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Harley Hotchkiss: the 'voice of reason' that saved Canadian hockey Add to ...

It was a glorious moment for Canadian hockey when National Hockey League governors, meeting in New York on Tuesday, approved the return of the league to Winnipeg after 15 years of painful absence.

As he travelled home to Alberta that night, one of the governors, Murray Edwards, couldn't help thinking of Harley Hotchkiss, whose quiet determination made it all possible and who lay close to death at home in Calgary.

It was Mr. Hotchkiss, the former NHL chairman and Calgary Flames co-owner, who had tirelessly fought for the survival of Canadian NHL teams, and maintained dialogue with the players' union during the dark days of a lockout that wiped out the 2004-2005 season.

Hotchkiss was a key architect of the new NHL economics that made it possible for the league to return to Winnipeg and ensured the survival of all six (now seven) Canadian teams.

"Harley was the consensus builder, the voice of reason in the whole process, and that's an untold story," Edwards said on the night of the New York vote. "He provided sober second thought. If we hadn't had that, Winnipeg would not be coming back in and we would have lost other Canadian teams."

The next morning, Hotchkiss died at 83 after a long battle with prostate cancer.

Yet to focus on his huge hockey contributions is too narrow a prism. This product of a Southwestern Ontario dairy-tobacco farm was a groundbreaking oilman and investor, and a philanthropist whose achievements include a cutting-edge brain research institute at the University of Calgary.

He came to epitomize the best of Calgary's vaunted volunteerism, the ethic that says the price of doing well, of prospering beyond your childhood dreams, is pitching in to help others.

"There is a lot to be celebrated and a lot to be learned by the way he gave back to life," said Edwards, who like his friend was a boy of ordinary means who became very wealthy in Calgary.

In a place where people boast about their charity, Hotchkiss did it quietly, tenaciously, and with an easy charm. He hunted and fished with hockey heroes and plutocrats, but at heart he was the Ontario farm boy who grew up idolizing Syl Apps and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Oil was his business, but it was farm life around Straffordville, near Tillsonburg, that moulded his work ethic. He grew up on a farm that raised Ayrshire cattle and later shifted into tobacco.

"We started growing tobacco when I was nine years old, and I've picked millions of tobacco leaves," Hotchkiss said.

He was also a splendid hockey and baseball player, who was on the field one night in 1945, playing for Straffordville against nearby Langton. He realized he was not as interested in the game as the opportunity to sidle over to a 15-year-old Langton girl named Rebecca (Becky) Boyd. "I don't remember how I played," he would say, "but I hit a home run that day." It was the beginning of a 65-year romance.

He went off to Michigan State University where he studied to be a mining geologist. The idea was to hang around another two years and get his masters, but money was tight and he and Becky were engaged. He saw no harm in sending out a couple of job applications.

"I picked Shell Oil because they were the only company with a garage in Straffordville, and Canadian Superior Oil because it sounded kind of romantic. And I'll be darned if I didn't get a wire from the chief geologist of Canadian Superior."

In fact, the president journeyed down to Ann Arbor from Calgary to woo young Harley. They asked for a decision in a week - it took him a day to tell them he was coming.

Hotchkiss came to Calgary at the best possible time - in the aftermath of the massive Leduc oil strike, when all things were possible - although, he admitted later, "I didn't know that at the time."

He started in geology, but the funding of the oil patch began to fascinate him. In 1953, he left Canadian Superior to join the energy finance side of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Calgary.

In 1957, a Texas oilman named T. Boone Pickens travelled north to examine the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, and ran into Hotchkiss at CIBC.

"We hit it off right from the first," says Pickens, now an energy tycoon with celebrity status. After Hotchkiss went into business for himself, "we made a lot of money together. Pickens took his friend on quail-hunting expeditions and eventually contributed $25-million to the Hotchkiss Brain Institute.

By 1959, Hotchkiss was ready to run his own company, and found willing accomplices in a couple of savvy brothers, Daryl (Doc) and Byron (B.J.) Seaman.

"I went from maybe the most secure job in Calgary to get right out in the cold water," Hotchkiss recalled. "I had four young kids and no money. I've often looked back and said 'How in the world did I do that?' "

The company was called Alcon Petroleum, and it started out as a small shop. He moved on to another venture in 1967 and sold it in 1976, just at the point where it would have gone public. For the next three decades, he was an independent investor, sometimes farmer and philanthropist, working out of an office with his long-time assistant, Doreen Warren.

That gave him more time to devote to his community. "Even in those early years, I coached kids' hockey, helped flood the rinks, tied skates and wiped noses. I didn't have any money, but I did have the time." Even as he accumulated a lot of money, he realized that time and experience are the biggest gifts.

He poured a lot of that effort into the Flames, as part of the ownership group that brought the team north from Atlanta in 1980. Again, his partners included the Seaman brothers. It all paid off with a Stanley Cup in 1989.

But by the mid-1990s, the situation had become bleak for the Canadian clubs, except for the well-heeled Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. The low value of the Canadian dollar hammered them in the payroll sweepstakes and the teams lived in small markets compared with U.S. counterparts.

The economic troubles caused a rift in the Flames ownership, and Hotchkiss worked to rejuvenate the group, bringing in Edwards and some new faces. But the economic situation remained dire, as teams in Winnipeg and Quebec City moved south. Working with commissioner Gary Bettman, Hotchkiss persuaded NHL owners to adopt a "currency equalization program" that helped keep the Flames viable until the dollar rose.

Then came the bitter negotiations for a new players' collective agreement, and a player lockout in the 2004-2005 season. As the two sides dug in, Hotchkiss, as NHL chairman, was put in a room with Trevor Linden of the Vancouver Canucks, the head of the players' association.

They met for about 18 hours in Chicago over a couple of days in January. "There was no rhetoric," Linden recalls. "It was Harley speaking from his heart about his community, his team and his beliefs, and we were speaking from our side."

The talks did not save the season, but Linden says it was the start of an understanding that eventually achieved a new collective agreement - and a player compensation system that the Canadian teams could live with. And the two men became friends.

Joe Nieuwendyk, the Dallas Stars' general manager, had begun his NHL career with the Flames in 1987 and said Hotchkiss treated every one on the team as the member of an extended family.

"As far as being a people person, he really had that side of ownership figured out," said Nieuwendyk. "He and Becky both cared about the players. First and foremost, they cared about the team."

But he felt badly for Hotchkiss as the business changed and players left for economic reasons. "Those types of things really affected Harley - because we had such a family atmosphere created by the Flames' owners. They really built something so solid that the fans of Calgary could identify with and be a part of. Harley was really responsible for that."

Loyalty was a big part of the Hotchkiss credo. During his six two-year terms as NHL chairman, he forged a friendship with Bettman that saw the often embattled NHL commissioner call him once a week, even after he'd stepped aside from his duties on the NHL board, to inquire after his health.

Hotchkiss had sold his Flames shares, but last Tuesday, Bettman travelled to Calgary and was supposed to be the surprise guest at a dinner honouring Hotchkiss and his brain institute.

Hotchkiss was too ill to attend the dinner, so instead, the commissioner spent 2 1/2 hours visiting with him. As Hotchkiss had said a few days earlier: "Friendships are meaningful and, when you're in trouble, they are particularly meaningful."

He leaves his wife Becky and five children: Brenda, Paul, John, Richard and Jeff.

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