Manitoba History: “You couldn’t run a game on Saturday night”: The Winnipeg Warriors, Television, and the Business of Pro Hockey, 1955-1961
by Morris Mott
A list of the most important clubs in the history of hockey might include the Renfrew Millionaires, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, Central Red Army, but certainly not the Winnipeg Warriors. The Winnipeg Warriors were a professional team that lasted only six years.  They played in a minor league that existed for less than thirty years. They did not pioneer a new style of play; they did not even excel at an old one. The Warriors’ story is insignificant in itself. But the history of the club is instructive because by examining it we can learn about the business of professional hockey in the 1950s and 1960s, and especially about the impact of television on minor professional hockey franchises.
The Winnipeg Warriors began play in the autumn of 1955 in the Western Professional Hockey League. The Western Pro League had had its origins in a mid-1940s west coast amateur or “shamateur” league that became openly professional in 1948.  Early in the 1950s franchises were granted to teams in Edmonton, Calgary, and Saskatoon.  By the mid-‘50s the league and the teams in it were successful financially, and during the 1954-1955 season the owners decided to expand the next year into Regina and Winnipeg. The Winnipeg franchise would be the really valuable new member of the league, because it would play in a new arena which would have a seating capacity of well over 9000 people. The Winnipeg Arena would be until early in the 60s the finest hockey facility in Western North America (especially if we assume that Chicago is in the Eastern half of the continent), and until late in the 1960s the best facility in any Canadian city west of Toronto. 
The men granted the Winnipeg franchise were J. D. Perrin Sr., a wealthy mining entrepreneur, and his son, J. D. Perrin, Jr., the truly active owner. John Jr., or “Jack” as he was normally called, was both Vice-President and General Manager of the club. He had been asked to bankroll the team by Culver Riley, Chairman of the Winnipeg Enterprises Corporation, the entity responsible for both the new Arena and the Winnipeg Stadium which had been built in 1952. Jack Perrin was willing to do so, mostly because he liked hockey and the people around the sport (he had played college hockey at both the University of Manitoba and McGill University), partly because he was a bit of a city “booster,” partly because he did not mind seeing his name in the papers, and partly because he liked the challenge of putting a winning team on the ice. He was not willing to lose a significant amount of money, but neither did he expect to make a lot. He was like many owners of pro sports teamsprepared to sacrifice some return on investment in order to be part of a sport, to feel welcome in a dressing room, and to be in the public eye. 
In the first year of operation, 1955-1956, the Warriors paid off handsomely for the Perrins. The team attracted huge crowds by Western League standards. The home opener was the first game ever played at the Winnipeg Arena. It drew 9,671 fans, which at the time was the largest crowd ever to see a hockey game in Western Canada. Over the year the average attendance was close to 6000 a game, if playoffs are included, not the normal Western League standard of about 4000.  The team made a profit of perhaps as much as $80,000.00. 
Part of the reason the fans came in large numbers was that the team was successful on the ice. It captured the WHL’s prairie division regular season championship, won the league playoffs, and went on to defeat the Montreal Royals for the Edinburgh Cup, a trophy for which champions from the Western League and the Quebec Pro League competed from 1954 through 1957.  But the fans were impressed by more than just victories. They knew that the caliber of play in the Western League was regarded very highly by knowledgeable hockey people. The League was perhaps the second-best and certainly not worse than the third-best in the world, behind only the National Hockey League and perhaps the American Hockey League. Moreover, the Western League had a number of minor league “superstars” who seemed worth the price of admission, players such as Guyle Fielder, Ed Dorohoy, and Phil Maloney, wonderful puck handlers and play makers who were usually not quite fast enough or determined enough to establish themselves in the NHL. It also had exciting tough guys such as Bill Schvetz, Fred Hucul, and Winnipeg’s own Bill Burega, as well as young players who seemed certain to have a bright NHL future, for example Barry and Brian Cullen, Gary Aldcorn, Ed Chadwick, Eric Nesterenko, all from the Warriors, and from other teams Al Arbour, Val Fonteyne, and Charlie Hodge. Finally, it had former NHL stars whose skills or desire had begun to fadeone was Don “Bones” Raleigh, who was sent down from New York to Saskatoon in February after nine productive years with the Rangers, and another was the Warriors’ Bill Mosienko, who had just completed a distinguished fourteen year career with Chicago and was still one of the best offensive players in the game. 
