There are a lot of things fans do not love about the business side of hockey: arbitration hearings, the CBA, the fact that sometimes it breaks down and destroys the League for a year at a time. But most of all, they do not love players who treat hockey like a business. When a team is stashing multimillion contracts in the minors or offloading struggling veterans for picks and cap space, of course, then most fans are fine with treating the game as a business. But when a player, at the height of his powers and of his own free will, decides to leave the team that raised him up and go where the money’s better, the spectators are apt to get ornery. What happened to loyalty? they ask. Players used to be loyal. Now they’re just mercenaries.
Yet the mercenary impulse is inherent in the whole notion of professional sports. Professional sports are played for money, and whenever one is selling one’s skills for money, there is an element of greed involved. There can be other things involved as well, the atmosphere of the workplace and the challenge of the work and the worthiness of the cause, but for the most part, when people get paid to do something, they go where the pay is best. It has always been so: the first paid players were also the first mercenary players.
In the very earliest beginnings of hockey, all hockey in North America was amateur hockey, and was therefore naturally regional. The first generation of Ottawa Senators were composed of the government workers and displaced aristocrats who populated that city, just as the first Montreal teams were born of the gentleman scholars of McGill. People played where they were, the same way modern rec league players do. For the lower classes of society, getting paid to play a game was a practical impossibility, and for the upper classes, an ethical impossibility. The social elites who composed most early hockey teams looked down on the notion of any kind of payment with the same disdain we have today for gambling on one’s own matches.
Of course, if we consider that the first indoor hockey game was played in 1875, this pure era of amateur, local competition only lasted maybe twentysome years. By 1900, it was being subtly undermined by a combination of factors. Part of it was (ironically) the fans, for as hockey became a spectator sport there started to be money in it, and players began to question why arena owners, promoters, and club officials should be raking in cash from gate receipts and hot beverage concessions while they got nothing. Another part of it was the Stanley Cup, which became so fetishized so quickly that every town in Canada hoped to make a name for itself by winning it. Under the challenge cup framework, small towns like Kenora and Winnipeg had very little hope of winning the prize with their own locally-born talent, not when the Cup holders were big cities with huge player pools. So club managers in smaller cities and towns would try to lure stars with a lot of flattery and a little cash under the table.
By the dawn of the 20th century, then, there was a lot of money changing hands in supposedly ‘amateur’ hockey, but it was all very hush-hush. Teams could still be disqualified from competition if it was proven they’d paid players anything beyond travel expenses, and players who were known to have played for money could be a priori disqualified from participating in most leagues and tournaments. The forces of professionalization were in place, but nobody had the gonads to take it public.
Until Foster Hewitt’s dad decided to be an asshole to Fred Taylor.
See, Foster Hewitt’s dad- a one Billy Hewitt- was the manager of the Toronto Marlies senior men’s team. He was also the secretary of the Ontario Hockey Association, the governing body of amateur hockey- which was then all hockey- in the province. Fred Taylor was some kid from Listowel who, according to rumors, had some talent. So Billy Hewitt calls him up (or sends him a telegram or whatever people did in 1903) and says, hey, kid, come play for the Marlies. And Fred, first he says, sure, why not, but then he thinks about it a bit and decides he’d rather stay in Listowel with his mom, so he sends Mr. Hewitt back a message saying, actually, I’m good here.
Now, Billy Hewitt doesn’t like this at all, so he says, sonny boy, if you don’t play for my team, you’re not playing anywhere in this province. He uses his power with the OHA to blacklist Taylor from all hockey in Ontario. And, in doing so, he basically forces the professionalization of hockey. Because, as it turns out, Fred Taylor is not just some kid whose kind of good. He’s pretty much the most awesome player of his generation. And Billy Hewitt has just forced him to become a mercenary.
Banned from playing in Ontario, Fred started to wander. First, he goes to Portage la Prairie, in Manitoba, where the Manitoba Hockey Association has been flirting with semi-professionalization in order to attract players for a possible Stanley Cup challenge. However, word of his skill has gotten around, not just to Toronto and Manitoba but further afield too, and after only four games in Portage la Prairie, he gets a call from a dentist named Doc Gibson, who had an interesting proposition: come play professional hockey in the United States.
