PRIMER TO THE NEW HOCKEY
The logistics of expansion or how to stop worrying about all those obscure new teams
When you’re nine you can hold your shin pads on with rubber sealers from preserving jars. You’re so small they call the league you play in “squirt,” but you think big when it comes to winning. You had to in 1957, especially when you battled Parry Sound and a nine-year-old myth called Bobby Orr.
Our coach held the only hope of getting us up for such a game. After all, we’d heard of Orr, and Parry “Hoot” — as we called it — did have a reputation for toughness, particularly when they played the smaller towns in the area, towns like Huntsville. But Coach Mye Sedore wasn’t about to throw in any chicken towel. When the official scorecard came over from the Parry Sound Brunswicks’ dressing room for the Huntsville Doctors to sign alongside their numbers — so the scorer would know whom to credit with what — Coach Sedore grabbed it and held it up, over his head.
“I want you to take a good long look at the name beside number four. That’s Bobby Orr, and you’ve all heard of him. But I want you to see for yourselves what you’ve been worrying about. Look at the way he signs his name! Are you going to tell me we can’t beat a guy that signs his name like thatV And the coach handed the card around, from left to right, letting us digest the nervous signature, the unclosed B and the O like a broken football.
Halfway through the first period we were still alive, and gaining confidence. But a puck that one of our defensemen had labeled for me, a left-winger loafing near the blue line, caromed off my stick to Orr, standing just inside our zone. And he did something no other player in our league had ever attempted. He hoisted the puck. It left his stick, sailing and wobbling, rising and floating in from the blue line, up over our
heads, drifting in slow motion down from the lights, over our goalie’s shoulder and into the net. Our goalie stood frozen, like the rest of us. He hadn’t thought even to use his catching glove; he hadn’t much before. The game sagged at that moment, caught in a talent warp with Orr and a puck that left the ice on one side and frightened children on the other. It sagged, then collapsed; Parry Sound marched on to the slaughter.
Bobby Orr would have learned to write by the time a contract required his signature.
Foi the months between seasons I kept a magic carpet in the back of my social studies binder. It was a convenient place to store my imagination while the staler parts of the mind punched in at the blackboard, helping Balboa name the Pacific Ocean. And while the Spanish explorer marveled at the calm of the great sea, I would be called up to the Detroit Red Wings — injuries, you know — and join the NHL as one of three colored pencils. Green. Because I was new. And Detroit, the red, would battle the Toronto Maple Leafs, the blue, for the Stanley Cup championship. The three-ring binder paper would fill with the action of the Detroit Olympia.
The green pencil’s one big move was to snare the puck off the boards in the Detroit end, pivot once — time enough to assess the Toronto armor — and feign a shift left but jump right, toward the open space by the blue line. That way, only the Toronto defense stood between me and the winning goal; and knowing Bob Baun and Tim Horton and their every move, I knew I could count on them to play the man who dared split their defense. This was their flaw. Slamming the puck into the right boards, I swung directly between them and leaped, arc-
ing over the vise of knees and elbows that came together like ill-scheduled trains. And while Baun crumbled into Horton, I gathered up the puck, moved in, deked and unloaded the puck behind a confused goaltender. The Detroit Olympia exploded. The binder had closed on another successful season.
Fifteen years later the moths were long into any such magic carpets. Where once I had known the name and position of every player on every team, now I couldn’t even list the teams. Names like Deadmarsh and Boldirev curdled in a world where such names as Teeder Kennedy, Tod Sloan and Rocket Richard once sang. The times had changed.
The National Hockey League, our great Walter Mitty dream for all ages, faltered in 1967 and collapsed in 1972. To the people who had loved the game for its innocence and goodness, it had fallen like a virgin, money the seducer and television the bedroom.
