Wednesday 17 August 2011

Where The Shirts Have No Names

I know today is Wednesday which means there was supposed to be a Teebz's Book Club entry, but I've decided to run this piece instead because it sort of has a bookish tie-in. I'll explain that in a few seconds, but the man to the left - Harold Ballard - created one of the most interesting periods of time in the NHL of all-time through his defiance of the league's rules. Harold Ballard ran the Toronto Maple Leafs with an iron fist, and it was simple to stay in Mr. Ballard's good books: things are done his way or not at all. So when the NHL decided that teams should use names on the back of their uniforms to help identify the players, Mr. Ballard resisted the change wholeheartedly. Of course, the NHL wasn't happy, and this episode became one of those little pieces of history that is quite interesting.

I had no plans on adding this story to HBIC this week, but it was prompted by Rob Ullman, good friend of HBIC. Rob had asked me to help him do a little research on the topic of when the Maple Leafs wore names on the backs of their jerseys that were the same colour as the jersey, basically making them invisible. Rob wrote,

"I was wondering if I could pick your expert brain about something. I need an extra page for the new Old-Timey book, so I'm doing a short strip on the Maple Leafs color-on-color "ghost nameplates" back in the 1977 season, and I wanted to see if you had any definitive knowledge about the details. Some of the information I'm digging up seems a bit contradictory... mainly how many games they wore them for, and whether or not they EVER wore them at home."
Of course, I was more than willing to help Rob out for his newest work and comic book of old-time hockey stories, so I started down the research path looking for information on the Leafs and their "ghost nameplates".

Back in 1977, NHL Presdent John Ziegler mandated that all teams had to wear names on the rear of their road sweaters. It made broadcasters' jobs easier because they could more easily identify the visiting players, especially if there had been trades or demotions to minor-league clubs. The NHL allowed for some time for teams to get names on the rear of their uniforms, but Ballard held firm: no names will appear on the backs of the Maple Leafs.

It took a letter from the league threatening Ballard with fines in February 1978 for him to finally agree to have names appear on Leafs road uniforms. The only problem? Ballard added the names in the same colour blue as the uniform! Ballard's reasoning for this move was that he was going to lose a pile of money in program sales if people didn't need to buy them to identify the players!

So let's get down to business with this no-name issue. How many games did this happen for, and when did it first start?

Well, according to this article from the Toronto Star on Monday, February 27, 1978, the Maple Leafs visited the Chicago Black Hawks on February 26, and it was that game that finally saw Ballard give into league rules by putting names on the back of the Leafs' sweaters. Again, the names were in the same shade of blue as the uniforms, as seen here from the Regina Leader-Post on the same February 27 publishing date, making them completely invisible to any onlookers. Therefore, we have a confirmed report and photo evidence that Ballard's defiance lasted for at least one game.

The Leafs continued their road trip by heading to Long Island on Tuesday, February 28, 1978 for a game against the New York Islanders. Ballard had complied with the NHL's mandate, stating so in the February 28 edition of the Regina Leader-Post, so it appears Ballard may have been out of the woods. Again, his team took the ice against the opposition in their blue uniforms with blue lettering on the rear. The Islanders defeated the Leafs by a 4-3 score, but the March 1 edition of the Montreal Gazette confirmed a second game where the Leafs wore their blue-on-blue colour scheme. We now have two confirmed games where the Leafs wore their invisible names.

Ironically, I found video of this game on YouTube! I'll fully admit that the video quality makes it nearly impossible to see any names on the back of the Leafs' sweaters, but you can see some colour differences that may possibly be twill fabric reflecting the light inside Nassau Coliseum. Check it out for yourself, and you be the judge.

The Leafs had a few days off before playing the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden on Sunday, March 5, 1978. Thanks to the Milwaukee Journal on February 7, 1978, Ballard's ingenious idea came to an end when the Maple Leafs took the ice against the Rangers with white lettering on their blue uniforms. That would end the run of invisible names at two games, and the Leafs would continue to wear the white-on-blue scheme for the remainder of the season and onwards.

For all the money that Ballard thought he would make in program sales by not having names on the back of the sweaters, it seems the NHL was serious about the fines they were going to levy against Ballard and the Leafs. I don't think program sales would make up for the lost monies Ballard would have been forced to pay, and Ballard was a notorious cheapskate when it came to maximizing profits.