It is hard to imagine a more profitable minor pro franchise than the Winnipeg Warriors in 1955-56. Over the next five years, however, the Warriors were a much less lucrative investment. The Perrins lost money in 1956-1957 and in nearly every season thereafter. The 1960-61 campaign was a disaster. The last four home games attracted hardly anyone aside from players on youth hockey teams and others with complimentary passes; and average attendance for the season was about 2,000, less than half the number required to break even. In the summer of 1961, when Jack Perrin folded the team, it was estimated that the total loss on the Warriors’ operations over six years was about $200,000.00.  What caused this reversal in the fortunes of the franchise?
One constant problem for the Warriors over the years was the high rent the club paid to the Winnipeg Enterprises Corporation for use of the Winnipeg Arena. The Warriors turned over twenty percent of gross revenue from ticket sales to Winnipeg Enterprises, and the club received nothing from parking or concessions. The Warriors had the poorest rental arrangement with a landlord of any team in the Western League. This was a fact which Jack Perrin did not hesitate to mention when opportunities to do so arose. 
In response, the Directors of the Winnipeg Enterprises Corporation agreed that the Warriors’ rent was high by Western League standards, but denied that they could make the facility available for less money. The Enterprises Corporation had borrowed about $2.5 million, most of it from the City of Winnipeg, to build the Stadium and Arena. The loans had to be repaid and, at the very least, interest charges on the loans had to be figured in to the amounts charged to rent the facilities.  In later years, especially in the early 1990s, the Enterprises Corporation would in effect subsidize or even become part owners of the pro sports clubs that were its major tenants. The Corporation would do these things with assistance from the city and provincial governments, which saw professional sports franchises as creators of employment and as tourist attractions.  These options were available and even suggested to the Corporation in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But the Corporation would not give special consideration to the pro hockey club, even when Perrin threatened to move his franchise to a city in which he might find a better deal. This decision was not criticized severely by Winnipeggers and Manitobans. It was consistent with the “laissez faire” attitude toward sports clubs and other cultural institutions that prevailed among Canadians at that time. 
A better rental arrangement could have had only a minor impact on the Warriors’ financial situation, however. A more important reason the hockey club became unprofitable is that in terms of victories and defeats it never again performed as well as it had in the first season.  Twice it finished in last place, once in second-last. It made the playoffs in only two of the five final seasons, and only once made it past the first round. In specific seasons there were specific problemsbad goaltending, poor coaching, and so onbut one can generalize by saying that the most constant shortcoming was inferior players. And the main reason Winnipeg had inferior players was that it did not receive much help from NHL clubs.
This was partly Jack Perrin’s own fault. In 1955 he made a two-year deal with the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs by which the two NHL clubs agreed to provide the Warriors with fifteen players of WHL caliber while the NHL clubs would split 50% of the Warriors’ aggregate profits. The agreement worked well in 1955-1956, but in 1956-1957 Toronto and Montreal were more interested in placing players on their respective American League clubs in Rochester and Cleveland.
