Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ed Chynoweth, 1941-2008

From The Daily News of Wednesday, April 23, 2008 . . .

Like a son weeping for his father who has just died, the Western Hockey
League has tears rolling down its cheeks today.
Ed Chynoweth, the WHL’s father, died quietly in his sleep Tuesday morning in
Okotoks, Alta. He had been fighting cancer since it was first diagnosed in a
kidney in 2006. He was 66.
It is true that life goes on, that time waits for no one. But it also is
true that some days are emptier than others. And because Chynoweth is gone,
today is as empty as big oil’s heart.
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When the history of the WHL is discussed, Bill Hunter, Scott Munro and Ben
Hatskin are the Big Three. But there was only one Big Ed.
Back in the day, Hunter ran the Edmonton Oil Kings, Munro the Calgary
Centennials and Hatskin the Winnipeg Jr. Jets. They also ran the league.
But in the early 1970s, recognizing that this thing had a chance to be big,
they reached into Saskatchewan and hired a young man away from the Saskatoon
Blades. Chynoweth had spent a year working at the Sheraton Cavalier, a
Saskatoon hotel, before joining the Blades as assistant general manager
under Jack McLeod.
The day Ed Chynoweth was hired as president was the day the WHL wrote its
ticket.
I last spoke with Chynoweth one evening in early February. He tired easily
but that didn’t stop him from reminiscing about his favourite subject — the
WHL — for 45 minutes.
He had begun with the WHL in 1972 as the assistant to Thomas K. Fisher, who
carried the title of executive secretary. Chynoweth was named president at
the league's annual meeting in Saskatoon in June 1973.
“In ’72, when I started, Hunter and Munro were definitely the kingpins,”
Chynoweth said. “They were the full-time guys. Then they finally brought
Benny Hatskin onside. Munro would manufacture the bullets . . . Hunter would
fire them . . . and, when they needed money, they’d go to Benny.
“I think I resigned three times in the first two years and it was because of
the way they tested you. And yet, at the end of it, it was the greatest
training I’ve ever had. . . .
“Scotty used to tell me: Ed, the best government is a dictatorship . . . if
you can find a fair dictator. He believed that. I inherited that. Whether I
deserved it or whether I earned it or what. . . .”
The one thing Chynoweth brought to the WHL was vision. That was his strength
as a leader. He spent his final season as the chairman of the WHL’s board of
governors and he admitted to having concerns about the future.
“The founding fathers, the Hunters and Munros,” he said, “had a vision and
as much as they tested you at the end of the day they would come clean and
it was what was best for the league. I don’t think we have that now.
“We need to sit down and say, ‘Hey, where are we going with this?’ ”
The WHL’s small-market teams never had a better friend than Chynoweth.
Better than anyone, he understood that the WHL wouldn’t be the WHL without
Moose Jaw and Prince Albert and Swift Current and Medicine Hat and
Lethbridge . . .
In that February conversation, Chynoweth said his vision included some form
of revenue sharing and that he felt it was vitally important that the board
of governors hold serious and open discussions on the subject.
Chynoweth went so far as to compare the WHL to the NHL in terms of large and
small markets.
“They expanded and blew the money,” he said. “We expanded and blew the
money. They have revenue sharing with the players; we need revenue sharing
with small markets.
“And now costs continue to go up but we don’t have any added revenue.”
When the Medicine Hat Tigers joined the WHL in 1970, the entry fee was
$2,000. An expansion franchise prior to this season cost the Edmonton Oil
Kings a nifty $4 million.
Aware that major junior hockey will never fall into big TV money and knowing
that the WHL has expanded beyond its available player pool, Chynoweth
expressed concern that revenues are as large as they are going to get. It is
time, he said, for teams to get their expenses under control.
Hearing Chynoweth talk like that should make the board of governors pay
attention. Because Chynoweth is the same guy who first spoke of the need for
teams to market their product, that as consumers were faced with more and
more entertainment options, WHL teams couldn’t simply open their doors and
expect fans to fill their arenas.
History will show, however, that Chynoweth’s greatest legacy was the WHL’s
education policy. In the early years, Chynoweth spent a lot of time talking
to owners about two things: 1. Education; and, 2. Treating people properly.
He understood that the WHL's greatest resource was its players; he also
understood that a very small percentage of them would reach the NHL.
Right now, the education policy is the WHL’s best recruiting tool as it
competes for players with junior A leagues and U.S. college teams.
And make no mistake about it — the WHL’s scholarship plan was Chynoweth’s
baby.
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Chynoweth also was honest. Ask a question. Get an answer.
Early in 1976, he was asked why the WHL had increased the number of teams
qualifying for playoffs from eight to10.
"We added the two teams simply for financial reasons," Chynoweth said.
He always was great with the media, too, primarily because he, more than any
WHL league or team executive, understood the role of the press. He never
treated the media with anything less than respect. He always returned phone
calls. If he disagreed with something you had written, you could count on
hearing from him.
He long hoped to land a job as an NHL general manager and came close at
least once, that in the early 1980s with the Philadelphia Flyers. He also is
believed to have been shortlisted by the Quebec Nordiques.
