A shocking trade that almost happened involved two partying owners, a superstar and $1 million. It was killed at the 11th hour.
Imagine if the Pittsburgh Penguins announced that management had sold Sidney Crosby to the Chicago Blackhawks for about $95 million in straight cash. You say it couldn’t happen. Think again, because a genuine Chicago-Toronto deal of similarly outrageous proportions actually was consummated 53 years ago. After a week of negotiations, it caused massive cases of lockjaw around the NHL.
The Maple Leafs’ version of Crosby at the start of 1962-63 was an oversized left winger named Frank ‘The Big M’ Mahovlich. Having already helped his club in April 1962 to what would become the first of three straight Stanley Cups, Mahovlich towered above every left winger but one: Bobby Hull of Chicago. And at that they seemed equal. During an evening of drinking revelry with his Toronto counterpart Harold Ballard, Black Hawks owner James Norris proposed having Mahovlich wear a Hawks jersey, and Pal Hal liked the idea.
On that memorable night of Oct. 5, 1962, Norris agreed to write a check for $1 million – more money than ever was paid for one athlete – and promised to hand it to the Leafs high command. “Because the main participants had been into the grape, following a shinny dinner, it was logical to shrug off the whole affair as a publicity stunt,” wrote Toronto Star columnist-sports editor Milt Dunnell. “But it wasn’t that.” Ballard and Norris were as drunk as they were sincere about the exchange because each thought his club would benefit. The Leafs VP realized a million dollars was equal to almost a total season’s take for hockey. He also knew that the millionaires’ millionaire, Norris, could write a non-bounceable check from the First National Bank of Chicago without breaking his ballpoint pen. In less than a dozen hours, Norris would do that. However, before Norris actually delivered the dollars, stories of the astonishing trade flashed across the continent before midnight, Oct. 6. Exhibit A was The Chicago Tribune, which ran a banner, super-deal bulletin on its front news page. Further confirmation was supplied by Ballard’s associate, then Leafs boss Stafford Smythe, who was in on the deal. As Ballard’s bad luck would have it, Jim Norris had a kid brother named Bruce who just happened to own the Detroit Red Wings. And when Bruce realized his Wings would be facing Hull and Mahovlich on the same team, he immediately – and desperately – worked to kill the deal. Bruce’s first move was a panicky phone call to Stafford’s father, Leafs founder and retired king of NHL power brokers, Conn Smythe, Still mighty in league circles, Conn shared Bruce’s feelings about toppling the trade but for a different reason; he knew the filthy-rich Leafs needed a superstar more than super-bucks. “Find Stafford and have him call me,” the elder Smythe demanded of Norris. Sure enough, at 3 a.m. the call was made. Dunnell, who was an insider with the Leafs general staff at the time, recalled the following in his column several years after the deal: “Conn said to his son no player was worth a million dollars, so they had taken advantage of the whiskey to make a sale. If the Leafs were lucky enough to have a player for whom that kind of money was offered, he belonged in Toronto, not Chicago.” Trouble was that Jim Norris had awakened early the next morning believing he owned The Big M. As promised, he wrote the million-dollar check, dated Oct. 6, 1962. Jim’s GM, Tommy Ivan, then delivered it to Stafford Smythe at Maple Leaf Gardens. To Ivan’s astonishment, Stafford respectfully declined with an altruistic explanation: “We never rolled a drunk yet, and we don’t have to start now.” This time the Gardens directors got into the zany act. Within a week, they ordered Stafford to ask Jim Norris if he still wanted Mahovlich for a million. Staff even dispatched his sidekick, King Clancy, to Chicago to gauge Norris’ feelings about reviving the exchange. “Norris was off the hook,” Dunnell revealed. “This time he was in no mood to get on again.” Thus, hockey’s biggest deal once and for all became hockey’s biggest non-deal. The Big M helped the Leafs to four Cups and ranks among the foremost left wingers of all-time. Through it all, Frank remembers a desperate phone call from his father when the elder Mahovlich originally heard about the dynamic deal. “You’ve been sold to Chicago for a million dollars,” asserted Frank’s dad. “Make sure somebody pays for moving your furniture.”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the September 14 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.