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Despite hockey triumphs, Special Olympics came first for Frank Selke, Jr.

Frank Selke Jr.

John Stevenson

Frank Selke was born into hockey as the namesake son of one of the sport's greatest general managers. His own brief term as a hockey general manager was undistinguished, though he enjoyed success as a hockey broadcaster.

Mr. Selke, who has died at 83, also spent more than four decades supporting and promoting the Special Olympics for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. His connections ensured that many popular athletes lent their support to the charity.

Mr. Selke worked for the famed Montreal Canadiens as a publicity director before adding on-air duties as a host and between-periods interviewer for Saturday night telecasts from Montreal.

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"Hi, everybody," he said. "Frank Selke Jr. here at the Montreal Forum. A very warm welcome to one and all to Hockey Night in Canada."

He became a familiar figure in households across the land at a time when television options were limited. He was a soft-spoken and gentlemanly broadcasting partner to the excitable play-by-play man Danny Gallivan and the phlegmatic colour commentator Dick Irvin, Jr. Mr. Irvin's father had been a coach of championship teams in Toronto and Montreal for which Mr. Selke's father worked in the front office.

Francis Donald Selke was born in Toronto on Sept. 7, 1929, the sixth of what would be seven children. His mother, the former Mary Agnes Schmidt, was born in Wisconsin before moving to Ontario as a girl. His father, Francis Joseph Selke, was born in Berlin (now Kitchener) to Polish immigrant parents.

The pair met when Frank Sr. came to New Hamburg to scout one of Mary's brothers. Mr. Selke, an electrician by trade and manager of a minor professional hockey team in Toronto, was hired by Conn Smythe of the Toronto Maple Leafs on the very day of Frank's birth.

The boy played midget and bantam hockey in Toronto, as well as football for St. Michael's College School.

Meanwhile, his father helped build the Toronto Maple Leafs into perennial contenders, as the club won three Stanley Cups and appeared in six other finals before he left the team in May, 1946. Two months later, he was hired by the Montreal Canadiens, where he would win six Cups as general manager.

The eastward move interrupted a young man's academic and sporting careers, as the teenager convinced his father to let him drop out of high school in favour of a job at the Montreal Forum.

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"Starting at the bottom," Mr. Selke once told hockey historian Paul Lewicki, "I would clean the seating area and sweep the ice as a general labourer for a grand total of $28 per week."

He advanced to working with the ice crew and as an electrician's helper before becoming the team's publicity director, with duties ranging from appearing on national television broadcasts to responding to children's letters seeking autographs.

He was also responsible for negotiating deals for the objects that marked many Canadian childhoods – Parkhurst hockey cards, Eagle Toys table-hockey games and Bee Hive Golden Corn Syrup hockey photographs.

In 1967, the National Hockey League doubled in size by adding six franchises in the United States. Mr. Selke joined the new Oakland Seals as president, though he thought established teams were soaking the new owners by demanding $2-million expansion fees while offering only rejects and castoffs as players.

"They're really giving away a lot," Mr. Selke told columnist Dick Beddoes of The Globe and Mail during the expansion draft. "They're giving us free elevator rides in the hotel, for example, plus all the fresh air we can breathe."

The Seals stumbled from the start, doing poorly on the ice and worse at the box office. Only 2,426 fans attended an early home game.

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"Sure, the fans are not breaking down the doors to get into the place, but we didn't expect that they would," Mr. Selke told The Globe. "Things certainly aren't going as well as we thought they would, but we're not ready to push the panic button after 12 league games. It's far too early."

The owners sought to sell, or move the team. After the inaugural season, Mr. Selke was asked to become general manager, a move that came with a cut in salary. The club changed hands before reverting to the original ownership group, which at last succeeded in selling the franchise to Charles O. Finley, a flamboyant character who also owned baseball's Oakland Athletics.

Minutes after having his ownership confirmed, Mr. Finley was asked about the fate of coach Fred Glover. Mr. Finley said he would be rehired. What about Frank Selke? "Is he the manager?" Mr. Finley asked. "I don't mean that in a facetious manner. Frankly, I didn't know who the manager was." Mr. Selke resigned five months later.

Despite his brief tenure, Mr. Selke had a reputation as an astute judge of talent, according to hockey writer Ross Brewitt, who recently recounted Mr. Selke's assessment of a player's disappointing career: "Great legs, great hands, all adeptly guided by the heart of a mouse."

After returning to Canada, Mr. Selke took an executive position with the company responsible for producing Hockey Night in Canada.

After retiring in 1992, he proved to be an indefatigable supporter of the Special Olympics, for which he was named honorary coach for the Canadian team at the 2003 summer games in Dublin.

Like his father before him, Mr. Selke served on the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee.

The elder Selke is enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame and Canada's Sports Hall of Fame. The NHL awards the Frank J. Selke Trophy each year to the forward who best excels at defensive play.

The younger Selke's lifetime achievements were of a more modest nature. He was the inaugural inductee into the Special Olympics' Hall of Fame and last year was awarded the group's Harry (Red) Foster Award.

In 2004, Mr. Selke was inducted into the Etobicoke Sports Hall of Fame, of which he was one of the founding directors.

Mr. Selke died at his home in Toronto on March 18. He leaves the former Dorothy Julia Letts, known as Red, his wife of 59 years, a daughter, two sons, seven grandchildren, a brother and three sisters. He was predeceased by two sisters.

As a member of the front office of the Canadiens, Mr. Selke was invited to sit for six official team portraits after seasons in which the club won the Stanley Cup. In spite of his contribution, he never had his name engraved on the storied trophy.

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