The expansion in 1967 from six teams to 12 cannot be blamed in theory: the number of young men playing good hockey was at least double what it had been 30 years earlier. But expansion in practice was a disaster. The established teams were permitted to protect their true hockey talents, and to the new teams they sloughed off the old men and the second rate. Since they were in fact doubling the league, perhaps they should have started again from scratch, pooling the available talent and selecting on a triterion of fairness. But no, they were operating within the accepted logistics of greed. And in the six seasons since, we have seen four of the older, established teams for the first time in NHL history go over the 100points-a-season level (Montreal ended with 120 last year —
only 10 losses in 78 games!), meaning an inordinate number of wins at the expense of the new clubs. Super. What we have not seen is even one game in a final series of Stanley Cup play go to an expansion team. And whereas expansion teams in the first year were winning only one out of every 3.6 games against established clubs, four years later they were winning only one in every six or seven. In the Eastern Division of the NHL, fully 90 points separated first place Montreal and last place New York Islanders (in the equivalent division of the rival World Hockey Association, only 26 points kept last place New York Raiders out of first). Things were degenerating. Baseball had shown us expansion teams could win the World Series; football had given up the Superbowl to expansion clubs. The NHL, however, had no such plans.
The pain showed up on television. Hockey Night In Canada, once the absolute bastion of Canada’s infatuation with big league hockey, was by 1973 a television show on the slide. A survey in January showed the audience had fallen almost 25% in one year. People were no longer watching from force of habit as perhaps they once had, back in the years when Toronto and Montreal played as if the goal creases had never left the Plains of Abraham. That had been great hockey. And even if you caught a game between two cellar clubs, that was still good, for the NHL once had only the two adjectives, great and good. The calibre was so high that we never bothered to learn to criticize. We suffer these days for precisely these reasons.
Back in 1969, Clarence Campbell, president of the NHL, announced that, “Basically, hockey is one phase of the entertainment world.” Exactly. When the National Football League and the American Football League exploded through-
out the 1960s, beyond any one man’s scope, the television people were able to save it simply because to them it was entertainment. They picked games of importance to televise, rather than whatever game was handy. And just as the musician who sours on opening night is open to the knocks of the music critic, the slack football player was fair play to the sabres of the telecaster. Motives were questioned, laziness berated and tactical errors pointed out. Football benefited. Howard Cosell was born (“Ho, hum, Dandy Don. I will be most hap-py once this hamrdly piquant match has entered its welldeserved denouement”). The chessman’s approach to watching football looks aristocratic when compared to the gee-whiz attitude of the hockey observer.
Hockey Night In Canada, now one of this country’s depressed areas, is little more than a ticker-tape parade of cliché praise. The commentary is milquetoast at best; criticism is an unwelcome between-period guest, and the chance of there being any credible analysis attempted during the actual playby-play is even more remote.
The Canadian hockey fan is a connoisseur without help, not even the isolated camera — widely used in football — which used in a hockey rink could show one player performing exclusive of the other action that takes place on the ice. Such a camera would offer the viewer glimpses into the less understood aspects of the game, such as the importance of instinct (if you’ve got to think about it then it’s too late to do it) and that the puck is often to the hockey player what the spotlight is to the chorus girl.
With few exceptions, the standards of the hockey commentator are usually less than those of the fan. Globe and Mail
sports columnist Dick Beddoes described the problem to the Davey commission on the mass media this way: “The profession is still burdened with hacks who make tin-can gods out of cast-iron jerks.” A fan tunes in to the game to see it, not hear it; the sports pages for the most part offer a statistical recount of what the fan saw, not the analysis. “Sports writing and commentary is largely PR work,” says “retired” NHL goalie Ken Dryden, “and there’s very little attempt made to look at it critically. Hockey is entertainment first of all for the participant, then for the spectators. But there’s no reason why they can’t be ‘reviewing’ sports, same as any other entertainment.” The fan gets continually shortchanged. Most commentators don’t even recognize a trend when they see it. Alterations in style of play mean changes in entertainment value. One such trend surfaced last year and got next to no notice. But the fans were well aware that the superstar of the Seventies was likely to be playing centre ice, whereas a decade ago — with the exception of Stan Mikita and Jean Béliveau — he played on the wings. This has come about through the newfound sluggishness in the game, and those who can skate and hustle are taking advantage of the position that carries the least restrictions of movement. Yesterday’s hero rode up and down the ice on right or left wing, waiting for the fast break or chancing a long shot from an angle. Today’s hero uses the flexibility of his position to cash in on the chaos that builds around net scrambles. Last year, the two top scorers in both leagues played centre (the NHL’s Phil Esposito and Bobby Clarke, the WHA’s André Lacroix and Ron Ward). And the list of other centres reads like the who’s who of Superstardom - Marcel Dionne, Gilbert Perreault, / continued on page 78
continued on page 78
TOASTING THE STARS
Someone once said hockey was a combination of ballet and bullfighting. The individual is the celebration. Like Bobby Orr, where the grace and timing of a Nureyev rides tandem with the bloodlust and pride of the matador. He is one athlete whose moments of glory are not mummified in statistics; people remember his moves as well as his records.
