Hotchkiss avoids attention but can’t dodge Hockey Hall of Fame spotlight

He’s an original member of the Calgary Flames ownership group, he’s provided or raised funds to benefit the sport across Canada, and he helped devise the collective bargaining agreement that resolved the labour dispute that erased the 2004-2005 season.

Yet, despite his high-profile position, few hockey fans outside Alberta know much about him.

“I’ve always tried to keep a relatively low profile,” he says. “I don’t think you need a chairman who’s out there talking all the time.”

He had no choice but to open up during a wide-ranging interview as he prepared to be inducted as a builder in the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday.

-Shootouts. “I was one that was not a fan of the shootout,” he said. “I thought that wasn’t a good way to decide a hard-fought hockey game.

“I’ve changed my mind, mainly because the fans love it. They stay in the rink and it’s a whole, new, exciting element.”

-More on the fans. “The game is faster now. The skilled players are getting more room to play, and we’re seeing that in the results. I think all of the changes combined have made the game better and faster and more enjoyable to our fans. That’s always the acid test. We’ve got pretty knowledgeable fans in hockey and we’d better pay attention to them.”

-The NHL’s biggest challenge. “I’d say getting the sport strong in the U.S. – and on U.S. television – but maybe more basic than that we’ve got to work together, as we’re doing, with the competition committee to continue to make sure the game is the best it can be for our fans. It’s critically important as we move down the road that there be co-operation to grow the game and keep our league strong. Everybody in the game has that responsibility, and we owe it to our fans to do that. We’re on the right track.”

-Free agents at age 27 in two years. “It’s going to be a challenge. The way the game is now, (the champion will be) who does the best job managing. It isn’t going to be a game where just throwing money around is going to be the answer.”

-Expansion. “There are 30 teams now and I don’t see expansion in the short term. I see the focus being trying to make it work where we are. In the longer term, I don’t rule it out.”

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Hotchkiss grew up in Ontario tobacco country just south of Tillsonburg. He joined the Canadian merchant marine in the closing year of the Second World War when he was 16. He enrolled at Michigan State University and was a member of the 1950 varsity team.

“I wasn’t a very good hockey player,” he recalled, adding that to the best of his recollection he had two goals and two assists in 11 games.

He got high scholastic marks and earned an honours degree in geology, while his wife-to-be was training as a nurse in London, Ont. He submitted job applications to two oil companies and in less than a week got a call from Calgary.

“They flew down and interviewed me and offered me a job – $325 a month, which in 1951 was a pretty substantial salary,” he said. “I took the job, graduated at the end of March 1951, walked off the campus one day, was in Calgary the next day, and I’ve never lived anywhere else.”

The Flames moved to Calgary from Atlanta in 1980 and memorable battles with the Edmonton Oilers ensued. The pinnacle of franchise history was May 25, 1989, when the Stanley Cup.

It’s an easy date for Hotchkiss to remember.

“Our son, who lives in Ontario near Tillsonburg, had a grandson born that morning and my wife and I got the call and they told us the good news. That was a good sign. That night, we won the Stanley Cup in the Montreal Forum.”

Two individuals who were instrumental in making the Flames a success were former forward Lanny McDonald, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Hotchkiss said.

McDonald gave a fledgling franchise instant credibility on and off the ice, said Hotchkiss, while Bettman’s currency equalization scheme to aid Canadian clubs during the days of the 62-and 63-cent dollar kept the Flames afloat.

“He understands the game and the game’ s importance in Canada,” Hotchkiss said. “I’m a big supporter of Gary’s.

“I work closely with him and there isn’t a week go by that I don’t talk to Gary Bettman three or four times.”

Hotchkiss continues to play a major role, of course.

“We didn’t get into the hockey business to get rich on hockey teams,” he insists. “We got in it because we care about the game and we care about our community.”