Gibson was the founder of the International Hockey League, a five-team affair with franchises in Michigan, Sault Ste. Marie, and Pittsburgh. In the history of hockey, the IHL is little more than a footnote- it only survived three years- but it is remarkable for two reasons: it was the first professional league in North America, and it was comprised entirely of Canadian players who had been kicked out of or alienated by the amateur hockey establishment. Some of them were actual quasi-pros who’d gotten caught taking money under the table, but others were- like Fred Taylor- innocent guys who’d run afoul of amateur associations in other ways. Maybe they’d received a gift or prize from a fan that seemed a little too ostentatious, or maybe they’d said no to someone in a position of power, or maybe they’d been falsely accused of taking money by a rival team who just wanted them out of the game. One way or another, they’d been stuck with the stigma of ‘pro’, and rather than fighting it, they’d decided to embrace it. In the States, there were no powerful amateur hockey bodies to dictate how and by whom the game must be played. There were no governing bodies at all. There were venture capitalists and there were hockey fans and, as Mr. Gibson realized, that was about all one really needed to found a league.
Taylor played two blissful seasons in Houghton, Michigan, making $100 a week (his former job in a Listowel piano factory had paid $20 a month) and skating in the Amphidrome, a 3000-seat rink that could hold every person in the town. In the IHL with him were other early stars at the dawn of their careers, Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre and Joe Hall, which meant that this little upstart pro league in middle-of-nowhere America was rapidly attracting the best young talent in Canada. The IHL would have been a terrific idea if not for two small snags: 1) players in the IHL could never win the Cup, since the trustees refused to accept challenges from either American or professional teams, much less both; and 2) salaries in the IHL were rapidly outpaced revenues. In 1907, there was a minor depression in the copper mining industry (the foundation of wealth in Michigan at the time) and that was enough to kill of the entire League- and send a wave of hockey professionals back to Canada with no intention of playing for free anymore.
The Canadian commitment to amateur hockey was very nearly dead anyway, as evidenced by the fact that the Ottawa Senators, ostensibly part of the Eastern Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, immediately offered Fred Taylor $500 to play their 10 game season, plus a cushy government job with the Department of Immigration. Although this was not nearly what he’d been making in Michigan, Taylor was impressed with the social cache would come with playing for Ottawa, a descendent of one of the early aristocratic club teams, and working in government.
He played two seasons for the Senators, from 1907-1909, scoring at a rate of nearly a goal a game and attracting crowds upwards of 7000, a phenomenal draw for the time. He instantly became the best player on the most elite franchise in hockey, a team that had held the Cup for nearly a decade against all challengers. At the end of 1909, he led the team to it’s tenth Cup-winning victory of the young century, and the crowd was so ecstatic they carried him to the victory party on their shoulders. In Listowel, in his youth, they’d called Fred Taylor “The Whirlwind”. In Ottawa, the governor general himself gave him a new nickname: Cyclone.
The next year, he unceremoniously ditched Ottawa for the Renfrew Creamery Kings. The O’Briens, now founding owners of the new NHA, were offering outrageous salaries, and the man now called Cyclone Taylor, as the biggest star in the game, figured he’d earned it. He negotiated a salary of $5200 for a 12-game season. To give you some perspective on that, his ‘good job’ with the Immigration Department had paid $35 a month and the Prime Minister of Canada at the time made about $2500 in a year. In terms of buying power, $5200 in 1909 is the equivalent of a bit over $3 million today. For twelve games. The Renfrew contract made Taylor not just the most highly paid man in hockey but, on a per-hour basis, the most highly paid man in any team sport anywhere in the world.
When the Renfrew team visited Ottawa in February 1910, 7000 fans came to pelt Taylor with whiskey bottles and horse shit. Traitor, they screamed. The Cyclone didn’t deny it. Rather, he joked about it to the press and kicked ass on the ice, his team defeating the Sens by scores of 8-5 and 17-2 in consecutive games. He didn’t cave to the crowd’s rage, he prodded it- most famously by bragging to the media that Ottawa’s goaltending was so bad he could score backwards if he wanted to. And then, prefiguring Messier’s guarantee by about eighty years, he did exactly that, drinking in the torrent of boos with as much glee as he’d sucked in the cheers just a year earlier. For the hometown crowd, Taylor’s departure was a betrayal. To him, it was just business, with maybe a bit of gamesmanship thrown in. It wasn’t that he was malevolent. He just didn’t especially care where he played anymore. He was a pro, and pros had to follow the money.
