What’s the good word for National Hockey League followers this winter? Easy — hibernate.
Bad enough the NHL has expanded for the fourth time in nine years, tripling in size from six to 18 teams in the process. Bad enough that of the approximately 360 players wearing NHL uniforms this fall, some 240 of them — or two out of every three — would have been minor leaguers by the pre-expansion standards of less than a decade ago. Bad enough also the upstart World Hockey Association has further drastically diluted the product by luring away 100 more NHLers of dubious lineage to form 14 more so-called “major-league” teams of their own. And bad enough the three best junior prospects in the country — Dennis Sobchuk of Regina Pats, Jacques Locas of Quebec Remparts and Pat Price of the Saskatoon Blades —all spurned the once-prestigious NHL and signed for huge sums of money with the WHA for 1974-75.
But when you see what’s waiting just around the corner, even last winter will seem like the good old days. And the only recourse for NHL fans would seem to be some form of hibernation, which would obliterate this mushrooming blight on their intelligence. Is it really worth staying awake all winter to watch 18 NHL teams spend six months huffing and puffing through a 720-game schedule so that 12 of them can advance to the play-offs? I mean, does anyone really care which six don’t make it?
Of course not. And just in case you’re a light sleeper, the NHL mandarins have concocted a surefire seda-
tive guaranteed to keep you from fretting over who’s going to finish first or last in each division. They’ve scrapped the old two-division setup, and conveniently phased out those exhilarating tug-of-wars for first place between Montreal and Boston in the East division and Philadelphia and Chicago in the West. The NHL thinking seems to be why go through all that agony and suspense of generating traditional rivalries when you can give each of these four strong clubs a division of their very own, to win at their leisure?
A sixth-grader could look at the new alignments and in one minute tell you who’s going to finish first and last in each division this coming year. A look at the new divisions based on last year’s point totals (in brackets) makes it obvious.
Division 1: Philadelphia Flyers
(112 points); New York Rangers (94); Atlanta Flames (74); New York Islanders (56). The Flyers, reigning Stanley Cup champions, were last season 18 points better than New York Rangers, and since the champs are relatively intact while the Rangers will be enduring the agonies of rebuilding, Philly could easily breeze to a 30-point advantage in their division. An even surer thing will be the Islanders’ ability to finish last, thereby guaranteeing the other three teams play-off spots even before the actual season gets under way.
Division 2: Montreal Canadiens (99 points); Los Angeles Kings (78); Detroit Red Wings (68); Pittsburgh Penguins (65); Washington Capitals (new this year, so no points available). If the Canadiens can finish 21 points ahead of Los Angeles without Ken Dryden, they'll probably be upward of 35 points ahead with Dryden. Similarly, nobody is even going to come close to challenging Washington for the cellar. And if you happen to be a Montreal Forum season ticket holder, can you expect to get excited over such new “traditional” rivals as the Kings, Penguins, Red Wings and Capitals? Hardly.
Division 3: Chicago Black Hawks (105 points); St. Louis Blues (64); Minnesota North Stars (63); Vancouver Canucks (59); Kansas City Scouts (new, so no points available). Last year, Chicago finished 41 points ahead of St. Louis, so Black Hawk fans are going to have to get used to yawning this year. Since new entry Kansas City has a lock on last place, what else could there possibly be left to determine?
Division 4: Boston Bruins (113 points); Toronto Maple Leafs (86); Buffalo Sabres (76); California
Golden Seals (36). In this division, even Rip Van Winkle could go back to bed safe in the knowledge that if the Bruins finished 27 points ahead of Toronto last season, this time around they’ll do it in waltz tempo. But who cares? Buffalo and Toronto are guaranteed play-off spots anyway. All they have to do is finish ahead of the California team that was 40 points below Buffalo and 50 points below Toronto in 1973-74.
Tell me — does hibernation sound so farfetched now? You already know who is going to finish on top of each division. You know that only six teams are going to miss the play-offs and that four of them are Washington, Kansas City, the Islanders and the Seals. This means that the only element of uncertainty in that dreary six-month 720-game schedule will be determining who the fifth and sixth worst clubs in the league are.
Washington and Kansas City are so bad that it might be a good idea to spare their players humiliation in the forthcoming season by allowing them to wear unlisted numbers. The 48 players the two clubs drafted — at $250,000 per player — aren’t even vaguely recognizable in their own mirrors. The idea was to stock the new teams with existing NHLers drafted from other clubs, but 22 of the 44 players (four of the 48 were goaltenders) drafted failed to score one goal in the NHL last season. Mind you, several hit the post.
Washington’s “high scorer” in the draft was Denis Dupèré, who had only eight goals with Toronto last season. When Gordie Howe broke into the NHL as a raw 18-year-old, back in 1946, his forte was a rare ability to shoot with either hand. Nowadays, an
John Robertson is a sports columnist with the Montreal Star.
NHL prospect is considered a sure thing if he can skate with either foot.
The NHL will come to life in April as it always does, as Stanley Cup play-off fever abounds. But from October to March, better hibernate, or you’ll end up like me the day I walked up to the parking lot attendant near Maple Leaf Gardens and said: “How do you get away with charging $2.50 just to park for a hockey game?”
The attendant looked me squarely in the eye and answered, “Because asses like you pay it.”
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