Monday, February 21, 2011

Adding Punch to the Interview

In the Original Six era, the relationship between media members and club management often became volatile and antagonistic. Like any organization that was subject to constant press scrutiny, teams attempted to control the release of information and keep indiscretions out of the newspapers. For the most part, reporters played along with management in fear of being cut out of the loop if they didn't capitulate.

In February 1950 an incident occurred in Detroit which shed light on how difficult and dangerous a reporters job could be. Following a contest between the Wings and visiting Chicago Black Hawks, the press gathered in the Hawks room to secure quotes for their stories. The Hawks, who lost that evening (9-2), were coached by Charlie Conacher of Kid Line fame.

Coach Conacher -  2nd from left

Like any confrontation, there are two-sides to the story. Lew Walter of the Detroit Times claimed that Conacher unleashed a sucker-punch on him while being interviewed. Conacher was berating Walter for an earlier story which criticized the "Big Bomber". The Chicago coach stated that he punched the Detroit reporter after being insulted by him. Also, Conacher had drawn the ire of media member for grabbing  referee Bill Chadwick's sweater and spinning him around during a game.

The Hockey Writers' Association sent a letter of protest to NHL President Clarence Campbell.

It is obvious to any newspaperman that the NHL regards the work of the press with less consideration than any other known field of professional sport.
 The threat of physical assault, accompanied by snicker and insult, has joined the gag rule and uncounted other factors as handicaps to proper and honest reporting

Clarence Campbell claimed he had no jurisdiction in the Walter/Conacher confrontation. The reply from the Witers' Association took exception to Campbell's contention.

"This is patently false. The league has shown many times in the past that it has considered every employee of a hockey team within its jurisdiction and has not hesitated to punish or otherwise take prompt action when it felt an individual was acting against the best interest of the game."

There is no doubt that Campbell ruled over the National Hockey League with an iron-fist during the Original Six era. And no ink-stained-wretch or his fraternity were about to intimidate the former war-crimes attorney or question his authority.

Dick Irvin, coach of the Montreal Canadiens, decided to have some fun with the situation. He created a large sign which read "SPORTS WRITERS WELCOME - BUT ENTER AT THEIR OWN RISK - IRVIN." Naturally, he had the sign taped to the door of the Habs dressing room for all to see.

For Lew Walter, there was no humorous angle to this story. He suffered swelling to the left side of his face which required medical attention. The Detroit scribe filed a complaint and a charge of assault and battery was laid against Conacher. The entire mess was resolved very quickly with Bill Tobin, President of the Hawks, making a visit to Detroit to smooth things out. Subsequently, Conacher issued a published apology and was fined $200. There is little doubt Clarence Campbell was pulling the strings on this reconciliation and any resolution was first approved by his office.

On April 4, 1950, Walter and Conacher came face-to-face in the dressing room corridor at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Red Wings were in Toronto for a playoff game against the Leafs. Detroit emerged victorious, 2-1, when Leo Reeise scored after 20 minutes and 38 seconds of overtime had been played. As for Conacher and Walter, the two simply exchanged pleasantries. Conacher asked "How are you Lew?" and the writer responded in-kind to the Hawks coach.

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