In this latter season the Warriors finished last in the Prairie Division of the WHL, and Jack Perrin wasn’t happy.  He sued the Toronto and Montreal clubs and eventually won. Justice A. M. Monnin of the Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench found that for a while the Warriors were two players short of the required fifteen (he found it difficult to decide if Toronto or Montreal or anyone else could have known before the season began that some of the players they sent to Winnipeg would not be of WHL caliber). Now, Perrin won only $26,000.00, not the $125,000.00 he was asking for, but it is not surprising that after 1957 Toronto and Montreal did not work with Winnipeg.  During the last four seasons the Warriors existed, some player help came from Boston and New York, but both the Bruins and the Rangers had obligations to other minor pro teams. For the most part Jack Perrin owned his own players, often youngsters who moved up from one of the junior teams he operated in metropolitan Winnipeg.  A few of these young pros played wellArt Stratton, for example, and Ted Green before he was picked up by Bostonbut most of them were out of their depths in the Western League, and certainly Winnipeg could have used an NHL affiliation that would have given them the kind of players which, in the late ‘50s, Detroit was placing in Edmonton, or Chicago in Calgary, or New York in Vancouver.
Weak teams were not the only reason attendance was down, however. Even in the years the Warriors made the playoffs, fan support and revenues were disappointing. The main reason was competition from televised NHL games.
We know a certain amount about the impact of television on various sports in the 1950s and 1960s, before such technical innovations as color, instant replays, slow motion, isolation cameras, and telestrators, before cable had become of much consequence, and long before satellites and pay-per-view.  Television had a positive influence on football, pro wrestling, and roller derby. It had a mixed impact on boxing, because it enabled top fighters and big promoters to make more money on major events than ever before, but it caused attendance at local fights to drop. It had a mixed impact, as well, on baseball and hockey, the two North American sports with a well-developed, integrated, major league / minor league structure.
In baseball, owners of major league teams were concerned for a few years about reduced attendance at games, but quickly learned to use the new medium to enhance revenue. However, the minor league teams truly suffered. In 1949, just at the beginning of the seven or eight year period in which most American households obtained a TV set, about 42 million people attended minor league baseball games in the USA. In 1957, 15 million did; in 1969, 10 million did. Fans in the South or the Great Plains or the Pacific Northwest preferred to sit at home to watch Musial, Mays, Williams, Banks, and Mantle, rather than go out to the local park to see the second or third-rate players they once had respected. 
In hockey, similar developments occurred. Most Canadian households obtained a TV set between 1952 and 1960; volume of sales was especially high in the years from 1953 through 1958.  The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s first television broadcast occurred in 1952, and almost from the beginning Hockey Night in Canada, featuring the Saturday night home game of either the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadiens, was one of the CBC’s most popular programs. Live broadcasts were presented only in Ontario and Quebec until 1956, but in the winter of 1956-1957, the Warriors’ second year of operation, they were available in Winnipeg, and by the end of the ‘50s they could be seen by almost every Canadian. 
The Winnipeg Warriors, like other minor pro teams, senior teams, intermediate teams, junior teams, and even children’s teams, discovered that “you couldn’t run a game on Saturday night.”  Hockey fans in Winnipeg and across Canada had been following the NHL for decades through newspaper and magazine stories, and through radio broadcasts. Now, in the late ‘50s, they had a chance to view the games, as well as hear the familiar voices of Foster Hewitt or Danny Gallivan describe them. They had a chance to see established stars such as Sawchuk, Plante, Howe, Lindsay, Richard, and Harvey, as well as new ones such as Mahovlich and Hull. They became aficionados of first-rate hockey, and they became impatient with, and even condescending toward, second or third rate hockey. After they had seen Jean Beliveau and the Montreal Canadiens ten or twelve times, Guyle Fielder and the Seattle Totems became much less impressive than they once had been.
