Hockey’s rich history explored through some of its most fascinating documents
Every great career in hockey starts with a pen and a piece of paper. In Blue Lines, Goal Lines & Bottom Lines, author Greg Oliver takes a peek into historical documents of the stars, from Wayne Gretzky’s first contract to a scouting report on Mario Lemieux; from Bobby Hull promoting a hair restoration product to Glenn Anderson fighting for his playoff bonuses. And what’s this about baseball Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins playing with the St. Louis Blues? The journeymen tell their tales too, from Lou Nanne explaining why he signed his own retirement papers to Pierre Pilot talking about Elmer “Moose” Vasko’s battle with his weight. Culled from the archives of Allan Stitt, one of hockey’s leading collectors, the book offers up page after page of treats never before seen by hockey fans. The documents that breathe life into Blue Lines, Goal Lines & Bottom Lines are complemented by a wide variety of stunning and rare photos from the Hockey Hall of Fame archives.
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About the Author
A writer, editor, and stay-at-home dad, Greg Oliver has written extensively about professional wrestling and hockey. Recent books include Don’t Call Me Goon, The Goaltenders’ Union, Written in Blue & White, and Duck with the Puck. A member of the Society for International Hockey Research, Greg lives in Toronto, Ontario, with his wife and son. Learn more at OliverBooks.ca.
Read an Excerpt
In Allan Stitt’s current collection, you see a whole lot of that 11-year-old kid who waited behind Maple Leaf Gardens after games in the early 1970s, seeking autographs from his favourite hockey players.
While Allan’s compilation of vintage hockey contracts, personal letters, memos, and other paperwork is interesting and historically important in its own right, it is in many ways a grown-up version of those fan autographsjust on more expensive and rarer pieces of paper.
And, as intriguing as Henri Richard’s rookie contract might be, signed as it is by the Pocket Rocket and Canadiens’ general manager Frank Selke on a page from a calendar, in the long run, it doesn’t mean as much to Allan as a letter he got in 1972. One is a valuable artifact from the past and a part of hockey history, but the other is a part of his childhood.
It was his cousin who introduced Allan to the thrill of the chase, hanging out on Wood Street, the north side of Maple Leaf Gardens, waiting for the players from both teams to leave and head out to their cars or hotel.
“It was an era when the players were approachable. Most of them were happy to sign autographs after every game. My cousin, Adam Kronick, got me hooked on that,” recalled Stitt. “Then he told me, ‘By the way, for guys that you can’t get, if you write them letters, some of them will send you back autographs. All you have to do is make sure you send them a piece of cardboard or a sheet of paper to sign, or something in a self-addressed stamped envelope so it’s really easy for them to just sign it and send it back.’”
A binder full of 40-year-old autographs is a treasure for any fan, and Stitt regularly goes through his to bring back memories.
“One of the guys who I wrote to, of course, was Bobby Orr, because I thought Bobby Orr was the greatest player I had ever seen,” said Stitt.
What Stitt got back in 1972 was a black-and-white picture with a stamped signature and, remarkably, a “Dear Allan” letter from his hero, signed personally by Bobby Orr.
“I realize today that Bobby didn’t personalize letters to everybody,” said Stitt. “But at the time, it felt like Bobby Orr took the time to answer my letter and send a personal message to me. I got a letter from Bobby Orr!”
Of all the letters that he got back, Orr was the only one to personalize it by signing, “Dear Allan.” (He did also get letters back from Lanny McDonald and Darryl Sittler.)
Those 1972 Bruins, coming off a second Stanley Cup victory in three years, were at their apex of popularity, said centreman Fred Stanfield.
“The whole team got a lot of fan mail then, but Bobby, he’d get bags full of fan mail,” he said, adding that he answered his own fan mail at the time, just as he still does today with the occasional autograph hound that has tracked him down. “I did it all myself, but Bobby, he had to hire somebody because it just became too much. He would sign every one personally.”
Today, the Allan Stitt Collection continues to grow, and it’s with great pleasure that we share with you some of the treasures that exist. Blue Lines, Goal Lines & Bottom Lines: Hockey Contracts and Historical Documents from the Collection of Allan Stitt is meant to complement the earlier release, Written in Blue & White: The Toronto Maple Leafs Contracts and Historical Documents from the Collection of Allan Stitt. While the first book focused on some of Allan Stitt’s Toronto Maple Leaf documents, this book focuses on documents that he’s collected that relate to teams other than the Leafs.
It is our hope that you, as well as the 11-year-old fan buried deep within you, enjoys this fascinating trip down memory lane.
THE GREAT ONES
Every collection has a centrepiece, the one treasure that is prized above all others. For Allan Stitt, it’s the Wayne Gretzky contract, which Gretzky signed on his 18th birthday at centre ice at the Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton. Allan recalled how he obtained the document: “It came up for sale at an auction, and I was dying to get it, but it was just too expensive. I couldn’t afford it, so I didn’t get it. Then about five years later, it came up again at another auction, and I said, ‘No way am I letting this one go this time.’ But I was afraid to spend so much money.”
