Why I can’t watch hockey and it is not the game or Roller Derby’s fault

In once sense I was more fortunate than many kids in the midwest.

After we moved from Portland to a Chicago suburb I was able to experience a winter there, and I still think it is among the worst anywhere…..but my father took an area of the field behind our property and created a natural ice rink, meticulously adding layers of water that would freeze.

And every day that we could, my cousins and I would put on our skates and with neighborhood kids play hockey until it was too dark to see anything.

So obviously I did not have an aversion to the game.  And my father and uncle had a master lease on the Louisville Armory and operated a minor league hockey team…..if you think all Leo did was create Roller Derby, you are very mistaken.

So move ahead about 25 years.  The International Roller Derby League is highly successful, on nationwide television, and drawing sellout crowds.  We were especially popular in the San Francisco Bay area, where our 22-week season out drew virtually all the other professional sports in the area.

One day I was contacted by the sports editor of the Oakland Tribune, a very nice guy who didn’t love Roller Derby but listed the game results and standings in his publication because there were so many fans in the area.  He asked if I would attend a meeting that might prove an interesting opportunity; he didn’t say with whom.  I said of course.

So that was my first meeting with Wayne Valley.  Wayne was a real power (but quiet) in the East Bay.  He had built thousands of tract homes, and when he decided that Oakland needed the recognition (separate from San Francisco) of being a power in the sports world, he and his Alameda Country friends obtained the American Football League franchise for the city.  The original name was the Oakland Senors, which is not even correct Spanish, but eventually they became the Raiders.  And Wayne found a brilliant football mind Al Davis to coach and manage.

Well Al didn’t like to listen to others, and before long they were at odds.  I am not sure that even today Wayne receives the credit for bringing the team to Oakland.

Well, to make an already long story shorter, Wayne wanted to put together a group to buy the struggling NHL Golden Seals hockey team, keep it in Oakland, and assure its success.  And Alan from the Tribune told him I was the one to head the group.  And who were the other members of the group (about 15 investors):  Lamar Hunt from the AFL Dallas Texans, Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills, Bud Adams of the Houston Oilers, John Bueno who owned Good Chevrolet in Alameda and others.

Charlie Finley had already announced he would be trying to acquire the Seals…..He already owned the Oakland A’s, and it was known as the worst, lowest attended franchise with the  most underpaid players.  He was so cheap that he cut out the janitorial services for the offices at the Coliseum and instead had his cousin, Karl Finley, clean the offices after running the operation during the day.

And Wayne said something interesting to me:  “I want to show the Genius that I can make something else successful besides football.”

So we devised a plan.  I was to front the group….initially we could not reveal who the principals were.  Wayne was in the process of selling his company to Singer and felt they would not like him to be participating in another endeavor.  I had to raise a quarter million dollars for my share of the equity, and we were easily able to show the financial capability of I believe 5 million dollars.

We constructed a 200-page operational and marketing strategy (which I wish I had the money to have done with Roller Derby).  I already had good relationships with many of the hockey arenas/teams. We had played in Toronto and Montreal, Madison Square Garden (which owned the Rangers) was our partner in New York; Bill Torrey of the Pittsburgh Penguins was our promoter in Pittsburgh, and Sidney Saloman III who owned the St. Louis Blues was a personal friend; he had promoted a summer of Roller Derby in St. Louis and later said that experience helped him to promote the Blues to be successful.

So it looked like a sure winner.  The power of the AFL, strong local ownership (Finley had his offices in Chicago), and the fact that the Coliseum management hated the A’s owner, and despite being a public facility, wrote a strong endorsement of our group.

But hockey has always been strange.  the original six:  Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York, Chicago, and Detroit had always operated as a closed unit.  James Norris owned the Red Wings, his partner Arthur Wirtz owned the Blackhawks, Norris’s sister owned Boston, I believe, and the Canadian franchises each had individual owners.  And hockey up until the mid-60s was looked down upon; you couldn’t place a bet, and everyone wondered what was the coincidence of the New York Rangers always taking a tailspin in the standings in April when the Circus took over the Garden in what would have been playoff time.

So armed with the proposal, I went to the meeting at the International Hotel by JFK in New York.  As I walked in I was greeted by my friends, and ignored by the others….what was up?

Well, Charlie had met with the old six, said I am an individual like you; you don’t want those football owners running the league, and I am successful in Oakland, and put a one page proposal in front of them.

I laboriously went through what we would do, but knew I was in trouble when I saw Norris was sleeping and Billy Wirtz was already in his cups.  We lost the vote, of course. And the whole unfair process really shattered me.

Finley took over the Seals, ran them horribly, and a few years later turned the franchise over to the NH who broke it up and moved it out of town.

I found it hard to watch any hockey after that.  Ironically, when as executive VP with Ticketmaster I was running the New York office I as a courtesy to our client Madison sqaure Garden went to a Rangers game in our box.  I left after the first period.  The same with the LA Kings, although I attended every Laker game (the Magic showtime era) that I could.

And when at BASS tickets in Northern California  we got the contract for th HP Pavilion in San Jose and the Sharks, I attended the first game, again in our box, and never went again.  I still won’t watch on television.

By the way, when we sold BASS tickets, the manager of HP Pavilion (and of the Sharks) did not renew the ticket contract, so I put the curse of BASS on the Sharks and they have never been able to win the Cup…not sure I will ever remove it, but then, I am not a spiteful person.

This year is Roller Derby’s 80th anniversary, and we will bleed to celebrate

80 years ago on August 13th, 1935, Leo Seltzer had the idea to put men and women skaters on a slightly banked track and skate a marathon….and who would have figured that 80 years later some 2000 leagues (100,000 athletes) would make it a huge part of their lives in a modern version.