Television hurt minor professional hockey franchises all over Canada. It did so especially in the early 1960s, by which time there were NHL games broadcast on Saturday night, on Wednesday night (on CTV), and on most nights of the week at playoff time.  Canadian minor league teamsbegan to escape television by relocating in the USA, where there were huge cities with thousands of potential fans, where the big networks were not yet very interested in hockey, and where teams could use local independent stations to televise away games and thereby increase revenues and stimulate interest. Television was a major reason that the Eastern Professional Hockey League, a league formed in the late 1950s which represented a mutation of the old Quebec Pro League and which had teams in cities such as Kingston, Hull-Ottawa, Sudbury, and Sault Ste. Marie, was transformed by the mid-1960s into the Central Pro League, with teams in American cities such as St. Louis, Omaha, St. Paul, Kansas City, and Memphis.  Turning our attention to the Western League, television was an important reason that the New Westminster franchise moved to Portland in 1960, that the Victoria operation moved to Los Angeles in 1961, that the Calgary and Edmonton clubs folded in 1963.  In short, television was a major cause of the transformation of the Western League of the mid-1950s, which was a Canadian league with one U.S. city (Seattle), into the Western League of the mid-1960s, which was a U.S. league with two Canadian cities (Vancouver and Victoria).  By the time the Western League folded or, to be more precise, partially merged with the Central Pro League in 1974, it had no Canadian franchises at all.
In the case of the Winnipeg Warriors, television’s negative impact was unusually strong for two related reasons. The first was that after 1959 the Winnipeg franchise was geographically remote from other teams in the Western League. When Winnipeg joined the league in 1955, the Regina Regals did so as well. The Regina owner, Jim Piggott, a wealthy construction company operator based in Saskatoon, lost money rapidly in his first months in Regina, so at Christmas he moved the team to Brandon. In the next season, 1956-1957, the Brandon Regals won the Western League championship, but even so the franchise lost about $20,000.00. Piggott gave up on Brandon as a city that was too small for a Western League team. He moved his club to Saskatoon, where a Western League team had existed from 1951-1952 through 1955-1956, but where no team was located in 1957. Piggott’s Saskatoon Quakers struggled for two seasons, both on the ice and at the gate, before Piggott took the team to Victoria and then to Los Angeles. 
Once Piggott pulled out of Saskatoon, the closest teams to Winnipeg were in Calgary and Edmonton, each over 800 miles away. As for the other clubs, Spokane was over 1000 miles from Winnipeg, Vancouver over 1300 miles, and Victoria, Seattle, and Portland even further. The travel costs for west coast teams coming to Winnipeg became nearly prohibitive. Beginning with the 1958-1959 season, the Warriors subsidized trips by west coast teams into Winnipeg and, especially once Saskatoon moved to Victoria, the Warriors scheduled back-to-back home games against the same opponent. 
This is where the second difficulty came into play the situation regarding Sunday sports in Manitoba. In the mid-1950s, when the Warriors were formed, no commercial sport on Sunday was allowed in the province. Amateur sports events took place (especially baseball games in summer) but no admission charge could be levied at the gate. Amateur clubs broke the letter of the law by arranging for hats and caps to be passed around while a match was in progress; the spectators voluntarily dropped coins or bills into the headpieces. But “passing the hat” was not a realistic option for a pro club. The revenue potential of doing so was low, for one thing. For another, many, and perhaps most Manitobans, considered Sunday a religious holiday and, although they were becoming more tolerant of family-oriented leisure activities held on the Sabbath, they still did not approve of holding commercialized leisure events on that day.
The fact that Sunday was not available to the Warriors presented no major problem until television took away Saturday night and until the Saskatoon franchise disappeared. Now the schedule had to be set up to utilize at least one week night and possibly two for back-to-back home games against the same visiting team. It is true that, through a stroke of luck, in 1959-1960 Jack Perrin managed to schedule some Sunday afternoon games, and his Sunday crowds were bigger than his crowds on other days.  The Sunday games occurred because in 1957 the City of Winnipeg passed a by-law which allowed for paid admission to golf courses and skating rinks on Sunday, and in 1959 a judge interpreted the by-law in such a way that hockey could be playedthe athletes were going for a skate! It took the Manitoba legislature a few months to deal with the unsatisfactory and illogical situation that had developed; it made no sense at all that Winnipeg’s pro hockey team could play on Sunday, but neither its pro baseball nor pro football team could do so. However, by the spring of 1960 the Manitoba legislature had amended the Lord’s Day Act to allow municipalities to permit only non-profit organizations to provide games, contests, and performances. The Warriors did not qualify as a non-profit organization, and the one thing that Jack Perrin often claimed might have saved the franchise, the possibility of playing home games on Sunday, was absent in the club’s last season of 1960-1961. 
