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.