So this is how the American Red Cross, Brown Paper Tickets and a number of Roller Derby leagues are celebrating this anniversary in a way that saves lives:

There will be a competition between the West and the East to see who can get the most donors to give blood.  Northern California leagues will be engaging in the drives for the third straight year, and Jeff Meyer, Director for the Red Cross in the Massachusetts and Connecticut region, will be reaching out to the local leagues (women, men, and juniors) for drives in  these areas to try to “out draw” the western region…..and even Bangor Maine Derby wants to join in.

The drives will be between July and August this year to honor the founding of the game.  For your league to join in, please contact hanna.malak@redcross.org, or me at jerry@brownpapertickets com.   and don’t worry, we will also be hounding you in the next few weeks.

And Leo Seltzer who never knew his beloved sport survived (he died in 1978) would be overjoyed at the service you are providing.  Let us tell you how easy it is to join in and what a service you are providing to your community in saving lives.

the greatest skater of the 60s and 70s left us yesterday.

please click on       http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kf2yYWHbQG8&feature=share&fb_ref=share

This is an interview from yesterday by radio host Terry Sol on the Derby life of the legend Charlie O’Connell, who left us on Monday.

He was the last to go of the great Derby heroes of that era:  Joan Weston, Ken Monte, Ann Calvello, Bob Hein, and most recently, Annis Jensen.  Others still survive, thankfully.

Charlie brought a rugged sports mentality to the Derby, which relied much more on finesse prior to that time…..A bigger than life (6 foot 2, 200 pounds) skater who towered over most of the others.  And he played the game as he played football and hockey, skate fast, hit hard, and never backed down.  The pivot positon – the player who could block, jam, and quarterback the pack was really created for him.  The recalcitrant hero, didn’t like interviews, autographs, was gruff, but adored by fans everywhere…..He and Joan Weston signified the Bay Bombers for years to the millions who watched on television and in person.

I felt bad that the interview was just hours after I had heard the unexpected news of his death; I didn’t mention his wife, Judi McGuire, who was not only his soul mate but was a great athlete herself, skating for the New York Chiefs for years…..She survives him as does Charlie, Jr, and Shari.

Hope you will take the time to listen and watch (about a half hour, if you have ADD like me, break it up).  It will help you understand (and some remember) what the world was like for all of us in that magical era.

I still can’t believe it.

Can Roller Derby ever become a major spectator attraction again?

Before you jump down my throat about your love for the game, I am not talking about anything except attracting more fans on a meaningful basis.

And ironically after writing this I found out that one of Derby’s greatest stars, Charlie O’Connell has died, and he was one reason that fans came to the games.

Yes, some leagues are doing well, especially the ones that have their own teams that play each other (can we start differentiating between teams and leagues?).  Obviously Gotham, Bay Area, Toronto, Texas, LA Derby Dolls, TXRD,  etc come to mind, but each of their teams has its own following and the fans can see their progress during the season, ending in a championship.

But many of the 2000 teams/leagues throughout the world depend almost soley of the local “family” support to continue, and many do not even think that admissions and merch can bring them sufficient revenue.

During the recent World Cup – the amazing event created by Robin Graves and her staff, there was a real feeling of what the game could mean to a paying public…….but when you got down to it, only a few of the countries could really manage the complexity of the game as it should be played, and they dominated the competition.  And the final, exciting matches had an enthusiastic crowd, but virtually all were “family” and not enough civilians.

A good friend of mine named Bill was in attendance on Friday, and liked what he saw so much that he returned for Sunday’s finals with his wife, who yelled herself hoarse.

Bill is a powerful player within the sports industry, and we had a very interesting discussion after the Cup ended.  Some of which I will relate.

He loved the possibilities of the sport, but found the game too complex and hard to follow for the larger audience necessary, and remarked on the excessive penalties (justified or not) that seemed to keep teams from being at full strength.  I explained the make up of teams/leagues throughout the world, the play for rankings and not for a regional league, the excessive amount of leagues in any area, etc.

He still wondered about the possibility of modifying and making a more spectator friendly game.

(Those who think I shouldn’t be talking this way or am criticizing the game you and thousands throughout the world love, please give it a rest for now……the game works for those who play it).

So looking back on what made Roller Derby successful there were many elements, albeit a very different animal…..you are thinking we don’t want the showmanship, the fights, etc.  And I agree….no need in today’s competitive sport.  But what if in a specific example you could present to the public an exhibition that combined the best of the rulesets (original, WFTDA, USARS, MADE), that allowed for the speed by the players and pack, really having offense and defense on the same play, having officiating more in tune with hockey that is no harm no foul (but obviously protect the players), and allowing stars to shine, and players to project them selves honestly, as in hockey and basketball.

Today you have the best roller skaters in the world in Derby.  You have participants who skated the old Roller Derby in a more recent form (Quadzilla, Mark Weber, etc) and former skaters like John Hall, Cliff Butler, Debbie Rice, Judy Arnold, Frank Macedo who would love to be a coaching participant in a different form of Derby.

Do I want to own Roller Derby again?  No, I did that, and it was wonderful…to sell out Madison Square Garden and every major arena and fill stadiums with crowds ranging from 27,000 to 50,000…for whatever you think of the past, the game always was about the skating to the fans…..nothing excited them more than skaters flying around the track, chasing each other, and one or two points on a jam.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYC4ia6bBO4   A bit about Roller Derby in the 70s.

Of course I will continue to support the wonderful people and players I know in Derby.

But I would love to see what I described, promoted and featured, in just one weekend in a major city to see what the response would be.

You know I will always be a promoter at heart.