For example, in the summer of 1965, Maple Leaf Gardens played host to The Beatles for a concert, but Ballard wasn't going to pay John, Paul, Ringo, and George all that money without making some back (and then some). Ballard ordered Gardens staff to turn the thermostats up so that it was sweltering in Maple Leaf Gardens, and then proceeded to kill off all the running water to the water fountains, forcing patrons to buy soft drinks. Conveniently, Maple Leaf Gardens only had large drinks available for the concert - cheap, sneaky, and downright unethical.

Worse yet was that Ballard had sold tickets to a second show that night of which the band wasn't aware, and they protested this second show. Ballard's response? "They'd better perform, or the fans who bought tickets will tear them apart." Who does that to a band, especially one of The Beatles' notoriety?

Let's review what we know about those jerseys:
  • The Leafs wore their invisible names for two road games only.
  • Ballard eventually gave in when threatened with a $2000 fine.
  • The Chicago Blackhawks and New York Islanders were the opposition in those games.
So what about the home jerseys? Did they go white-on-white?

The answer is no. After being threatened with the fine for the road jerseys, Ballard cut his losses and applied the blue-on-white lettering on the home jerseys for the start of the 1978-79 season. He wasn't interested in paying any fines whatsoever, so the home uniforms were within NHL regulations for the team's first game back at Maple Leaf Gardens next season. His program sales? Hardly affected, I'd say.

So how does this all tie into Teebz's Book Club?

Well, it doesn't quite tie-in just yet. The image to the left is the cover of the upcoming comic book that I was talking about above that Rob Ullman is producing. Old-Timey Hockey Tales is a fantastic set of comics all about historic hockey stories. The Vic Lynn piece featured on HBIC a couple of weeks ago is one of those stories, and Rob's artwork about this story will also be featured in the new edition of Old-Timey Hockey Tales. I'm also going to speculate that the Seattle Metropolitans will also get some sort of story mention in the comic book from the image on the cover. Needless to say, this is a comic book you should certainly pick up, and you can get the first edition of Old-Timey Hockey Tales at Rob's online store for a mere $2.00! That's a price that even Harold Ballard would pay!

Thanks for including me in this work, Rob, and I'll be one of the first in line to get the newest edition of Old-Timey Hockey Tales when you release it!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


JeffB said...

Nice investigative work. Your ability to find that documentation and video(!) is most impressive. I am humbled in the presence of your greatness.

Teebz said...

Thank Rob for that, Jeff. I spent the better part of two days doing the research - finding dates, confirming stories, re-confirming dates and stories.

Personally, I was actually disappointed that Ballard gave in after just two games. The sweaters from that time were reused for the players who needed white lettering applied, according to unsubstantiated reports.

Justin said...

a very interesting story, I had always wondered exactly when teams switched to names on their jerseys in the NHL. Plus, being a Leafs fan, I was appalled to learn about the blue-on-bue lettering! Very cool.
Now an even better question, exactly when did the NHL switch from wearing actual sweaters to jerseys?

Lloyd Davis said...

At about 1:49, you can see a bit of difference between the blue of the nameplate on the back of #15 (Pat Boutette)'s sweater and the rest of the sweater material. As Teebz writes, a difference in the way the light is reflecting off it.

Also, the positioning of the numbers is clearly low enough to accommodate a nameplate. A shot of the uniforms worn in, say, the '77 playoffs would probably reveal that the numbers are higher on the backs.

I'm guessing the only winner in that whole charade was the person operating the sewing machine at Doug Laurie Sporting Goods.

LJC said...

What a great blog! I just came across it from a Facebook post by Uni Watch. Harold Ballard. Man, that guy. I think the Leafs still feel the effects of his ownership to this day. Regarding Old-Timey Hockey Tales, I think you meant to say Seattle Metropolitans and not Millionaires, which was Vancouver's name. Cheers.

Jeremiah Allen said...

Fascinating story. I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing.

Steven said...

I was at the Islanders game in 1978 with the blue-on-blue names. There us no question they were there - we spent a good amount of time in the stands talking about it.

Steven said...

I was at the Islanders game with the blue-on-blue names. No question they were there - we spent most of the first period laughing about it.

Anonymous said...

it looks like a solid color nameplate. I wonder if they covered the names with the solid nameplate or if they have blue on a blue nameplate

Unknown said...

I think it’s a good idea but switching as it looks more cooler than before, It has s solid blue colored name plate