Surprisingly, it was famed Rush vocalist and bassist Geddy Lee who pushed him into committing. The two are friends through the Toronto tennis courts, and Lee is an avid collector himself, with historic baseball as his passion. “I went over to Geddy’s house to talk about it. He said, ‘There are a few things to keep in mind. First, it’s Wayne Gretzky. And it’s his most important contract. When you get the best of the best of something, it’s rarely a bad decision. Second, this isn’t an expense, it’s an investment. It will always be worth something and, more than likely, it will go up in value because it is the best of the best. You won’t regret it if you get it, but you will if you don’t try.’
“He talked me into it and I took a big gulp, put in my bid, and got it. And of course, he was right. I definitely haven’t regretted buying it. And I would for sure have been kicking myself if I didn’t get it.”
Actually, this was Stitt’s second Gretzky contract. The first one, obtained years before when Stitt was first bitten by the collecting bug, was Gretzky’s deal with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Major Junior Hockey League. “I was already a Gretzky fan when he was a junior, and I loved the idea of having his OHA [now OHL] contract,” said Stitt. And the Gretzky documents didn’t even stop there. Stitt recently purchased Gretzky’s Player Certificate from when he was 12 years old and played in the PeeWee Tournament in Quebec, as well as his Indianapolis high school admission form from his days as a member of the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers.
Gretzky Knew His Junior Days Would Be Short
In January 1978, there was a Junior World Cup of Hockey in Montreal. It was there that a young centre, playing for Team Canada, predicted that his days as a junior in the northern Ontario outpost of Sault Ste. Marie were almost finished. “At the moment, I would consider it very unlikely that I will play four more years of junior hockey before turning pro,” said a 16-year-old Wayne Gretzky. “The NHL rules now say I can’t be drafted before , but if and when I’m ready for the pros, I want to be sure I can go.” In the same story, he mused about heading to Sweden to play. The next day, he called the tale “part fact, part fiction” and stressed that he was musing about taking power skating lessons in Sweden, not suiting up. Regardless of whether he was misquoted, Gretzky was on the money as far as anticipating the future. With 70 goals and 111 assists in the 197879 season, Gretzky finished second in Ontario Major Junior Hockey League scoring, behind Bobby Smith of Ottawa, who had 192 points and was three years older. The young phenomenon also was named Rookie of the Year and took the William Hanley Trophy as the most gentlemanly player. The World Hockey Association, on its last legs in its battle with the National Hockey League, offered Gretzky a pro option. But he had turned down suitors from the WHA twice before accepting his famed deal with Nelson Skalbania, owner of the Indianapolis Racers, in June 1978. The earlier offers? When he was 15, Jack Kelley of the New England Whalers promised him $50,000 for three years, followed by $150,000 a year for four years, along with a $25,000 signing bonus. Next up was John F. Bassett, the Toronto media magnate who was moving the Toronto Toros to Birmingham, Alabama; he offered a two-year deal at $80,000 a season. “I would have signed right then and there,” Gretzky said in Al Strachan’s 99: Gretzky: His Game, His Story, “but my old man said, ‘You’re going back to school.’” Interestingly, one of Stitt’s good friends growing up was John C. Bassett, son of John F. Bassett.
Great Deal for The Great One
At the time it was inked on January 26, 1979, Wayne Gretzky’s birthday deal was the longest contract ever signed by a professional athlete in North America, beating out right fielder Hank Aaron’s 20-year deal with the Atlanta Braves by a season. Actually, to clarify, it was a contract extension, taking Gretzky’s seven-year personal services deal that he’d agreed to on June 12, 1978, with the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers, and adding a ton of option clauses that would prolong the deal to a total of 21 years. “Wayne Gretzky is the greatest young player in the world right now,” said Oilers owner Peter Pocklington at the time. “One day he’ll likely be the oldest. Edmonton fans deserve the best, and in Wayne Gretzky I feel that’s what they’re getting.” Part of Pocklington’s intention with the big deal was to deter any NHL clubs from trying to snap him up should the proposed WHA-NHL merger go through in the upcoming season. Witnessing the deal at centre ice were Gretzky’s parents, his three younger brothers, and his agent, Gus Badali, though it was Oilers vice-president and general manager Larry Gordon in most of the photos that moved along the media wires. “Scouts obviously felt he could be a tremendous player. I don’t know if anyone in their right mind at that time thought he could be the dominating force he has been to the game of hockey. In the long run, especially [when] Wayne ended up in Los Angeles, it was good for the game of hockey,” said Gordon later. Of course, hockey fans know it didn’t turn into a 21-year deal. Gretzky signed a new five-year deal in 1987 with the Oilers, and then again when he was dealt to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988 and Kings owner Bruce McNall ripped up the old contract and signed The Great One to an even more lucrative deal. The Hockey Hall of Fame inducted The Great One as an Honoured Member in 1999, immediately after he retired.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Pierre Pilote, Hockey Hall of Fame, Class of 1975 9
The Great Ones 15
Management and Minor Leagues 30
The Original Six Era 62
World Hockey Association 180
Selected Bibliography 192