By Kyle Corbett
Even the walls have a damning effect. . Anyone who’s taken a tour of the Carlton Street mint, otherwise known as the Maple Leaf Gardens, js immediately confronted with thé pictures staring down from the blue and white walls of Dit Clapper; Teeder Kennedy, Turk Broda, Syl Apps, Conn Smythe, Bili Ezinicki, Wally Stankowski, et al. Hockey players for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ past.
Not one, to this observer’s knowledge, ever played lacrosse. And that’s one of the reasons, the Toronto Tomahawks of the National Lacrosse League, despite impeccable financial backing and a television contract, were a certified flop at the gate. The impact of hockey on the Gardens has been an undeniable factor on the failure of the new NLL to go over with the public, but there are intangibles, subtleties that only Toronto sports promoters are familiar with.
Hockey (NHL variety) and football (CFL Style) have been successful in this metropolis of more than two million, for reasons far from defined. Other sports — just as-dramatic, filled with suspense and superstar talent — have fallen by the wayside. Baseball, soccer, tennis, basketball and lacrosse have certainly drawn their advocates, but not to the extent of hockey and football. Of course, lacrosse is not new to this city. — the Indians Baggataway, as the originators — in our named it, has been Canada’s national sport legislative books at least. And professional lacrosse isn’t new, either, for the National Lacrosse Association tried, but failed in the 1960s. It had plenty of talent, but few dollars.
However, Jim Bishop, a personable salesman of sports who had coached some of the greatest junior lacrosse teams in Canadian history before becoming a vice-president with Red Wings of the National Hockey League, persuaded his boss, millionaire Bruce Norris that lacrosse deserved a second chance on a well- financed scale. Norris agreed. In so doing the Detroit owner in turn talked some of his affluent friends, _ in Philadelphia, Rochester, Syracuse, Montreal and the Washington area (Largo, Md.) into putting up front money in getting six teams operating. Norris bought the Toronto franchise and placed Bishop in charge as both the coach and general manager and Bish has quickly become the No. 1 spokesman and salesman of the NLL. However, to his chagrin, Bish has discovered the Toronto spectators weren’t flocking into the Gardens by any slogans, such as “It’s Dynamite,” which were pasted on billboards throughout the area. Neither has the Tuesday night telecasts on CHCH-TV, Hamilton (Channel 11) caused the fans to show up in droves. In fact, the telecasts with the excellent team of Norm Marshall and Brian McFarlane may have dampened the enthusiasm for an excellent turn-out, since a fan is more apt to Sit quietly at home, sipping a cool beer, and watching lacrosse on TV, with its instant replays, etc., than fighting the downtown Toronto traffic, the admission price at- the door, and then SWEATING his or her way through two and a half hours of action.
But let’s digress to the SWEATING part.
When Bishop and Harold Ballard, president ot the Gardens, entered into agreement, they both apparently forgot there’s no air-conditioning in the cavernous 16,000-seat facility. And although our summers may be short, they, however, can be extremely warm. So fans Aren’t prepared to smother in go-degree heat indoors, they prefer their suffering outdoors.
The $400,000 bundle which Norris put up to see that pro lacrosse succeeded in Toronto, apparently has failed, fo? the intangible reason that Toronto fans are not caught up in the novelty of the game as in other centres such as Philadelphia where upwards of 12,000 have watched the game. Of course, Philly might be an exception since the fans there are basking still in the fantastic year of the Stanley Cup champion Flyers, but other centres, such as Rochester, Syracuse, Largo and Montreal, have taken to the game with crowds in excess of 5,000 and sometimes exceeding 10,000 — a paying proposition for a first-year sport. But Toronto has taken a backseat.
Fifteen hundred fans to 3,000 in a cavern such as the Gardens can be disheartening. A drop in the pond. Perhaps, there are solutions. The rental of Gardens, a costly promotional campaign, a new $25,000 floor in MLG, smart uniforms and an excellent Tomahawk club, which has some genuine lacrosse superstars, certainly hasn’t turned the game into attracting huge throngs. Perhaps, more intimate quarters such as Varsity Arena, with its 5,000 seats, and the installation of air- conditioning, the blackout of home games, and more visible be solutions. But it’s all speculation.
Of course, other areas, particularly in the United States — the Long Island, Boston, Cincinnati and Buffalo areas are all receptive of putting lacrosse into adequate buildings. Although, officials of the Tomahawks haven’t indicated they would move to the U.S.. that will be decided by 1975, since even millionaires such as Norris aren’t willing to keep losing money on a dying proposition.
Earlier in the year, Bishop predicted that the Doubting Thomases would disappear as pro lacrosse caught on, however, with the NLL playoffs fast approaching — the season ends August 29 — he must have second thoughts, since none of those 6 to 7,000 crowds have been turning up. Only 1,000 or 2,000, not enough to turn on the Gardens’ lights. In May, Bishop told Toronto Sun sports editor George Gross that he believed pro lacrosse this time around will prove successful in Canada and the U.S.
“This is a completely different operation from the attempt in 1968,” said Bishop at that time. “This is no knock at the people who tried it six years ago. It’s just the fact that we have more money available to put the league across. “The differences between the two pro setups are quite significant. First of all we have to consider the calibre of the owners. Without trying to spell out the wealth of the individual owners. I can assure you that their combined wealth is well over $1 billion.”
Then Bishop went on to claim that each club had to deposit $100,000 personal bond and a $20,000 performance assurance” in addition to $10,000 for operational expenses of the league. That’s a total of $130,000 per club to the league and it doesn’t include any club expenses. Each club has accumulated a mass of debts because for the first time they’ve had full-time employees. Then there’s thousands of dollars on billboard, subway, television and newspaper advertising and each club has put a new floor in the respective arenas at a total cost of more than $15,000.
While all these are impressive figures and the optimism of Bishop was contagious in May, nevertheless the flocking to the gates of Maple Leaf Gardens every Tuesday night, has forced a prediction in September that any love affair Toronto had with professional lacrosse has died quickly. Maybe the Tomahawks will be appreciated in some other city. That’s what happened in the World Football League where Memphis loves the Southmen, While the Northmen of Toronto are but forgotten.