According to John Perrin III, the son of Jack Perrin, television was a “major problem” for the Warriors, although of course it was not the only problem the club faced.  Televised NHL hockey competed with Warriors’ games for support, and did so especially on a night of the week which, given local circumstances, the Warriors needed. In hockey as in music, dance, and other activities, television made it possible for high calibre performances or productions that occurred in metropolitan centres to undermine and even to replace the lower calibre ones that occurred in the hinterlands.
It is interesting to note that Jack Perrin had caught a glimpse of how television might be used to help the Western League. He was the Western League operator who was most aggressive in dealing with the NHL on television rights and junior hockey sponsorship rights. He was an advocate of ideas that began to circulate around his league in the late 1950s, ideas that envisioned the Western League becoming a second major league and thereby making itself attractive to television networks and stations. Expenses would go up it was true, because some teams would need new or expanded arenas, and because major league players would expect major league salaries. But revenues would increase dramatically. Perrin was formulating ideas in the late 1950s and early 1960s similar to those that Gary Davidson and Dennis Murphy would act upon early in the 1970s when they formed the World Hockey Association. 
But the establishment of the World Hockey Association, and of the Winnipeg Jets as part of that league, were more than a decade away when Jack Perrin folded his minor league team. He was one of the first Western Canadians to confront a fact that everyone now recognizes. Television had changed the business of pro sports forever.
1. The Warrior name and logo were revived by a junior team which operated in Winnipeg from 1980 to 1984. This Winnipeg Warriors team is now the Moose Jaw Warriors. The junior team used the Warriors’ name and logo, but was otherwise unrelated to the pro club.
3. HN, 2 October 1954; Gary W. Zeman, Alberta On Ice: The History of Hockey in Alberta Since 1893 (Edmonton: GMS Ventures Inc., 1986), p. 61; Brenda Zeman, 88 Years of Puck Chasing in Saskatchewan (Regina: WDS Associates and the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame, 1983), p. 88.
4. HN, 2 October 1959, 6 November 1954, 5 February 1955, 29 October 1955; Winnipeg Free Press (hereafter FP), 5 March 1955, 15 September 1955, 18 October 1955, 19 October 1955. The Winnipeg Arena, altered in 1979, is still used for pro hockey in Winnipeg.
5. Telephone interview with John Perrin, III, 29 May 1992. P. J. Sloane’s observation that many owners have been “utility” maximizers rather than “profit” maximizers is relevant here. See “Restriction of Competition in Professional Team Sports,” Bulletin of Economic Research, vol. 28, 1976, especially p. 4. On John Perrin, Sr., see Provincial Library of Manitoba, Manitoba Biographical Scrapbooks, B10, p. 24; on John Perrin, Jr., see B19, pp. 124-125, FP, 22 November 1992.
7. The Warriors “break-even” attendance for a regular season game was about 4300. They drew an average of over 5800 per game, including playoffs. The average price of a ticket was $1.25. If the profit per game was 1500 x $1.25 or $18775.00, then the total profit would have been over $80,000.00. But these are very rough calculations, and take no account of extra travel costs for playoff games.
9. Short biographies of some of these players can be found in hockey encyclopedias, for example in Stan and Shirley Fischler, Fischlers’ Ice Hockey Encyclopedia, revised edition (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1979). Much of this information comes from conversations over the years with old Western League players such as Elliot Chorley of Brandon, Jack McLeod of Saskatoon, Lorne Davis of Regina, Don Raleigh of Winnipeg, Murray Wilkie of Winnipeg, Murray Costello of Ottawa.
