The Hall of Famer
As an Oxford hockey player, prosecutor of Nazis, and president of the NHL, Clarence Campbell lived a life less ordinary.
Clarence Campbell (’24 Arts, ’26 LLB) was the third president of the National Hockey League and presided over the league during one of its most controversial moments.
Born in 1905 in Fleming, Saskatchewan, Campbell attended Strathcona Collegiate Institute (now known as Old Strathcona) in Edmonton. An athlete, Campbell played both rugby and hockey at the U of A before graduating with an arts degree in 1924. He then headed off to Oxford in 1925–26 as a Rhodes Scholar.
While in England, Campbell played for the Oxford University Hockey Club, also known as the Blues. In 1929, he captained Europe’s oldest hockey team to the Varsity Match championship, alongside future Supreme Court Justice Ronald Martland and designer of the Canadian flag George Stanley. Martland and Stanley were also U of A Rhodes Scholars.
Following his time abroad, Campbell returned to Edmonton and began practising law. In 1933, along with local businessmen Henry Roche and Frank Hughes, Campbell designed and supervised the construction of Renfrew Park. It would remain the home of Edmonton’s professional and semi-professional baseball teams until 1995.
Campbell supplemented his legal income by refereeing hockey games. He officiated in the Western Canada Hockey League, the American Hockey League and, from 1933–1939, the NHL. Campbell was the referee on Jan. 28, 1937, when Montreal Canadiens forward Howie Morenz broke his leg, ending his legendary hockey career.
In 1940, following the outbreak of the Second World War, Campbell enlisted in the Canadian Army, eventually earning the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war he was appointed Queen’s Counsel and was a lawyer in the Canadian War Crimes Investigation Unit. Campbell was involved in the prosecution of Kurt Meyer, a commander in the 12th SS Panzer Division charged with the murder of 41 Canadian prisoners of war.
In 1946, Campbell returned home and was named president of the NHL. He was president until 1977, and led the league during a time of great innovation and expansion. He created the first NHL all-star game in 1947–48. He instituted an intra-league draft in 1950 to better balance talent throughout the league. In 1967–68, under Campbell, the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams. By 1974, there were 18 teams in the league. Campbell also prevented Bobby Hull from playing for Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series against Russia, stipulating that if any player from the rival World Hockey Association made the team, NHL owners would not release their players to participate.
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Campbell was also a key player in one of Canada’s most famous incidents, the Richard Riot. On March 13, 1955, after being intentionally hit in the face by Boston Bruins defenceman Hal Laycoe, Montreal Canadiens star Maurice “The Rocket” Richard attacked Laycoe and linesman Cliff Thompson. Richard punched Thompson twice in the face, knocking him unconscious. Campbell suspended Richard for the rest of the 1954–55 season, including the playoffs. Quebecers were furious about the suspension, believing that an anglophone president had unfairly punished a francophone player. Campbell received death threats but refused to lessen the suspension. On March 17, he attended a game at the Montreal Forum, and Canadiens fans rioted both in the stadium and in the streets. There were 37 injuries and 100 arrests, and the riot has taken on historical significance as a key moment in Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.
Clarence Campbell was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966. In 1974 the NHL renamed one of its conferences in his honour. Campbell served as honorary chairman of the NHL from 1977 until his death in 1984. He was made a member of the Order of the British Empire in 1945 and was appointed King’s Counsel in 1948. In 1992, Campbell was added to the U of A’s Sports Wall of Fame.
For almost as long as there’s been a Canada, there’s been a University of Alberta. Over the next year, in honour of Canada’s 150th anniversary, we’re proudly celebrating the people, achievements and ideas that contributed to the making of a confederation.