this week in 1957, when hockey debuted on american television: show ’em everything, clarence campbell said

Clarence Campbell was in the house: he declared the game a “pretty good show.” If that sounds a little lukewarm, well, maybe we’ll presume that the NHL president was doing his best to spare the feelings of the Chicago Black Hawks, losers on the day to the hometown New York Rangers by a score of 4-1.

January 5, 1957, was the day, a Saturday. The game was a matinee, with a 2 p.m. face-off at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Five years after René Lecavalier narrated the NHL’s first televised game from the Montreal Forum on Radio-Canada, this marked the coast-to-coast broadcast debut for NHL hockey across the United States. Launching a 10-Saturday series of games that CBS cameras would beam across the nation in coming weeks, the Rangers and Black Hawks may not have been the thoroughbreds of the league at the time — New York was skulking only eight points up on basement-bound Chicago. Marshall Dann of The Detroit Free Press wondered in a preview whether these “chronic tailenders” were the best teams with which to try to lure the attention of those potential fans who’d never seen hockey before. “But who will know the difference,” he wrote, “in such way points as Atlanta, New Orleans, Amarillo, Las Vegas, or San Diego?”

CBS estimated that the broadcast could reach as many as 10-million viewers. Sixty-five U.S. stations carried it that day, with another 35 scheduled to join in for future feeds. All of the ’57 TV games, the NHL decided, would be played in the afternoon. League-leading Detroit was scheduled for five appearances in the succeeding weeks, as were Boston and New York, with Chicago showing up four times. (This first broadcast didn’t, notably, play on Chicago TVs.)

Montreal’s Canadiens were traditionally at home on Saturdays, but they would take one network turn south of the border in Boston. “Some one will have to tell the TV watchers that it is a six-team league,” Marshall Dann quipped — the Toronto Maple Leafs figured not at all in that season’s broadcast schedule.

Campbell, for his part, didn’t want anyone mistaking this venture into TV as a cash grab by the clubs. “The amount of money each club will receive,” he said, “is intended to compensate it for changing from night to afternoon. The real value from a hockey standpoint is that we can create an interest in hockey in areas where the game is practically unknown.”

A crowd of 9,853 watched the game live at the Garden. The New York Times’ Joseph Nichols wasn’t as generous as Campbell in his review: he remarked on its lack of speed, action, and heavy bodychecking.

Al Rollins was in goal for Chicago, Gump Worsley for the Rangers. Andy Bathgate opened the scoring for New York with a shorthanded goal. If the second period was dull, Nichols thought he knew the reason: maybe “the skaters were self-conscious because of the television cameras.” (Did they not know about them for the game’s first 20 minutes?) Larry Popein did increase the Rangers’ tally* before the final period came around and the teams relaxed: they were “a little more sprightly,” at least, in the third. The period opened with a goal by Chicago’s Glen Skov before Bruce Cline and Danny Lewicki added to New York’s count.

For the play-by-play, the NHL had angled for Foster Hewitt or (as Milt Dunnell said) a reasonable facsimile thereof. CBS went instead with Bud Palmer, the former New York Knicks’ star who’d moved over to microphones once his basketball career ended. Between periods, Campbell stopped by to chat. The entertainment also included introduction of hockey’s rules and a chalk talk from Rangers’ GM Muzz Patrick.

The following week, the Rangers starred again, beating Detroit 5-4 at the Olympia. That week’s intermission distractions for those watching at home featured a pre-recorded segment with Gordie Howe showing viewers how he shot the puck, and a visit to the Red Wings’ dressing room. George Puscas from the Free Press reported that at the end of the first period, the players, having trooped off the ice, were paused in the corridor for fully two minutes while CBS aired a commercial.

They had to wait, for the script called for the camera to catch them as they entered the locker room chanting how nice they were going out there.

Then, too, things had to be tidied up a bit. Some of the players had hung their underwear on hooks. So their dress slacks were hung on top of the underwear.

It was pretty tame — frankly, it was pretty dull — but that’s the way locker rooms are when you breeze away to a 2-0 lead.

