I thought it might be fun to include some excerpts from my book here from time to time. This is one of my favorite stories, which details how we lobbied for and won an expansion franchise in the National Hockey League. That team would become the Washington Capitals. I hope you enjoy the story and if you are interested in more stories like it, you can purchase “Irene and Abe: An Unexpected Life” via Amazon at this link.
From “Irene and Abe: An Unexpected Life”
That year, 1972, was big. The next thing I knew, Abe and I were
in Montreal at the annual meeting of the National Hockey League in
hopes of winning a franchise. Abe had been chairman of the NBA’s
expansion committee two years earlier and he knew a lot about
franchises. Still, looking over the scene in Montreal, we decided we
needed some reinforcements. Our immediate adviser was always
our friend and lawyer, David Osnos, who traveled with us. But,
within 24 hours, the intensity of the competition was so great that
we all decided we needed another brain.
I suggested our brilliantly strategic friend, Sandy Greenberg.
Sandy had developed a network of powerful Washingtonians from
the years he worked in the White House in the 1960s, and that
network had grown exponentially since. He also grew up in Buffalo
and happened to know Seymour Knox III, the owner of the Buffalo
Sabres hockey team, which didn’t hurt. Sandy had connections
and a savvy knack for working behind the scenes to make things
happen. We gave him a royal greeting when he walked into our
hotel room later that day.
Two new franchises were being awarded that year, but we
really only had a chance for one. The son of Bill Jennings, the former
chairman of the National Hockey League Board of Governors, was
part of a group that was applying for a franchise in Kansas City.
Because of Bill Jennings’ longstanding relationship and high level
of power within the National Hockey League, the assumption was
that his son’s group would win. That left only one franchise for
many different cities to compete over.
We stayed up all night strategizing. How could we convince the
Board of Governors that Washington could be a valuable asset to
the league? We felt that the building and the team would be a boon
to the nation’s capital, but the hockey people saw Washington as a
southern city with no interest in ice hockey.
We produced a host of telegrams from senators and
representatives to the National Hockey League on our behalf.
“Your action would provide major league hockey and basketball for
this sports-starved community and also insure a beautiful facility in
the National Capital area to celebrate the Nation’s bicentennial” one
telegram signed by 42 members of Congress read.
“We as members of the United States Senate join in urging you to grant
a hockey franchise to the national capital area comprised of Washington,
D.C. and large segments of Maryland and Virginia. One of the nation’s
largest urban areas is anxiously awaiting word of your decision” was
another signed by 15 senators.
When Sandy Greenberg arrived, I was in my nightgown
and robe, still typing letters to anyone who might give us an
Abe personally visited all sixteen voting representatives
from the sixteen NHL teams. Our plan was to sell the NHL
governors on what a plus it would be to have a team in the
nation’s capital, playing in a brand-new arena, which already
had a basketball team. If you only had one team, it would be
extremely difficult to get financing for a new arena. If you had
both, your chances went up significantly. We needed two teams.
For the next three days and nights, Abe would go back and
forth from one room to another, visiting as many of the owners
as he could. Then, exhausted, he would report back to us for our
next suggestions. The biggest overall argument against our getting
the team was that Washington at the time was a backwater city
when it came to hockey—a southern town where no one played
hockey and therefore no one would be interested in watching
professionals play the sport. The NHL owners did not want a weak
link. An unpopular franchise in a disinterested city would be bad
for everyone’s revenues.
We countered that Washington was also an international town,
with embassies and embassy staffs from many countries where
hockey was extremely popular. It also had many people working
in government from all parts of the country. Additionally, it would
bring in all kinds of entertainment—boxing matches, tennis matches,
rock concerts, ice shows—all of which had bypassed Washington
because the region still lacked a big enough place to perform. Then
we would push Abe out the door again, and I would go back to
writing letters to solicit additional support from the White House
and diplomats. In that time when Abe visited the sixteen hockey
team owners, none of us slept. We kept listening, discussing, and
pushing Abe back out the door. Our other arguments included that
the Washington metropolitan area was fast growing in population,
it was an area both sports-conscious and sports-starved, and there
was glamour in having a hockey team in the nation’s capital! If they
needed more proof of our qualifications, we were the only owners in
either the NBA or the NHL who were in the construction business.
Surely someone like Abe, who had just four years earlier managed
to build the Irene—a huge apartment complex with 535 units and
two swimming pools, a putting green, a paddleboard court with a
basketball backboard, and a tennis court on the roof—would have
no trouble building an arena.
There were different strategies for each governor. Aside from
one moment when things did not look good and I was terrified Abe
was going to have a heart attack, it was a very exciting three days
and three nights.
In the end, Jack Kent Cooke, who then owned the Los Angeles
Kings hockey team and was a powerful arm twister, supported us
wholeheartedly. We got the franchise. Several days earlier when
we arrived in Montreal, Jimmy the Greek had proclaimed the odds
against our getting a hockey team at 600-1. Nothing delighted
my competitive husband more than beating both those odds and
Jimmy the Greek!