In the semifinal Stanley Cup series in 1972 against the New York Rangers, the puck burped out of a crease scramble and back to Orr on the right point. Rangers’ Bruce MacGregor was in position to sweep the puck away for a clear break, but Orr threaded the puck from the tip of his stick to between his own skates, pirouetted as he shifted and faked once with his head as MacGregor went floundering by. Had he been fighting bulls, Orr would have just completed a perfect veronica.
Hockey is a game of heroes and villains. We best know the heroes, such players as Orr, Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Frank Mahovlich, Gilbert Perreault, Dave Keon, J. C. Tremblay, Bobby Clarke, Tony and Phil Esposito, Serge Savard and a few others. Commentators would have you believe that heroes alone are what attracts the viewers to hockey, that a good, warm feeling is the only sensation the fan craves. Yet a bad feeling can be as commanding as a good one, and a combination of the two is unbeatable. Yvan Cournoyer, for instance, had people in the same room cursing and cheering last spring when he set a new record for Stanley Cup goals. Cournoyer is an elfish, chip-on-the-shoulder explosion, an arrogant and incredibly swift right winger with a prestissimo knack for scoring. (“He’s like the wild pitcher in baseball,” says Ken Dry-
den, who has faced Cournoyer during Montreal Canadiens’ practices, “most disconcerting.”) Love him, hate him, your eyes can’t leave him. The emotion of dislike can be as attractive as any sense of affection.
Be cautioned that “entertainment value” is not just a cute euphemism for “winners.” Dave Schultz of the Philadelphia Flyers, a very poor hockey player (9 goals and 12 assists last season), is nonetheless worth watching. Schultz is, as they say, an animal, a player with killer instincts (more than four hours in the penalty box last year). His haters are legion, and what small following he does have show their allegiance to him by turning out in Nazi war helmets, with SCHULTZ emblazoned across the brow. He’s like a beer-hall bully, worth watching because of what might happen if you don’t.
The celebration of the individual is even more crucial to followers of the WHA, since there is no team like the Montreal Canadiens to fire the imagination with an excitement equivalent to that created by the best individual stars. But no one needs to be reminded how captivating it is to watch Winnipeg Jets’ Bobby Hull bazooka a shot from just over centre ice, or J. C. Tremblay of the Quebec Nordiques knit a tapestry of defensive moves that challenge description. Yet there are stars in the WHA who came of age there, and are virtually unknown to fans with access only to the NHL: Ron Ward, André Lacroix, Danny Lawson, Paul Shmyr, Tom Webster and Wayne Carleton. There is no law that requires a player to mature only in the National Hockey League, much to Clarence Campbell’s chagrin.
GETTING IT TOGETHER
As the season wears on, the emphasis on the individual is somewhat shifted to the teams. Not necessarily because the fan wants a winner, but because the team takes on many of the elusive qualities that combine to make up an entertainer. The team becomes an individual.
