Recently Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson was awarded the Norris Trophy. In his acceptance speech, Karlsson failed to thank the Norris family.
Where’s the outrage? Why no scandal?
The Norris Trophy is special because while the other trophies tend to overlook defensemen, this one celebrates them. According to the Hockey Hall of Fame’s entry on the trophy, it is “presented annually to the defenseman who demonstrates the greatest all-around ability in his position.”
In the 1950’s the Norris family gifted the trophy to the NHL following the death of Norris family patriarch James E. Norris.
James played some hockey at Montreal’s McGill University but whether he was an able defender on the ice or not is unknown. The millions he made off the Chicago wheat market enabled him to buy a hockey franchise in Detroit, which he rebranded as the Detroit Red Wings.
James, along with his sons Bruce and Jim, also owned the Chicago Blackhawks. They held a controlling ownership in the Madison Square Garden Corporation as well, which owned the New York Rangers.
‘Norris House League’
For a while there, they owned hockey. The NHL wasn’t casually referred to as the ‘Norris House League’ for nothing. In the 1950’s those three teams swapped players like sex partners in Caligula.
When you own hockey, you make the rules–published and otherwise. For example, respected referee Bill Stewart (Paul Stewart’s grandfather) saw his NHL work dry up after a game in which James rode him from the boards like a drunken fan and threatened to have him fired. James also fought tooth and nail against league expansion, preferring to contain the wealth among his cozy cabal.
The Norris House League lost some power thanks to the greed of the ever-corrupt Jim Norris. The Supreme Court ruled that Norris had to get out of his MSG ownership–not because of hockey, but because the boxing league he had formed not only violated US anti-trust laws, it was both mob-infested and fixed.
The Legacy of Legacies
Writing in 1844, Karl Marx pointed out the most influential aspect of money–that it can turn everything into its contrary. If you’re ugly but wealthy, you can buy the most beautiful women, negating your ugliness. If you’re a boorish, exploitative businessman, you can have an annual trophy awarded in your name that recognizes hockey greatness, negating your boorishness.
Granted, trophies with memorial names attached to them like this one don’t require a founding legacy that can be traced back to what it actually celebrates. In fact, this is one way in which wealthy people establish their legacies–they create trophies named after them, their endowments buy university chairs, professorships, scholarships, departments, hospital wings, community baseball diamonds, even the occasional park bench for those on tighter budgets.
Nonetheless, the only defending James E. Norris ever did was in defending his financial interests, generally to the detriment of professional hockey for both the fans and players.
End of a Run
The Norris clan got their money’s worth. It had a good run. So now let’s rename it the Bobby Orr Trophy and redefine it accordingly.
Do I even need to proffer an argument here? He revolutionized the position, he won the award every year for eight straight years, he won it more often than anyone else, and he is regarded as one of the five greatest players in the history of the game.
Image-conscious hockey can rest easy too–Orr has been a sparkling symbol of the perfect hockey player for decades, and at 64 that’s not likely to change.
And on that sad future date when the great Orr shuffles off this mortal coil, we’ll call it the Bobby Orr Memorial Trophy.
If I’m a defenseman and the league is saying I’m the best, I would rather be mentioned in the same breath as the incomparable, iconic Orr than in the same grunt as an elitist grain investor who prized wealth and power over the game.