"It's been almost a month now since we've been paid. I'm married, I have a family, a home here in Cleveland and a cottage back in Canada and bills to pay.
"To go out there and work your heart out and not be paid anything, especially with the rumors that the team is going to fold, it really does bug you."
Bob Stewart, Cleveland Barons
We are accustomed these days to hearing about $8 zillion no-cut contracts and players nicknamed "Doctor" who jump to teams willing to pay them thousands of dollars for every house call. That is the giddy dream of the modern professional athlete, and for some it has been a reality, but a more sobering side of pro sports in America is becoming increasingly evident.
Bob Stewart, acting captain and player representative of the National Hockey League Cleveland Barons, is one of a growing number of players who knows how it feels to come up empty-handed on payday because teams don't have the money to cover inflated salaries. They are finding out what happens when the bubble bursts and pie in the sky becomes pie in the face.
"It's been a trying experience, says Stewart, 26, who had to adjust suddenly to a life-style less luxurious than the standard to which he had become accustomed before his team failed to make its Jan. 31 payroll.
"Instead of going to a restaurant now after games, I go home and have a sandwich," adds the defenseman, who is in the first year of a five-year contract that could soon be worthless. "I don't go out after practice. I told my wife the other day that we're really going to have to watch our budget. Until we find out what the situation is, we're not going to spend any money unless we have to."
Payless paydays are not a new phenomenon in sports. They have been around as long as promoters who don't know their assets from their expenses.
As recently as 1963 Ken Rosewall, now a millionaire from tennis, won the U.S. Pro Championship and was paid off with a handshake because the till was as empty as the feeling that gathered in Rosewell's stomach when he got the bad news.
Old-timers in every sport tell similar stories of bouncing checks and hard times. All of what we now consider the "big leagues" - major league baseball, the National Basketball Association, and National Hockey League - struggled in their infancy. New sports ventures, most of them complete with a shinny set of initials, come along regularly. A few find their niche, some merge with existing enterprises, most fold up like an old, out-of-tune accordion.
But Bob Stewart does not play for World Team Pinball or any other fly-by-night operation. The Barons compete in the oldest established permanent floating puck game in New and other North American cities. Long considered solid and solvent, the 59-year-old NHL now has several teams in critical financial condition, and this is what has so many sports insiders alarmed.
Most of the Cleveland players and staff were taken by surprise when the Barons became the Barrens at the pay window. The players were asked on Feb. 2 to accept a 27 per cent salary deferment, similar to the one the Indianapolis Racers of the rival World Hockey Association agreed to on Jan. 16. A majority of the Barons concurred in a closed ballot, but since the vote was not unanimous, as it had been in Indianapolis, the deferment was not enacted.
The fate of the Barons is expected to be decided today at meetings in Chicago, where the NHL Board of Governors will consider a plan for refinancing the club submitted by majority stockholder Mel Swig.
If a second payroll is missed Tuesday, the players automatically become free agents and the Barons could be come the first NHL club to cease operations in mid season since the Montreal Wanderers' rink burned down on Jan. 2, 1918, causing them to miss the last 16 games of the NHL's maiden season.
"I had never imagined this happening until the day they told us we weren's being paid. I just didn't think the National Hockey League would come to that point," says Stewart. "On the other hand, I was sort of prepared for it in the back of my mind because when you see only 3,500 to 5,500 people coming out per game, you know there are going to be some big losses, especially with the salaries being paid now.
"At first I was mad, but after talking with Mr. Swig, getting the facts and figures from him, I understand his problems better. I've tried to relate that to the players, but I understand how they feel, too. I'm in the middle. I know a couple of guys on our team need some money bad, and there's nothing to guarantee they'll ever get paid.
"Personally, I'm not strapped for cash right now, but I've got mortgage and car payments coming up, and in another week or two I will be."
"I's a traumatic time for everyone. The people in the front office are suffering too," says Barons' publicist Ron McGrath, who moved with the team this season from California, where it had spent nine financially troubled years as the Golden Seals. "Obviously we're at a lot lower pay scale than the players, but we have obligations to meet like everyone else.
"Most of us came here with this hockey club, bought homes, became members of the community and now we're faced with a crisis. It has to affect you. But you just try to remain optimistic. I'll say one thing, this has brought us all a lot closer together."