The Montreal Canadiens, a winning team, is also a team with character, and first-class entertainment whether the emotion aroused be hate or love. The individual stars admittedly play a major role, but there is much more to it than that, much more even than the fact that the team has won the Stanley Cup 11 times in the past 18 years. The appeal of the Canadiens ranges from tradition (a Richard has worn a Montreal uniform for 32 straight years) to faith in the future (the farm team down in Halifax might beat the lowliest two NHL teams and perhaps four WHA teams, meaning every time the Canadiens ice a rookie it’s an added entertainment bonus). It is perhaps the only team ever to demote coaches who win Stanley Cups (Claude Ruel in 1969 and AÍ MacNeil in 1971). There is the diabolical subplot of the wheeling and dealing Sam Pollock. Legal but lethal. There’s the drifting threat of Frank Mahovlich, smooth and fluid, contrasting sharply with the gyroscope windings of Serge Savard as he circles in the corners. There’s the Gallic temper, and the continuing romance between the team and Montreal crowds. It’s a dream team, sullied only in that the NHL through expansion and folly has deprived it of any worthwhile competition. The fan has probably never seen the current Canadiens play up to their potential — it just hasn’t been necessary. It will soon be 12 Stanley Cups in 19 years.
An NHL team that is essentially the opposite of Montreal as far as finesse goes but essentially its equal in entertainment value is the Philadelphia Flyers. It is a team marketing an image. And it works. Since the individuals have much to do with the appeal of the overall team, it might be said that no team in hockey has as many entertainers as does Philadelphia, from angelic Bobby Clarke to caveman Dave Schultz. There’s also Bill “Cowboy” Flett, the first player in pro hockey to sport shoulder-length hair and a full beard; Rick MacLeish, a cranky centre who scored 50 goals in his first full season in the NHL; and enough assorted toughies to make the team known around the league as the Broad Street Bullies. Last year Philadelphia compiled more penalties (1,756 minutes) than any team had in the history of big-league hockey. They appeal to chippy crowds, showboat crowds and even superstitious crowds — to stop a losing streak they play Kate Smith’s God Bless America before the game. And it usually works.
The teams of the WHA have nothing to compare with Montreal Canadiens, but there are gems within the rough, teams like the New England Whalers. AÍ Smith in goal and Brad Selwod, Jim Dorey, Rick Ley and Ted Green combine to give the Whalers a depth beyond many NHL teams. But they will have trouble this season stealing the spotlight from the Houston Aeros. The team will present hockey with its finest hour, the only chance the fan will ever have to see Gordie Howe, the best performer of the NHL’s better days, play alongside Mark Howe, one of the best performers to play in whatever future hockey will be able to salvage for itself. ■
"A separate standard was used for the WHA. It could be roughly figured that the New England Whalers would score around 60 if the NHL standard were invoked.
HOCKEY from page 33
Jacques Lemaire, Syl Apps Jr., Dave Keon, Walt Tkaczuk, Jean Ratelle, Darryl Sittler, Garry Unger, Mikita, Larry Pleau, Tommy Williams, Jim Harrison. Chicago Black Hawks’ first move on acquiring Dale Talion from Vancouver this summer was to announce he would no longer play any defense, but centre ice exclusively — perhaps to see if he can live up to the position.
That television has never pounced on the scent of new trends has been to the medium’s everlasting discredit. The fan loses confidence and the commentators are usually treated as parodies by the more knowledgeable fans. It’s a little like having Walter Winchell narrate a movie like The French Connection. More a distraction than a service.
There is perhaps both irony and retribution in the fact that television provided hockey with the impetus to expand, fishing for lucrative advertising markets to the south. “The price for television was expansion,” wrote Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane in their book, The Death Of Hockey, “and expansion has done more to damage the game than anything else.”
How very sad . . . how very true.
Detractors of contact sports such as hockey and football call the games “lower forms of entertainment.” In the lower forms of life in the animal world, there is a peculiar disease that afflicts one-celled creatures, making them victims of their own compulsion to grow. A flaw develops within, and the digestive forces are unable to differentiate between food and the creature’s own body. It consumes itself. Autolysis.
Still, I’m not convinced autolysis has set in irrevocably on the NHL. Expansion is the potential flaw, but not simply due to a thinning out of available talent. There’s room in North America for many more teams than the old standard half dozen. Expansion would have worked had the teams been made equal partners in a new enterprise, not kittens invited to come and tussle with the lions. Twenty-four teams by 1980 is the current long-range forecast of the National Hockey League, and this is frightening if only because the present setup allows the poor teams to sell or trade their future opportunities in the junior draft. Had a rule forbidding the exchange of draft choices been instituted immediately in 1967, when the NHL began drafting juniors at age 20, all today’s troubles might have been avoided.
