkin. Scott Young, a brilliant columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail (and father of singer/songwriter Neil) blistered the episode as a grotesque publicity stunt. He torched the Leafs to such an extent that he was soon relieved of his role as a host on Hockey Night in Canada telecasts.
But for years thereafter, Ivan maintained that Norris was sincere about securing Mahovlich.
“I had the check in my possession,” Ivan said. “If the Maple Leafs take it, it’s a done deal.”
If nothing else, the effort confirmed to any doubters that the Blackhawks were serious about winning. This represented a total reversal in form, because only a few years earlier, the Blackhawks were in serious trouble. They were perennial losers, and Stadium attendance was so poor that they even played a few “home” games at neutral sites as obscure as Omaha. Before Bill Tobin finally sold his controlling interest to James D. Norris, Sr. (father of the James Norris who wrote the check), and Wirtz in 1952, rumors persisted about the Blackhawks moving to St. Louis or disbanding altogether.
It sounds outrageous now, but we shouldn’t forget that Chicago lost a National Football League team, the Cardinals, to St. Louis. Also, professional basketball didn’t make it in Chicago until its third attempt with the Bulls. James Norris, Sr., passed away shortly after he and Wirtz, who owned the Stadium, purchased the building’s primary tenant. Under this progressive regime, the Blackhawks built a formidable organization. Ivan, who coached the Detroit Red Wings to three Stanley Cups, was hired as general manager in 1954. He inherited a team that had wobbled through the previous winter with a record of 12 wins, 51 losses and seven ties.
“Siberia,” recalls Glenn Hall, a Hall-of-Fame goalie who Ivan stole from Detroit in 1957. “For the longest time, Chicago was the Siberia of the NHL. If you acted up with management, you were punished by being sent to Siberia.”
Ivan fortified the talent pool through a farm system that included sponsorships of junior clubs such as St. Catharines, where, among others, Hull and Stan Mikita refined their special skills. In 1959, the Blackhawks made the playoffs for only the second time in 13 years. In 1961, they won their first Stanley Cup since 1938. But they lost to Toronto in the 1962 finals, and the Chicago ownership did not take kindly to defeat. Thus, the Mahovlich-for-a-million saga.
“I had the two most patient bosses in the world,” maintained Ivan. “Mr. Norris and Mr. Wirtz kept hockey in Chicago.”
They provided Ivan with what amounted to a blank check to resurrect the franchise, and he did. But that one large check made out to the Toronto Maple Leafs 40 years ago was never cashed.
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