Clarence Campbell was a cold fish. But he had a lot of nerve.
The long-time president of the National Hockey League showed up for the first anniversary of the Pacific Coliseum on Jan. 24, 1969. He even blew out a candle on a birthday cake for a photo by The Sun’s Ralph Bower.
The irony of this is that the Coliseum had been built to lure an NHL team to Vancouver for its 1967-68 expansion. But when the expansion cities were announced on Feb. 9, 1966, Campbell had rejected Vancouver’s bid in favour of six American teams.
Campbell was unapologetic when he met the press at the Devonshire Hotel in 1969.
“It would have been in the best interests of the NHL to have another Canadian franchise,” he told The Sun’s Hal Sigurdson. “It’s too bad (Vancouver) fumbled the ball so badly when they had it in the first place.”
Campbell then ridiculed the 1966 Vancouver expansion bid, which he said “had too many defects.”
“The financial presentation was awful,” he said. “Remember, it is much more difficult to get rid of a bad sports partner than a bad marriage partner. The governors, of course, wanted to be extremely careful in the selection of new partners.”
Two of the men behind the rejected bid — Cy McLean of the Western Hockey League Canucks and alderman Ed Sweeney — were standing behind Campbell in Bower’s photo.
An alternate theory for why Vancouver didn’t make the cut in 1966 was that Toronto Maple Leafs owners Stafford Smythe and Harold Ballard were still mad after Vancouver voters rejected their bid to build a new arena downtown in 1964.
Vancouver Mayor Bill Rathie had supported Smythe’s plan.
“I told the people then that if they wanted the National Hockey League, here it was,” Rathie said on Feb. 10, 1966. “But they rejected it. The Stafford Smythe deal may in retrospect look pretty good.”
Actually, it doesn’t. Smythe said he was willing to foot the $8-million bill for a 20,000-seat arena with one stipulation: that Vancouver give him a “prime downtown location.” Smythe hinted that if Vancouver let him build an arena, it would be in line for NHL expansion.
The favoured location was two square blocks on West Georgia, where the CBC and Vancouver Public Library are today. The land was worth close to $2 million, so Vancouver council said no to giving the land away and offered to lease it for 99 years, at $1 per year.
Smythe rejected the lease idea, so council put Smythe’s proposal to voters, who rejected it 38,844 to 27,205 in a Dec. 9, 1964, plebiscite.
The PNE then pitched a proposal for a new arena at Hastings Park, and council signed on in March, 1965.
Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson donated $2 million in federal funds toward the PNE arena, Premier W.A.C. Bennett matched the federal grant with provincial money, and the city kicked in $1 million.
It went ahead, even though the NHL had stiffed Vancouver with its first expansion. On June 27, 1966, construction of the Pacific Coliseum began when a wrecking ball cleared the site by laying waste to the old Dog and Cat Building. The Coliseum opened on Jan. 8, 1968 with an Ice Capades show. The cost of construction was $6 million.
When Vancouver was finally awarded an NHL franchise on Dec. 2, 1969, it didn’t go to McLean or any locals — the expansion team was handed to a Minnesota company, Medicor, owned by Tom Scallen.
The 1967 expansion fee had been $2 million, but that had gone up to $6 million for the 1970-71 season. Scallen borrowed $3 million to come up with the money, but the federal government said he had issued a false prospectus and he wound up being sentenced to two years in jail. Frank Griffiths put together a local group to buy the Canucks when Scallen went to the hoosegow.
Campbell was NHL president from 1946 until he retired in 1977. In 1980, he was convicted of bribing a senator in the “Sky Shops” scandal, but only served one day in jail and was fined $25,000.
Stafford Smythe was charged with tax evasion in 1969 for some hocus-pocus with the books at Maple Leaf Gardens, but died in 1971 before it came to trial. His partner, Harold Ballard, was convicted of tax evasion and was sentenced to three years in jail. He served one.