Being part of a team trying desperatel yto stay afloat in choppy waters can leave a person feeling seasick.
"It's kind of a rotten experience to go through," says Ted Hampson, captain of the original WHA Minnesota Fighting Saints, who went under on Feb. 27, 1976, after missing three of four pay periods.
Hampson, 40, finished last season with Quebec, but couldn't find a job this year. "I was always pretty optimistic that we'd get our money sooner or later, but I was wrong," he says. "I guess nobody starved, but it made it difficult for the guys who had made investments to keep up their commitments. That's how I got hurt pretty bad."
Jack Pardee, the former Redskin linebacker and assistant coach and now head coach of the NFL Chicago Bears, remembers with bemusement his tenure as coach of the Florida Blazers in the defunct World football League."I have a large family, five kids, and when the checks stopped coming, the bills didn't. It was a long season," says Pardee, who led the Blazers to the first and final "World Bowl" even though players and coaches were paid nothing more than occasional grocery money the last 14 weeks.
He recalls how merchants in Orlando were reluctant to honor checks or credit cards from Blazer employees - "the stigma," as he calls it, "of working for a club that everyone knew was broke."
At least the Blazers never had their uniforms held for ransom by a laundry or impounded by court order for nonpayment of bills as the Charlotte Hornets and Birmingham Americans did. But for personal humiliation, Perdee will never forget the day his wife Phyllis went to a drugstore and paid by check for some medicine and odds and eharmacist called the bank and was erroneously told there promptly followed Mrs. Pardee home, went into her kitchen and took his goods back.
His wife looks back on the year in Orlando as "a nightmare - the whole thing," but Pardee, a model of the Protestant ethic, sees it in retrospect as a character-building time, not unlike going through the Depresion. "The experience was invaluable," he says earnestly. "The kids learned to get along with one shirt instead of 10. You can't do it indefnitely, but it teaches you something."
Fighting Saints, agrees. "It was a beautiful experience in many ways, and yet it was a horror show at the time," he says. "You kind of forget how lousy you felt some days on the way to the rink, or on the road, scrambling to make meal money last twice as long as it should.
"But those six or eight weeks, the Saints were the closest-knit team I've ever been associated with. We probably had more laughter and more tears than most "
Neale remembers the night in Toronto that he had to put room and board for the whole team on his American Express card because the hotel management wouldn't let the Saints come marching in without payment in advance. And he recalls grimly the daily phone calls from rival coaches and general managers, asking his advice on what players they should grab when the team finally ran aground.
"I found that a little disconcerting," he says. "Like somebody calling up and saying, 'When you die, can I have your other two suits?'"
This season, Neale was on the other side of the casket. Now coach of the WHA New England Whalers, he found himself wondering how he might improve his team if and when the latterday Fighting Saints went to the great arena in the sky. (The Saints were born again last summer when the Cleveland Crusaders moved their operation to Minnespolis-St. Paul and resurrected the name, general manager and assistant GM, and 10 of the players from the team that had died several months earlier. They lasted only a few months, collapsing on Jan. 15, 1977, after missing one pay period and selling their top seven players to the Edmonton Oilers in an unsuccessful last gasp for solvency.)
Neale is sure he knows what the Barons have been going through the last two weeks. He was joking about it the other day with Dave Keon and John McKenzie, who were two of his better Fighting Saints. "We thought we should send the Cleveland guys the minutes of our meetings in Minnesota, because I'm sure the same words are being spoken in their dressing room as were in ours: 'Don't worry, everything will be all right, we have a new investor coming in from Wyoming. The checks will be good. Don't be concerned that we're issuing them on Friday at 6:15.'"
Ironically, teams facing imminent demise seem to play better. Neale's Fighting Saints had the best record in the WHA the eight weeks before they disbanded. The Baronsf the season since missing their payroll.
"You band together in circumstances like that. Adversity brings you closer. I'm sure a prisoner of war will say the same thing about his stalag," says Neale, echoing a sentiment others in similar situations have expressed. "We seemed to delight in going into somebody else's rink, beating them and then invariably reading in the papers the next morning that the amateurs had beaten the pros.