You don’t have to have a sense of humor to understand the following, but it helps.
Let me just start with a confession: I love Brian Burke. Not, of course, as a general manager. As a general manager, Burke is sort of middling-good, clearly smart but perhaps overly doctrinaire, and anyway, as a Habs fan, there is no honest way I could claim to love him as a GM. But there is no denying that he is one of the great characters of contemporary hockey. I mean, look at his press conferences. When other GMs have a press conference, they come in, sit at a table, read a statement, answer a few bland questions, and leave. Brian Burke, though, he comes in with his tie undone and his shirt open like he’s been out all night drinking and perhaps bare-knuckle boxing in a parking lot and lectures the assembled crowd on the Meaning of Hockey. Nobody in any front office anywhere in the League could take the demotion of a borderline player to the AHL and make it an occasion for an ethical debate on the teleological direction of Our Game in the modern era, except Brian Burke. That is why I love him.
But fact is, despite all his theatrics, Brian Burke is not especially tough. Maybe he was tough, back in the day, maybe deep deep down in the bowels of his soul he still is, but most of his toughness now is just bulk and bluster, a little bit of showmanship and a whole lot of talk. It’s not his fault. The fact that Burke’s tough-guy-act is the closest thing we have in the modern era to a ‘tough’ GM is a sad reflection of an overall trend in contemporary hockey which the philosopher Milbury might call The Pansification of Management. Much ink has been spilt (or many bytes transmitted, I suppose, although that’s a pretty awful substitute idiom and may be the best reason we have for saving the newspaper) over the perceived decline in player toughness and combativeness in recent years, but tragically little attention has been given to the very demonstrable decline in general manager toughness and combativeness.
The modern GM is a delicate creature indeed, sitting up in his high box in his fancy suit, scribbling in notebooks and consulting in quiet whispers with other men in fancy suits scribbling in other notebooks. He speaks little and does even less, and those few things he does do in a given season are all confidential paperwork and secret phone calls. He stays, except for a few rare occasions, out of the spotlight and under the radar. A veritable hothouse flower, he is.
This was not always so, and as evidence of such, I would like to present for your consideration today the illustrative case study of one Arthur Howey Ross. Now, if you are not a Bruins fan, you are probably primarily aware of Art Ross as a large silver punch-bowl given annually to the NHL player scoring the most points in a season. This is because Art-Ross-the-Manager donated Art-Ross-the-Punch-Bowl in 1947 so that A) everyone would remember his name forever, and B) said name would be associated with the glory of spectacular scoring performances and disassociated from the various crazy things he actually did.
Not that he didn’t do some good things; dude was a smart man. We are morally obligated, before continuing, to specify that Ross invented the modern hockey puck, the red line, those weird old-timey double-lobed nets that were in use for so long, and the concept of pulling the goalie for an extra attacker. More importantly, he was instrumental in the invention of the professional player in the first place, being one of the first to insist that it was only right and just that the men who played the game get a chunk of the money owners and promoters were making by selling it- and this back in 1910, when the impractical ideal of the amateur sportsman still ruled hockey.
That fact is representative of both the good and bad in Ross, both his originality and his unsentimental amorality. Art Ross is the kind of guy who, during his playing career, would go around selling his professional services to ostensibly ‘amateur’ teams to win championships. He was more or less a professional ringer, or perhaps more accurately, a mercenary. As a coach, he was prone to both theatrics and thuggery. At the height of Eddie Shore’s popularity, he had the star come out onto the ice wearing a cape and crown while “Hail to the Chief” played over the loudspeakers. During Prohibition, he paid local gangsters to sit behind the visitors’ bench and threaten opposing coaches. He actively encouraged the famous Boston ‘Gallery Gods’, who had a habit of throwing rotten fruit, hunks of metal, and sometimes firecrackers at the other team from the high seats in the Garden. On at least one occasion, he actually paid the Bruins $500 each to beat up a referee in the hallway after a game. As a manager, he paid players extra under the table to circumvent League restrictions on salaries (the proto-salary cap) and sold damaged players to other teams under false medical reports. And he was an inveterate and irrepressible yapper, extremely fond of insulting other owners, players, and managers both in the papers and on the ice.
Now, all this evidence suggests that Art Ross was a bit of what- in Burkian parlance- might be termed a ‘rat’. Just a bit, you know, a few whiskers, maybe a tiny little wormy tail, something like that. Perhaps brilliant and unquestionably audacious, the man was also unrepentantly nasty and unapologetically devious. He violated both League rules and ethical principles on a great many occasions, and was partial to a whole range of tactics well outside the standard limitations of good Canadian/American hockey behavior. Whatever the GM equivalent of ‘The Code’ is, Art Ross did not live by it.