Like Ottawa, Cyclone Taylor played two years in Renfrew, and like the IHL, he helped to put them out of business. After his first season, the Creamery Kings were $20,000 in debt. After his second season, they folded. Player salaries in the NHA were exploding well beyond the gate receipts, thanks in part to a 1909 court ruling in Montreal that had basically, rendered hockey contracts legally unenforceable, stating that a team could not compel a player to play against his will no matter what sort of papers he’d signed. This led to rampant bidding wars, as players would sign with one team and then continue negotiating with others, always looking to one-up their deal. A gentleman’s agreement between the owners was able to limit poaching to a certain extent, but there were frequent violations and, in their zeal to pick up talent, most of the franchises ended up paying out far more than they brought in.
After the collapse of the Creamery Kings, the NHA owners attempted to institute a salary cap and compulsory contracts, such that players who did not play for the team they signed with first would not be permitted to play in the league at all. Then they raffled off the Renfrew players by lottery, the idea being that they would play for the team who won their rights at a reasonable rate and that would be that. The Montreal Wanderers, overjoyed, won the rights to Cyclone Taylor.
Cyclone Taylor, however, refused to play for Montreal. He announced in no uncertain terms that if Renfrew was no longer an option, he wanted to go back to Ottawa. The Wanderers, who now that the Creamery Kings were gone were probably the wealthiest team in the NHA, said no. He was theirs or no one’s. For a time, the Association tried to broker an agreement between the two teams, but all hope was lost when- before any arrangement had been reached- Taylor skated for Ottawa in a preseason exhibition match in New York. The Wanderers ownership was so enraged that they insisted the Cyclone be suspended for the duration of the season. For the second time in his life, Taylor found himself blacklisted out of hockey for refusing to play where some owner wanted him to play.
There’s sometimes a fine line between a mercenary with no loyalty and a human being standing up for his rights. Taylor asserted, quite correctly, that the owners and managers of various teams wanted to treat him like chattel, buying and selling him between themselves as though he were no more than a puck himself. The OHA wanted to do it in the beginning and now the NHA wanted to do it at the end, and he would not allow either organization to dictate where he would play and what he would get paid. He was a free person, he had a skill, he wanted to choose himself where to work. That choice might be driven by money or it might be driven by affection, but motivations weren’t the issue. It was, to him, a matter of his human rights.
Fans’ romantic vision of loyalty blinds them to the fact that most of what we imagine to be loyalty in hockey history- those 1950s, 60s, 70s players who stayed with one team all their career- was compulsory rather than voluntary. The first generation of pros, guys like Art Ross and Lester Patrick, who played with Taylor and saw the bidding wars he initiated and the financial difficulty it caused for teams and leagues, were among the men who- over the course of the 1930s and 40s- instituted the policies that would lead to the extremely restricted player movement of the Original Six era, when salaries were kept low and contracts were draconian. The pendulum swings: the excesses of Taylor’s first generation of totally free players inspired the restrictions that kept the following generations under strict control, which eventually led to still later generations rebelling and forming the Players’ Association, and then collective bargaining, skyrocketing salaries, lockout, salary cap, CBA and new CBA, on and on. And so it goes.
Ottawa paid him all that long suspension year, $1200 not to play, but at the end of it, with the Wanderers still demanding his rights and the NHA still unable to make peace between it’s teams, Taylor announced that he was sick and tired of Eastern hockey and would not have anything to do with it ever again. He got on a train westward and never looked back.
Cyclone Taylor had been chasing the best deal for eight years. He’d played for seven different clubs in six different leagues and made more money than any man had ever made playing hockey, perhaps more than any man had yet made in any professional sport. He had been the consummate soldier of fortune, the perpetual free agent. He had relished his freedom, his wealth, and his notoriety. And yet, when he got to Vancouver, he stopped still.
Who knows what it was? Maybe he finally felt appreciated. Maybe he got tired of moving. Maybe he decided it was better to be cheered than pelted with manure. Maybe he just liked the rain. Whatever the reason, hockey’s first mercenary finally found a home. He played nine consecutive seasons for the aptly-named Vancouver Millionaires, and then retired into government work, and never left BC again. When the Vancouver Canucks played their first home game in 1970, Cyclone Taylor dropped the first puck.