But as he once put it: "My friends in the press don't own any NHL franchises
to do the hiring. Consequently, there haven't been a lot of NHL job offers."
It was that kind of understanding of the press that helped Chynoweth and the
WHL survive the bloody seasons of the mid-1970s, like when, following a
particularly ugly game, Saskatoon City Council voted to padlock the arena
rather than allow the Victoria Cougars and Blades to play.
Still, in March of 1976, Chynoweth decided enough was enough and he offered
to resign.
"It isn't a play for money," he said. "It is simply that there is too much
hassle. It is starting to bother me that all my friends in Saskatoon are
going to the airport to take flights out for winter holidays. I got to the
airport and fly to Flin Flon."
The resignation wasn't accepted.
A year or two before that, World Hockey Association organizers had
approached him about the upstart league's presidency.
"I always say talk is cheap," Chynoweth said, "but until people start laying
money on the table that's all it is."
The WHA people never did show him the colour of their money. They should
have.
lll
The WHL has never been able to replace Chynoweth, who left office in 1996 to
operate the Edmonton/Kootenay Ice. And, to be fair, the WHL, recognizing the
task as being impossible, never really tried to replace him.
"I don't believe anyone is irreplaceable," the late Brian Shaw, who operated
the Portland Winter Hawks, once said, "but, in my opinion, we'll never get
another Ed Chynoweth. We might get an adequate replacement, but never
another Ed Chynoweth."
As it entered into a period when it was dealing a lot with marketing and
broadcasting opportunities, the board of governors felt the WHL needed a
lawyer in charge and Dev Dley, a Kamloops lawyer, was hired to succeed
Chynoweth.
Later, the men who own the franchises changed their tune and decided they
needed someone in office who would help sell their league. Which is when Ron
Robison, the WHL’s present-day commissioner, left Hockey Canada where his
primary responsibilities had been in marketing.
lll
A native of Dodsland, Sask., Chynoweth ruled the WHL, with the exception of
one season, from 1973 through 1995; he spent 1979-80 as general manager of
the Calgary Wranglers.
At that time, the WHL decided it would be best served with an administrator
in the president’s office so hired a gentleman named David Descent, who had
been running the Canadian Amateur Wrestling Association.
Descent didn't finish the season. He lasted until one night in February when
Ernie McLean tossed a garbage can from the New Westminster Bruins’ bench
onto the ice. Chynoweth was back in office before another season arrived.
Under Chynoweth, the WHL grew from a league seen to have a lust for blood to
what it is today. In the early- and mid-1970s, Chynoweth issued a weekly
press release — it came out every Monday — containing nothing more than
fines and suspensions.
Back then, there were people running teams who felt it was the fighting that
sold their game. Chynoweth thought otherwise and was determined to steer a
new course.
At one time in January 1975, Chynoweth suspended Pat Ginnell, then the owner
and head coach of the Victoria Cougars, for three games and fined him $1,000
after his team was involved in bench-clearing brawls in two straight games.
Chynoweth also set a deadline by which time the fine had to be paid or
Victoria would have to forfeit its next game, which just happened to be a
home game.
"Chynoweth has no business threatening me that way," Ginnell said. "Nobody
closes down a business because one employee has done something wrong. That,
in effect, is what Chynoweth wants to do. It becomes a matter of principle.
I'm not going to pay the fine until I can appeal to the board of governors."
Ginnell even threatened to slap Chynoweth with "the quickest injunction in
legal history if he tries to cancel the game."
The league, of course, supported Chynoweth. Ginnell paid the fine. The game
went on. And in a few years the donnybrooks that had occurred so often were
a thing of the past.
“He (had) so much to do with the story of the Western Hockey League becoming
modern,” Moose Jaw Warriors governor Darin Chow told the Regina
Leader-Post’s Rob Vanstone. “With Moose Jaw, for instance, it has gone from
a purchase (price) of $250,000 to a team that’s probably worth $10 million
now.”
Chynoweth said that when he first was president, Edmonton and Calgary may
have had budgets in the area of $150,000. He said Kootenay’s budget this
season approached $1.6 million.
lll
And just because he was no longer president didn’t mean Chynoweth had little
influence in the WHL. He served as chairman of the board from 1996-98 and
began another stint in 2004. When I researched a story that we headlined WHL
Power Poll in our paper of Feb. 15, there never was any question as to who
was the most powerful individual around the WHL.
It was Ed Chynoweth, even in failing health.
It was only fitting, then, that he was the chairman of the board at the time
of his death.
In fact, despite being gravely ill, Chynoweth not only attended a board of
governors’ meeting in February, but he ran the meeting.
It was a special meeting, called to discuss the economics of the WHL. With
his strong views on the subject, there was no way Big Ed was going to miss
that meeting. And if he was at the meeting, you knew he was going to run it.
That was his way.
lll
Ed Chynoweth is survived by Linda, his wife of 45 years, sons Jeff, the
Ice’s vice-president and general manager, and Dean, the Swift Current
Broncos’ general manager and head coach, and their families.
Ed Chynoweth also is survived by a hockey league.

Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at
gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca

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