For a great many years, nobody did anything about this. Perhaps it was fear of legal repercussions, perhaps it was fear of the Boston fanbase, perhaps it was fear of all the gangsters Ross had cultivated over the years. Personally, I suspect it was because if truth be told many of the old-time owners and managers had done some unscrupulous dealings in their day and a League crackdown on malfeasance was in no one’s interest. So the other managers primarily confined themselves to trash-talking Ross in the papers, which only succeeded in giving the man more of the notoriety he so clearly enjoyed.
Until 1936, anyway. In that year or thereabouts (it was the 1936-37 season but the exact date is not recorded) there was a League Governor’s meeting, as the NHL often holds, for the purpose of considering rule changes, arranging schedules, and settling disagreements. After a hard day of meetings and squabblings, some of the GMs retired to a private hotel suite, apparently in order to continue meeting and squabbling, but while drunk. And in the course of said squabbling, Art Ross got to yapping at Red Dutton. Dutton, then the manager/coach of the New York Americans, was (as far as I can tell) an ex-defenseman of the large, honest, uncreative and pugilistic variety, an indifferent player in his playing days and an indifferent manager in his managing ones, and Ross was having a grand time telling him exactly that in far more colorful terms. The argument grew heated, and then a one Jim Norris attempted to intervene, and then Ross attempted to throw a punch, and here we come to the point of our story, ladies and gentlemen, because Red Dutton then proceeded to beat the living shit out of Art Ross. In a hotel room, with the encouragement of Norris and Adams and other assorted trophy-named luminaries, one GM literally pummeled another into submission. Ross left that room with a broken nose and a fractured cheekbone. He left six of his teeth behind.
And here’s the kicker: as far as we know, there was no fallout whatsoever from this beating. No police were called, no charges filed, nobody sued anyone. Everyone concerned- Dutton, Norris, Adams and even Ross himself- seems to have considered the event somehow appropriate or fair, as if it settled something that needed settling. They were, in essence, settling their differences the same way players did. The same way some modern GMs still insist players should.
This wasn’t hockey’s either first or last incident of GM-instigated combat- Ross had been known to go out onto the ice to brawl alongside his players- but there hasn’t been anything like it in a very long while. And what do we have now? Kevin Lowe running around making offer sheets on unsuspecting RFAs and his successor trying to pawn off players with shattered feet on the Kings. Where’s the accountability? Where’s the respect? Who is going to make these guys answer the bell?
Oh sure, Burke says he would have fought Lowe, but he also says he would have rented a barn to do it in. Here’s a good rule of thumb, for those of you considering pissing someone off in the near future: If you ever hear anyone open a retaliatory threat with, “I’ll rent a barn, and then…”, stop listening. It does not matter what comes after the ‘then’, because it will not happen. I do not care how folksy and rural you are, nobody ever rents a barn in order to exact revenge. The moment Burke brings barn-rentals into the conversation, Lowe knows that he is never going to actually have to fight, and probably starts giggling as well.
Look, general managers, if you’ve got a score to settle, you don’t need a barn, or a silo, or a shed, or a sty (although that would be awesome and certainly don’t let me deter you from attempting such if you were considering it). The League still has Board of Governors meetings. They are still held in, or in the vicinity of, hotels. People still like to drink. If you really believe that beating up opponents who behave inappropriately or unethically is an effective deterrent to said behavior, if you really believe that that is the way you keep the game honest, than you’ve already got all the means and opportunity you need built right into the schedule. Go ahead, show us how ‘The Code’ works. Show us old-time hockey values in action. Lead by example.
Sources: Accounts of the central incident may be found in Eddie Shore and That Old Time Hockey, by C. Michael Hiam; The Lives of Conn Smythe, by Kelly McParland; and If You Can’t Beat ‘Em in the Alley, by Conn Smythe with Scott Young (many thanks to the illustrious Matt Fenwick for helping me get at that one). Additional material on Art Ross and his behavior was taken from Putting a Roof on Winter, by Michael McKinley. And, of course, one can always resort to Google and Wikipedia, which will turn up a wealth of information on Art Ross, if you can filter it out from the approximately ten billion WHO WILL WIN THE ART ROSS THIS SEASON??? articles that have been churned out in the past sixty-odd years.