10. FP, 17 January 1957, 15 February 1961, 24 April 1961, 27 June 1961; 28 August 1961; Winnipeg Tribune (hereafter Trib.), 22 March 1961, 23 March 1961, 28 March 1961, 30 March 1961. After the 1960-1961 season Jack Perrin asked for a “leave of absence” from the Western League, and received it. Technically, it is not accurate to say the team “folded,” although in effect that’s what it did.
14. Trib., 30 March 1961; FP, 27 June 1961, 29 August 1961; J. M. Bumsted, “Canada and American Culture in the 1950s,” in J. M. Bumsted (ed.), Interpreting Canada’s Past, vol. II, After Confederation (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 398-411.
15. In professional sports, winning teams almost always do better at the gate than losing ones. See Henry G. Demmert, The Economics of Professional Team Sports (Toronto: D.C. Heath and Company, 1974), pp. 10-11, 67.
19. Two good overviews of television and its initial effects on sports are Benjamin G. Rader, In Its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Sports (New York: Free Press, 1984), and Randy Roberts and James Olson, Winning Is the Only Thing: Sports in America since 1945 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), pp. 95-111.
21. Paul Rutherford, When Television Was Young: Primetime Canada 1952-1967 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), pp. 49-50; Michael J. Doucet and Margaret Hobbs, “The Growing Popularity of Television,” in Donald Kerr and Deryck W. Holdsworth (eds.), Historical Atlas of Canada, Vol. III, Addressing the Twentieth Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), plate 65.
22. Rutherford, pp. 241-254, passim.; Susan M. Nattrass, “Sport and Television in Canada: 1952 to 1982,” (PhD dissertation, University of Alberta, 1988), pp. 37-53, passim; Joan Dixon, “From ‘Sports College” to ‘Sports Weekend’: An Examination of the Relationship Between the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Sport, 1936-1982,” (MA thesis, Carleton University, 1984), p. 39; FP, 12 October 1956.
23. Interview with Murray Costello, Ottawa, 25 May 1992. Costello is now President of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he worked for the Seattle Totems and then the Western Hockey League.
28. Regina Leader-Post, 13 December 1955; HN, 2 October 1954, 31 December 1955, 28 January 1956, 5 October 1957, August 1959; Brandon Sun, 5 January 1956, 2 March 1957, 25 March 1957, 29 March 1957, 12 April 1957, 26 April 1957, 10 May 1957, 24 May 1957, 30 July 1957, 3 August 1957; Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, 22 February 1958, 18 April 1958, 6 May 1958, 5 March 1959, 10 March 1959, 3 April 1979. Actually, in 1957-1958, Piggott’s team played home games in both Saskatoon and St. Paul; in 1958-1959 all home games were played in Saskatoon.
31. FP, 20 October 1960, 27 October 1960, 27 June 1961; City of Winnipeg By-Law No. 17834, passed 8 April 1957, in Bylaws, pp. 82-83; Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, Debates and Proceedings, vol. IV, 15-26 March 1960, pp. 1594-1982, passim.
32. Telephone interview with John Perrin, III, 29 May 1992. Jack Perrin died in November 1992. For about two years before his death; I tried to arrange an appointment to talk to him about the Warriors. He did not return my calls, although several years ago he did talk to me informally about his days as a hockey promoter. In 1986 he spoke with Mr. Tom Thompson of Winnipeg about the Warriors, and I have benefitted from Mr. Thompson’s recollections of the conversations. I should add that John Perrin III, who was involved in a minor way in his father’s hockey business, has been very helpful.
33. FP, 15 September 1959, 31 October 1960, 2 November 1960, 24 March 1961; HN, 15 October 1960, 12 November 1960, 7 January 1961, 25 February 1961, September 1961, 10 March 1962, June 1962, 2 January 1965, 30 April 1965; Gary Davidson with Bill Libby, Breaking the Game Wide Open (New York: Atheneum, 1974), especially chapter 9.
Page revised: 30 November 2013Back to top of page