Sam (“a deal you can’t refuse”) Pollock, the general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, has been the brightest exploiter of this basic flaw. Montreal, with the league’s finest farm system, has players sitting on the bench who would be playing regularly for any other team
continued on page 80
HOCKEY continued in the league. Expendable talent. And Godfather Sam uses this excess talent to barter future draft choices away from the lesser teams. His logic is simple: offer a very good, active NHL player to a losing team in exchange for superb upcoming draft choices. The down-in-thedumps team wants winners today, and Pollock gives them some slight hope for the time being, though in the long run Sam gains a near monopoly on upcoming talent. He has owned the first draft choice of the California Golden Seals for several years running. Back in 1971, realizing it would be to his advantage to have the Seals finish last again, so he could get first crack at Guy Lafleur, the top junior of the year, Pollock practically gave star centreman Ralph Backstrom to the Los Angeles Kings. Backstrom was aging, and expendable, but he pulled the Kings just above the Seals, making sure Lafleur fell prey to the Canadiens. At last June’s junior draft, Sam had manoeuvred his way into owning seven of the first 20 draft selections. Had the no-trade rule been in force, Montreal would have qualified for only one of the top 20, plenty enough for a powerhouse like the Canadiens.
But Pollock had become too powerful by this summer, and things began backfiring on him — through no fault of the NHL, by the way. Graduating juniors began to realize what it meant to be picked up by Sam and the Canadiens: a year or so in the minors, a few years warming benches and then perhaps a chance. With other teams the chance to play regularly was guaranteed. Brilliant rookie Peter Marrin of last year’s Toronto Marlboros elected to abandon Sam, who’d grabbed Marrin as his second choice, and instead went to the Toronto Toros of the WHA. Pollock has worked within the rules; but when such rules exist, and they are used in such a way, it can only lead to the undermining of the whole league.
That a more balanced league is possible is shown in the success this past year of the World Hockey Association. Back in 1971, two brainy and welltanned gamblers out of California, Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, proposed a new league entirely, one that would deliberately set out to establish balanced teams. In the fall of 1972, in the same month that one of the NHL’s two new franchises, the New York Islanders, began their first season, so also did the New York Raiders and 11 other teams of Murphy’s and Davidson’s new World Hockey Association.
The Islanders were a pathetic team, winning only 12 of 78 games, and for that privilege owner Roy Boe paid six million dollars to the NHL, plus a five million dollar “gesture” to the NHL’s New York Rangers, simply for infringing upon their grounds. It cost Boe $11
million to ice a team made up of players who all together scored only as many goals in their last NHL season as had Boston’s Phil Esposito (66).
Boe paid 440 times what it cost Dick Wood, president of the New York Raiders, to join the WHA ($25,000). They got virtually the same team, since both finished last in their divisions. And in the long run, the Raiders (now called the Golden Blades) probably have just as good a chance of surviving as a big league franchise as do the Islanders.
According to Mike “Shakey” Walton, the hyper ex-Boston Bruin, the players in the NHL stopped thinking of the WHA as a passing fad by last Christmas. Crowds were turning out. The brand of hockey wasn’t that much below NHL hockey. The pay was nothing if not incredible. And the players who had jumped were saying they liked it. The WHA was here, solid and to stay, no longer looming in the distance solely as a frozen pasture for old men or a fantasy for young talents who couldn’t cut the big time. The World Hockey Association became a workable alternative, a Way Out. Walton, a young player good enough to have made the old six-team NHL, had no qualms about deserting what he calls the “prestige league.” Minnesota Fighting Saints of the WHA will pay Walton about $500,000 over the next three years. “I felt I had to do the best for myself and my family.”
