Consider this post the “Cod Liver Oil” of the expansion series: explaining the sponsorship system. Much of the next 100,000 words are lifted from Donald R. Ellis’ account “Waivers, Drafts and the Sponsorship List” in the book Years of Glory. Here we go.
The best way to look at the sponsorship era is to compare the differences between then and now. Nowadays, a player can be drafted from junior hockey, college hockey, European hockey (pro and U-20) and any number of sources across the globe. Players are not eligible until after their 17-year old seasons and then remain eligible for drafting at 18, 19 and 20.
In the original 6 era–which ended with the great expansion–each of the 6 NHL teams had “sponsorship” clubs under their procurement umbrella, there was no amateur draft (although in 1963 a limited one was made available for longshots) and there was no Europe. There was barely a USA, in NHL terms.
So, lets take the Montreal Canadiens as an example. Here is their sponsorship team umbrella, with 18 protected players for each team.
||CLEVELAND BARONS (AHL)
||PROVIDENCE REDS (AHL
||SEATTLE TOTEMS (WHL)
||HOUSTON APOLLOS (CPHL)
Montreal had control of (or could control) 360 (20 times 18) amateurs aged 14-19 at any given time.
Total players including pro: 468 hockey players with contracts and no hope of free agency. If you were the 19th ranked centerman in the system and turning pro, then one of the three jobs on the Houston roster was your goal. Good luck with your NHL career, young man!
This was the case for all six teams, although Montreal usually had a team or two more than Toronto and Detroit, and Chicago, the Rangers and Boston were well behind at least up until the period where the Bruins got serious in the early 1960s. The league kept track of all this in Montreal at the league offices. The Central Registry Bureau of Information. Central Registry kept records of signings, releases, transfers, loans, drafts, retirements, waiver claims.
So, when someone tells you (like anyone would, all the people who knew this system are long dead, likely happily free from the tangled mystery of the sponsorship era) that Bobby Clarke would have been a Detroit Red Wing under the sponsorship system–they’re right. That makes the story of the 1969 draft (a Red Wing scout was so angry at the stupidity at his own table he wandered over to the Flyers–whose own Gerry Melnyk was practically in tears begging Philadelphia to take Clarke–and told them to take him and enjoy the best player in the draft because his outfit was too stupid to know a hockey player when they saw one).
There was no “territory” or area that one team or another could dominate, but a team sponsorship by an NHL team meant a young Regina Pat Midget (like Terry Harper) was Montreal property. From his mid-teens, Terry Harper had two choices for his hockey career: make it with the Montreal Canadiens, or not make it with the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal could sell him, loan him, trade him, bury him, condemn him to Springfield and Eddie Shore–whatever the hell they wanted to do, and at any time.
Up next: the 1970 expansion.