Tom Scallen

Tom Scallen (Globe and Mail photo)

Tom Scallen photographed by the Globe and Mail at his Minneapolis home in 2011.

Thomas Kaine Scallen
Born: August 14, 1925
Died: March 21, 2015 (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

Tom Scallen, a millionaire businessman and impresario from Minnesota, brought the expansion Vancouver Canucks into the NHL only to lose the team and serve jail time.

He was convicted in 1973 of stealing $3 million from Northwest Sports Enterprises Ltd., the company that owned the NHL Canucks, and using the money to pay off debts of Northwest’s parent company, Medical Investment Corp. (Medicor).

Tom Scallen (large mug)Scallen was also convicted of issuing a false prospectus in raising money to cover the $6-million fee the NHL demanded for an expansion team in Vancouver.

Originally convicted to concurrent four-year prison terms, Scallen appealed to the B.C. Court of Appeals, which unanimously dismissed the appeal, though his sentence was reduced to two years. Scallen surrendered to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on June 3, 1974. He was booked into the British Columbia Penitentiary in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby that day, eventually serving nine months before being released on parole.

A month earlier, Vancouver-based media mogul Frank Griffiths bought controlling interest in the Canucks from Medicor. Griffiths, through his company Western International Communications, owned the Canucks until his death at 77 in 1994. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1992.

Such a future honour might have been on Scallen’s mind when he made his move into professional hockey in 1969. A Second World War veteran and the son of a prominent Minneapolis trial lawyer, Scallen practiced law himself and served as a time as Minnesota’s assistant attorney general. He later became a banker.

When his twin brother, Dr. Raymond Scallen, a physician, cited a need for rentable medical equipment, Scallen formed Medicor. He made a small fortune, some of which he used to buy the Shipstads & Johnson Ice Follies, the traveling show of performing ice skaters. (He’d later purchase a competitor, Holiday on Ice, merging the two troupes.) This taste of the impresario’s life encouraged Scallen to invest in professional hockey.

The NHL had only six teams from 1942 until 1967, when it doubled in size by adding six new teams in the United States. Each new franchise paid a $2-million fee. To the surprise of many, Vancouver was passed over. When the NHL announced it would add two more teams in 1970 in Vancouver and Buffalo, the league demanded what was at the time a shocking a $6-million expansion fee, of which a $1.75-million down payment was due by the end of February, 1970.

The NHL offered the rights to the Vancouver franchise to Northwest Sports Enterprises Ltd., owners of a minor-league pro team in the Western Hockey League also named Canucks. Northwest balked at the offer, complaining about the tripling of the expansion fee. Scallen then stepped in to buy 90 percent of Northwest for $2.8 million. He agreed to the NHL’s price. Unable to finance both the purchase of the old Canucks and the NHL’s expansion fee, he borrowed $3 million from the Walter E. Heller Corporation of Chicago.

Scallen was initially hailed by fans for ensuring Vancouver would have an NHL team for the 1970-71 season. When Medicor’s Lyman Walters sparked controversy by suggesting the word Canucks was “an outdated slang expression,” Scallen assured fans the new team would keep the old team’s name. “Who am I to tell the fans what their hockey team should be called?” he said. Though the NHL Canucks struggled on the ice, ticket sales were brisk and it looked like Scallen had made a good investment.

His problem — the $3-million loan, which became due six months after he borrowed the money. With Medicor’s cash flow limited, Scallen decided to offer shares of Northwest available to the public. The prospectus declared the money raised would be used to retire a small debt, make another expansion franchise payment, and otherwise be invested in other sporting properties. Scallen talked about buying a Canadian Football League team in Edmonton, or Montreal, and mused about getting a major-league baseball team in Toronto.

A one-man operation, Scallen used the money raised to pay off Medicor’s loan to Heller, none of which had been described in the prospectus. When Northwestern’s board of directors discovered what he had done, the news made the Vancouver newspapers and British Columbia’s attorney general ordered an investigation, which ended with guilty verdicts after a trial by jury.

After serving his time, Scallen returned to the razzle-dazzle world of sports presentation. He became president and chief executive officer of International Broadcasting Corporation, which acquired the Ice Capades and the Harlem Globetrotters barnstorming basketball team.

The company filed for bankruptcy protection in 1991. The Olympic figure-skating champion Dorothy Hamill purchased the Ice Capades two years later, while former basketball player Mannie Jackson led an investment group that purchased the Globetrotters.

Scallen held executive positions with advertising and film companies, as well as the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. He produced such television specials as “Rockette: A Holiday Tribute to Radio City Music Hall,” which aired on NBC in 1978. He also produced Ice Capades specials for television, as well as live shows at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

He wound up his show business career as a restaurateur who owned the venerable Lexington in St. Paul and the suburban Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. The Chanhassen boasted four stages and was billed as the largest dinner theatre complex in America. Scallen sold it to two longtime employees and a theatre management company in 2010.

Scallen insisted he had been prosecuted and convicted as part of a political and business ploy to remove an American owner from a Canadian hockey team. “It was a pure political play,” he told Josh Wingrove of the Globe and Mail four years ago. Scallen said he was pardoned of his convictions in 1982.

Scallen died at his Minneapolis home. He leaves his Bille Jo Brice, his second wife whom he married in 1990; three sons and three daughters from his first marriage to the former Mary Semsch; 19 grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; and, three brothers.

A rare reminder of Scallen’s tenure as owner of the Canucks is the recently revived logo of a stylized C featuring a hockey stick and a rink. Scallen approved the “Stick-in-Rink” design by Joe Borovich of North Vancouver.

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