Of all competing leagues begun in various sports over the past several years, the World Hockey Association has gained credibility the quickest. In one year the new league went from neovaudeville (in their first draft they claimed 1,082 players, from the top stars of the NHL to Wendell Anderson, the Governor of Minnesota) to an established league with the gall to inform the NHL that should a merger ever come about the WHA would come as an equal partner or not at all. From the inaugural games on October 11, where the matches were worth noting more for the lack of crowds than for the calibre of hockey, the league by the closing months of the 1972-73 season was averaging 6,000 spectators a game. The Minnesota Fighting Saints appeared to be the best franchise, averaging close to 8,000 a game. So successful were they that in the summer they announced they would bid against Boston Bruins in 1976 for the services of Bobby Orr. His tenure with Boston is up that year, and he would be free to jump leagues providing merger hasn’t come about by then.
What blemishes there were didn’t frighten, and they looked as if they would clear up in time. The Ottawa Nationals fizzled, and they drifted off to become the Toronto Toros. The Philadelphia Blazers were unable to compete
continued on page 82
HOCKEY continued with the Philadelphia Flyers of the NHL and they moved the franchise to Vancouver, where it probably always should have been anyway. The Winnipeg Jets, which should have been the strongest franchise with Bobby Hull coaching and playing, weren’t. And Hull warned that the “tough audience” may soon drive the team to a new city. The New York Raiders decided to change their name to the New York Golden Blades, but this was done less to begin again with a new slate than to avoid the natural confusion of fans when they found Madison Square Garden hosted two professional
teams, the Raiders and the Rangers.
On the balance sheet, more success than failure.
The story that explains the drastic change from the drafting of Governor Wendell Anderson in 1972 and the 6,000 spectators in 1973 can be told in two words: Bobby Hull. And Hull himself breaks down handily into three words: talent, gr eed, ego. The first brought him the offer ($2.75 million over 10 years from Winnipeg Jets); the second took it; and the third made sure he didn’t cop out (the walking ad agency bloody well played to win). “Hull made all the dif-
ference,” says Mike Walton.
Apart from Hull, there were six other name players landed by the WHA before the league actually got under way: Bernie Parent left the Toronto Maple Leafs; J. C. Tremblay left the Montreal Canadiens; and Boston Bruins gave up Gerry Cheevers, Ted Green, Johnny McKenzie and Derek Sanderson. Parent and Sanderson proved embarrassing and won’t be there this season, but the others went to stay. And there were many more who followed . . .
Back when Eaton’s were first setting up Gordie Howe as a front man for their line of sporting equipment, I was working as summer help for the store in a small town that catered to tourists. The boys at head office sent up great, clumsy rolls of stickers that blared out APPROVED BY GORDIE HOWE. The instructions were simple: slap them on anything that has anything at all to do with fresh air or higher pulse rates. I thought back to those stickers last June when Gordie flushed away 27 years with the Detroit Red Wing organization, pocketed one million dollars from the Houston Aeros’ vaults and left for the WHA to join his sons, Mark and Marty. Had I kept one, I could have sent it to Gary Davidson. He might have appreciated it.
The summer of ’73 saw the WHA shed puberty. The Chicago Cougars picked up Pat Stapleton, who with Bill White had once given the NHL’s Chicago Black Hawks the best defensive unit in hockey. Ralph Backstrom followed suit, as did Darryl Maggs. Harry Howell, at 40, set his wheelchair for the New York Golden Blades, forsaking the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings. Jacques Plante, the 44-year-old Merlin behind
continued on page 84
HOCKEY continued the mask, once hailed as the antidote to Boston Bruins’ goaltending troubles, jilted them for Quebec Nordiques, and he convinced Serge Bernier of the LA Kings to join him. Dale Hoganson and Rejean Houle left Montreal Canadiens for Plante’s new team, the Nordiques. François Rochon, the number four draft choice of the Toronto Maple Leafs, jumped to Chicago Cougars (Bernie GeofTrion, coach of the NHL’s Atlanta Flames, has said Rochon might turn out to be a major surprise as a big league player). Carl Brewer, a literate and calculating defenseman of the past, returned to pro hockey with the Toronto Toros of the WHA, and the Toros also picked up prize rookies Peter Marrin and Pat Hickey. Marc Tardif, when he signed a three-year $350,000 contract with the Los Angeles Sharks of the WHA, proved, as did Mike Walton, that even the young and proven talents couldn’t be expected to stay with the NHL. At 24, Tardif had already shown he could star for Montreal Canadiens, the very best team in hockey. By summer’s end a total of 26 players had now left the NHL for the WHA.
