Never have so many played so often for so much. Starting this week, the tarnished, patched and expanded bastion of the so-called national sport of this country, the National Hockey League, invites its monied patrons to ignore the state of the art, forget that numerous once-luminary players are older than many in the crowd, proffer their deflated dollars
and feign excitement during 840 games that may fill arena cash registers and eliminate a mere five of 21 teams from post-season play. The exercise, which commences amid the crescendo of the baseball season, climaxes as the ballplayers take to the field again, and heralds nothing more than the possibility that 61 more games might have to be played to decide if, once again, the Montreal Canadiens are the best ... in this league.
The war with the interlopers, the World Hockey Association, is over, ending salary battles, inflated bonuses for untried rookies, and bringing four new teams into the fold—the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and the Hartford Whalers. The merger accomplished what four previous NHL expansions had failed to do— bring the NHL to more than three Canadian cities. And it gave the assorted owners of the franchises hope that perhaps one day less than half of their gate receipts ($68 million last year) would be siphoned off by agent-guided players. It also gave the owners glimmering hopes that, like the average person’s dream of owning a home, the average player’s salary of $101,000 (up from $30,900 in 1972 when the WHA started) would level off and eventually recede. But the owner’s ultimate fantasy, a U.S. network television contract—the lifeblood of the other “major” pro sports—remains an elusive and ephemeral mother lode, as realistic as saying you knew you should have bought gold at $35. North American hockey fans may be gullible and forgiving, but there remain precious few among the unconverted ready for the Colorado Rockies versus the Atlanta Flames in prime time.
Bobby Hull made the WHA with his defection for dollars in 1972, and when part of the WHA was made part of the NHL, Hull, in retirement, returned to the stage. It did not matter to most that the seat-selling efforts of the Black Hawks—by restoring nostalgia and the Golden Jet to Chicago Stadium—were blatantly commercial and desperate.
The league reached its depth of selfparody when late last year Toronto Maple Leaf owner Harold Ballard fired his coach Roger Neilson, on national TV, only to rehire him the next day. He asked Neilson to appear that night wearing a paper bag over his head. The idea was that the suspense over who was the fool under the bag would be nigh-on unbearable; the flood of love when Neilson revealed his cranium would be near pandemonium. Neilson demurred, and the ghosts of glory-day players Aurel Joliat, Howie Morenz, Charlie Conacher et al were spared.
The ever-shrinking respite between playoffs and pre-season featured the dance of the coaches. Ballard went after everyone, and nobody came; Scotty Bowman left the Stanley Cups and the Canadiens behind for more upward mobility in Buffalo and was replaced by the former Canadien great Bernie (Boom-Boom) Geoffrion, returning from exile in Atlanta. Neilson joined Bowman, Don Cherry left Boston for Colorado, and Punch Imlach and Floyd
Smith finally came back to Toronto. Fred Creighton travelled to Boston from Atlanta, replaced by Al MacNeil from Montreal and Ed Johnston took over in Chicago.
And with the merger, records were returned. Gordie Howe’s phenomenal statistics were restored to the NHL books. But as training camps came to a close last week, Howe, 51, was suffering dizzy spells, and it was up to him and his doctors to decide whether or not there was another chapter left in the legend. Others, less-storied, had decided there weren’t any for them. Ken Dryden, the scholarly and erudite observer of the game, chose, at age 32, to stop stopping pucks for Montreal. Teammate Jacques Lemaire finally tired of sticks flashing about his face, and chose to play in Switzerland. Yet stars from the era of a six-team league will carry on. Dave Keon, 39, will toil for Hartford; Frank Mahovlich will give it a whirl in Detroit; Stan Mikita will skate for Chicago, though disappointed at 39 that no youngster has come along to displace him; the relative youngster Marc Tardif has discovered that at 30 there is enough money in Quebec to entice him to continue; and the eternal Yvan Cournoyer is trying to road-run again in Montreal.
The euphoria of entry into the NHL has boosted season ticket sales in Ed-
monton from 8,000 to 15,248 (sellout), in Quebec from 6,400 to 10,000 and 7,100 in Winnipeg to 10,000. But if those fans are looking forward to the long awaited arrival of the “big” clubs and new rival-
ries, they had best be patient. The NHL has stayed with four divisions, whose names—Patrick, Adams, Smythe, Norris—conjure instant identification only to employees of the league. Quebec City landed in the Adams group. Montreal, of course, is in the Norris. Edmonton and Winnipeg fell in with the weak sisters of the Smythe Division, Vancouver among them, but each team in the league plays the other 20 four times. Thus home fans will be treated to each rival—imagined or real—twice. They had better keep their programs.
It’s the 63rd go-round for the NHL; the ambitions for this season and the next few are clear. Salaries have to be held down so that the endangered franchises can at least lose less money. The talent pool that now laps on European shores regularly has to be tested to see if it can withstand the expanded drain, and the patrons asked how long they will suffer dilution before they turn off the tap. Phase 1 of the master plan wraps up April 6. By then Montreal should have won the Norris (again), Boston the Adams (again), the New York Islanders the Patrick (again) and Chicago the Smythe (by acclamation again). It will still be too early to tell about some of the troubled organizations and the depth of talent, but flowing cash register receipts may well have answered the question of the tap.
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