CAN BOSTON WIN WITHOUT BOBBY AND PHIL? CHECK THE STANDINGS
CAN BOSTON WIN WITHOUT BOBBY AND PHIL? CHECK THE STANDINGS
One of the rare visitors to leave Boston Garden a winner this season was a mouse Ken Hodge’s son discovered in the Bruins’ dressing room. Presented to assistant trainer Frosty Forristall in an empty beer cup. the mouse was spared, and later released. Which is considerably more humanity than visiting teams have received lately at the Garden. The Bruins have lost fewer games than any team in the National Hockey League—excluding Montreal— have quietly assumed a position of relative comfort at the head of the Adams division, and have already eclipsed last year’s road record of 11 wins in 40 attempts. “Call us a good grind team.” says coach Don Cherry. “We have an old system. We never have any three-on-twos. We fill the alleys and play a tight game.”
The Bruins’ system used to be Orr and Esposito—period. “Whenever we’d get in trouble we’d say, ‘Bobby will do it, or Phil will do it . . . ’ ” says third-year centre André Savard. But Esposito was traded to New York in early November, and the injured Orr has missed all but three weeks of the season. The Bruins without Orr or Esposito, people used to say, would be more vulnerable than the state department without Henry Kissinger. But they aren’t. “If somebody had told me last year we’d do this well without them, I’d have said he was crazy,” confesses Hodge. “But you have to consider we gained two fine hockey players, too.”
The two are defenseman Brad Park and centre Jean Ratelle, who came to Boston with defenseman Joe Zanussi for Esposito and Carol Vadnais. The Bruins were playing .500 when the deal was made. From then to the end of January they played .806 (25-5-6) and Esposito’s absence is being widely acclaimed as the chief reason. “What people forget,” says 17-goal scorer Bobby Schmautz, “is that Bobby Orr returned for the first game after the trade. Once you get the momentum Bobby gave us, it’s easier to carry on.” But the Bruins have carried on impressively for nine weeks without Orr, and Park, who arrived overweight and out of shape, is the offense’s new quarterback. In his first game with the Bruins he labored through a 45second shift. Now he’s logging as much as 38 minutes a game and the infamous Garden gallery gods are nominating him for Norris Trophy consideration as the league’s best defenseman. Ratelle, meanwhile, has reasserted his identity as one of the game’s top playmakers.
The Bruins themselves say their success is a result of teamwork, but Cherry, now in his second year, admits; “The trade changed everyone’s attitude. They figured if Phil and Carol can go, anybody can go. Now, everybody gets the same amount of ice time.” With Esposito that wasn’t always possible. It was more than his being a prolific goal scorer. In one game last year he stayed on the ice for eight minutes while two sets of wingers changed.
“We don’t rely on individuals any more,” adds captain John Bucyk, a Bruin for 19 seasons. “We have three lines scoring goals, and we backcheck harder.” Bucyk, almost 41 and still the team’s leading goal scorer, was earlier rumored to be in line for work modeling maternity clothes. “I sent letters to everybody during the summer telling them what weight I expected them to report at,” says Cherry. Bucyk shed 15 pounds.
So the big, bad Bruins, who once dominated the game with the dynamic scoring of Esposito and Orr, have suddenly become the good little Bruins—dominating their division with togetherness. Now, they even let the mice go. BOBDUNN
The worst and the dullest Two things—principally—set the Washington Capitals apart from other teams in the National Hockey League: they can’t shoot straight and they can’t skate. Such deficiencies can represent a severe liability in the game of hockey—as the Caps would no doubt attest. They recently went 25 games without registering a single victory, a three-month, record-setting string, broken only by a 7-5 triumph over the New York Rangers late last month. Quipped Washington coach Tommy McVie (who replaced Milt Schmidt 14 games into the streak): “It was worse than having my wife commit adultery; at least 1 could tell her to stop.”
Expansion teams, such as the Caps and the Kansas City Scouts (who also changed coaches last month after more than a dozen straight losses), are typically launched with fourth-class flotsam—arthritic veterans and immature, unskilled rookies. But the Caps, in their two-year career in the NHL. have set new benchmarks for incompetence. They have had four coaches and two general managers. They have won a mere 13 games, while losing 108. They have yet to win tw'o consecutive games. In 51 contests this season, they have given up 262 goals—more than five goals a game—and beaten opposing netminders only 139 times. “I don’t want to hit ’em when they’re down,” says one NHL all-star, “but if that’s a hockey team. I’m a yellowbellied sapsucker.”
Off the ice, the Caps have been no less a disaster. Playing to fewer than 4,000 season ticket holders at Landover. Maryland’s Capital Centre, the team lost one million dollars last year. Caps owner Abe Pollin refuses to discuss details but, in spite of player salaries said to be among the lowest in the league, the team will probably lose another $750,000 this year.
The Caps have not been especially helped by front office moves. Young players such as Peter Sullivan, now with the WHA’S Winnipeg Jets, and Dennis Maruk, now with the California Seals, were jettisoned because they were “too small.” Both have since developed into promising talents. When, after just three wins in 38 games this year, coach and general manager Milt Schmidt was replaced, team president Peter O’Malley issued the understatement of the year: “We set certain goals, but Milt and 1 realized we weren’t reaching these goals.”
So did the players. “It only took me 10 minutes to get over leaving Washington,” said Captain Bill Clement after being traded to the Atlanta Flames last month. “Just sitting on the bench here knowing you’re actually in a hockey game is pleas-' ant.” Depressed by continuing losses, the Caps drank much and worked little. Players were often late for practice, which on game days consisted of a mere 20-minute drill in sweat suits.
McVie, 40, a native of Trail, BC, certainly won’t make the Caps contenders, but he might get them to break the losing habit—at least once a month. A disciplinarian, he has driven the players into something resembling physical fitness, stepped up the pace of practices, and in the process won their respect. On the road, he regales them with stories from earlier days. (Without his false teeth, McVie can put a whole puck in his mouth. During one public practice session, while he was with the Bruins, he popped a puck into his mouth, fell to block a Bobby Orr slapshot, then spit out the puck. “You should have seen their faces.”)
But McVie’s problems in Washington and new coach Eddie Bush’s problems in Kansas City go far beyond team discipline and fitness. What their disgracefuî records again underline is the greed of the NHL owners, who pocket the five-million-dollar franchise fee, and then blithely inflict this folly on the fans. BILLLOWTHER
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