The WHA was also able to get the jump on the NHL when it came to signing brilliant young players old enough to vote and drink but not old enough to play professional hockey in the NHL. In an agreement between the federal government, Canadian Amateur Hockey Association and the NHL that went back to 1967. it became illegal for any team to employ a player under age 20, the last year a player is eligible for junior hockey. The purpose then was to bring an end to the control individual teams were exerting over players too young to decide for themselves (Bobby Orr had been under contract to the Boston Bruins since he was 14). It was also to encourage young players to continue their education, but this was a contention that had been building throughout the early Sixties when under the old six-team NHL a player could count on making only about $10,000 a year, hardly enough to ensure that he’d never need to work again once his playing days had come to an end.
But by the time the WHA came into existence the theory of the 1967 agreement was disputable. Education was not what it had once been. No longer could a good future be guaranteed by a degree, and besides what possible university education could ever guarantee anyone the type of money a top young hockey player could get? So the undertwenties started jumping to the WHA, which had never been a partner to the 1967 agreement. Gordie Howe’s sons, Mark and Marty, led the way, taking a rumored $100,000 a year each to play for Houston Aeros. Tom Edur, like the Howes a Toronto Marlboro, signed with
Cleveland Crusaders. Another Marlie, Wayne Dillon, signed with the Toronto Toros. Dennis Sobchuk of Regina Pats signed with a WHA team in Cincinnati, a team that won’t even begin to operate until the WHA expands in 1974-75. Blair McDonald of the Cornwall Royals joined the WHA’s Alberta Oilers.
The NHL panicked. In August it was announced that the 1967 agreement, which had lapsed in June, would not be renewed, and that the NHL teams themselves would begin to negotiate with players 18 and 19 years of age.
Junior hockey will become a casualty of the total war NHL president Clarence Campbell will wage on the WHA. He talks openly of “financial clout” and he predicts victory in as little as two years. He’s working for the warlords of the NHL, the owners — 15 of next year’s 18 teams will be American based — who have no desire to see their valued “reserve clause” die. The WHA has no such weapon, and it is for this reason that most players would like to see a merger come about as long as the newly created league banned the reserve clause. But the NHL owners treasure their clause; it forces a player whose contract has expired to renegotiate a new one only with the team that “owns” him. The reserve clause is the owners’ means of forcing serfdom on the players, and Clarence is out to see they don’t give it up easily.
NHL players who left for the WHA, however, didn’t do so because they wanted to escape the reserve clause. They did it mostly because the new league quickly became a workable alternative, a lucrative way out for players not happy with playing conditions, money, or both.
The WHA is brash enough to experiment with new concepts. They toyed with the idea of having goals scored in the final two minutes count twice, and at one time bright red pucks were slated for use. Neither came about, but one thing that did succeed was their deliberate approach to creating more balanced teams. Also, they intentionally tried to revive the intangible value of team rivalries by breaking the 12 teams into two groups and setting each team up with a natural rival within its own group. Toronto Toros have Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg has Edmonton, Chicago and Cleveland, and so on. An extra two games are added to each rivalry so they meet 10 times over the season, other teams within the division they meet eight times, and the teams in the other division are played only six times. It’s an attempt to get back to some of the lost fortunes of pre-1967 hockey.
And, it seems, it took the success of the rivalry system in the WHA to get the NHL to convert to a better system. Starting with the 1974-75 season, the time when two new franchises begin in
Washington and Kansas City, the league will be rearranged into four sections. Of the then 18 teams, 12 will qualify for the play-offs, and this hopefully will put some of the competition back in the league — competition that has been missing due to the wide disparity between the best teams, which traditionally make the play-offs, and the secondrate teams, which never make the playoffs. It is a desperate attempt to recreate the NHL’s golden age of rivalries.