While “the players sipped tea and munched oranges,” Detroit GM Jack Adams defended their docility. “Our locker room is always quiet,” he said. “This is a place for rest and relaxation and that’s what we do here.”

Showman: NHL President Clarence Campbell and friend, in 1957.

Another production note of interest from that first foray onto American airwaves: Campbell apparently instructed the production crew that if a fight broke out on the ice, the cameras shouldn’t shy away. This was “a healthy switch,” one commentator felt, from the pro football playbook. A few weeks earlier, NFL commissioner Bert Bell had explained why he mandated that broadcasters of games from his league should turn their cameras away from the unpleasantness of fights and on-field injuries.

“We are selling our game just as the sponsor is selling his product,” Bell argued, “and that’s the way I instruct the TV people. We are selling football, not fights.”

“Anyway, if there were only one wife or mother of a player viewing the game, I would not want her to suffer while her boy is on the ground. We don’t stress fights because we want to sell good sportsmanship, and not brawls.”

Back in New York in January, Milt Dunnell was on hand to see the spectacle. The reasoning behind Campbell’s laissez-faire approach to televising whatever mayhem might evolve, he said, was “that if the people in the Garden can see it, then there is no reason why it shouldn’t be shown on television screens.”

As it turned, referee Frank Udvari called only minor penalties that day. Dunnell:

There was no blood-letting to shock the millions of new shinny lookers who doubtless had been told that hockey is a tong war which takes place on the ice. The closest thing to head-whacking was a minor flare-up involving Harry Howell and Gerry Foley of the home side, and Glen Skov of the harried Hawks.

As often happened in games involving the Rangers’ goaltender Gump Worsley, the future Hall-of-Famer did go down hard, suffering a — possible? probable? — concussion. As is so much the case in what’s turned into an ongoing accounting of Worsley’s historical head injuries, I don’t have any clinical evidence to go on here, only the anecdotal. Could have been negligible, I guess, but one account had Worsley going down “head first on the pond.” In another he was “felled during the second period when struck on the right side of the head by a stick.”

I don’t know if Bud Palmer was thinking back to Bert Bell’s comments or not. “I’m sure,” he did say, as Worsley was down, “if his wife is watching, it’s nothing serious.”

Worsley did finish the game. To some of those uninitiated seeing the action across the wide open expanses of the continental U.S., he was the star of the show. “He reminded me,” Tom Fox wrote, “of Yogi Berra guarding home plate in Yankee Stadium. Nobody gets by unless he hits a home run.”

Fox was working as he watched, actually. A sports reporter for The New Orleans Item-Tribune, he was one of several correspondents across the nation whose assignment for the afternoon was to watch both TV hockey and those who were watching TV hockey and report on it for Sunday’s paper.

“Ice hockey is more exciting than any other sport I’ve ever witnessed,” was Fox’s verdict.

In Miami, Herald reporter Luther Evans stopped by at several local bars where the game was showing to poll the clientele.

“They talk about jai-alai being fast,” offered June Overpeck, a secretary, “why this hockey is much faster and very interesting.”

“My opinion,” a Miami Beach prosecutor named Wilson McGee testified, “is that TV doesn’t give you the true picture of the game. The camera is following the puck and you miss the most exciting action of the checking.”

LeRoy Henderson, porter: “I’d rather watch Sugar Ray Robinson fighting on TV, even as bad as he’s going.”

* Contemporary newspaper summaries of the game all put Larry Popein’s goal at 14.54 of the second period. In his New York Times account, Joseph Nichols’ note about how dull that middle frame continues: “The highlight of the session was the goal scored by Popein at 14.54, with the help of Bathgate and Harry Howell.” That’s not what the NHL says, though: at NHL.com, the summary has the goal in the first period. After several years of collating, checking, and inputting, official summaries of the league’s 100 years of regular-season games went online back in October. No game-sheets survive from the NHL’s inaugural season in 1917-18, but otherwise the league has the originals on file. A tiny discrepancy, of the minorest possible clerical importance if any at all? Sounds like it needs pursuing. Stay tuned.

(Top image: 1961-62 O-Pee-Chee #65, courtesy of HockeyMedia/The Want List; Clarence Campbell: Chris Lund, Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds/e011176459)