The WHA also incorporated new rules designed to quicken the pace of the game. Nothing more boring exists in
hockey than those moments when a team is a man short and continually ices the puck, throwing it down the ice to the other end for a break. In the WHA the teams can’t do it unless they have first carried it out of their own end past their blue line, making it much more difficult to stall the game. They’ve also jazzed the game up by allowing a puck shot over two lines to precede a player across the centre ice line and still be in play (in the NHL it is called back as a two-line pass) thus opening up the possibilities for many more breakaways.
continued on page 86
Then there is the overtime rule. When a game ends in a tie it isn’t simply recorded in the books, as in the NHL. Instead, the WHA teams play a 10-minute period of sudden death overtime, meaning the first team to score wins. If no one scores, then the game is judged a tie. This has been a delight to the new league. People are staying in their seats longer, the players aren’t slacking off in the last few minutes, playing cautiously to preserve a tie, and there are few things more exciting in sports than sudden death hockey. Last season 64 of the scheduled 468 games went into overtime and 45 were settled. The NHL had 87 games last year that ended in ties, and were left that way. The NHL philosophy through the years has been that a tie on the road is as good as a win at home, and the players are settling for less of a game; the fans get stuck with the players’ lack of hustle. Ironically, the NHL once employed this rule but gave it up during World War II, when train service was more restrictive and you either made your train or waited a full day. It often seems as if the league stopped thinking ahead in those years, as if all the future held was ample opportunity to reflect upon the past.
Had the NHL used foresight, the WHA might never have come about. The errors of the old league created the opening for a new one, and one’s nightmare became the other’s dream. The WHA is now a fixture, so much so that many teams in the NHL would be hard pressed to defeat the top WHA teams. “Hell, we could spot the California Golden Seals goals and still beat ’em,” boasts Buck Houle, general manager of the Toronto Toros, not the WHA’s top team. And Houle claims there are teams in his league that could beat the NHL’s New York Islanders, Atlanta Flames, St. Louis Blues and Pittsburgh Penguins any day. All that within one year.
Nevertheless, the NHL remains the league, several notches above the WHA in terms of talent and prestige. But permanence in entertainment is fleeting. The WHA after one year was as close as predictions had said the league might be
after five, if it survived. And next year it will be closer. The owners of both leagues are already tiring of paying such phenomenal salaries to athletes (average yearly pay in the NHL is around $44,000 and in the WHA it is thought to be $30,000) and, unless the players’ association can use the antitrust laws and court rulings to stop it, there will eventually be a merger. Bobby Hull has already spoken in favor of it, but his reasons are obvious — he’s made his bundle and he now works as a front man for the WHA owners. Clarence Campbell says it will never come about, that the NHL will deal the death blow to the WHA before merger is necessary. Mike Walton, entering his first year in the WHA, expects merger to come within two years, and Buck Houle of the Toronto Toros WHA entry says it would be no shock to him if it came about in a year. Ken Dryden, the NHL’s prima goaltender prior to his premature “retirement” in September of this year, says merger may come about through Player Power. It’ll happen because the players will eventually see that merger would be to their benefit. “The players are looking for a measure of freedom within their league or in respect to other leagues,” he says. “Any merger that would provide for that is probably acceptable. The key issue is going to be the absence of the reserve clause.”
The NHL is the league only when stacked up against the WHA. The hockey fan believes the league in terms of the game itself has yet to be formed, for neither of the two we now have do the potential of the game justice.
NHL president Clarence Campbell is reported to have once told Ben Hatskin that it would take seven million dollars to bring big league hockey to Winnipeg. The WHA brought it to Hatskin for $25,000. That left a lot of spare change around that could be used blazing a trail north from Chicago, a trail Bobby Hull would be sure of following. It was a trail cleared by the NHL itself. Greed works in mysterious ways.
The years since 1967 have not been kind to hockey. Expansion flopped. The NHL junior draft became the court jester of a falling kingdom. Television copped out. The WHA struck hard, and hurt. The years to come offer no miracle short of merger and a total reappraisal of where hockey’s going and how it’s going to get there.
The Canadian hockey fan is a diehard, and not about to let the final childhood dream pass on without a struggle. The fan is no fool. He knows that in the end the entertainment value of a professional sport answers only to its audience. He’s waited seven years now for this answer. And he’s getting impatient. ■