Depending on where you sit, or skate, Bryan Watson, the scrappy young forward of the Detroit Red Wings, is either a living doll or a dirty dog. To the fans who flock to Olympia Stadium each week to see him play, Bryan can do no wrong. As far as his fellow Red Wings are concerned, the wrong Bryan does is strictly all right. But the players and fans in the five other NHL cities take a somewhat different view.
"He irritates me," is the way good-natured Bobby Hull of the Chicago Black Hawks puts it. "If you can't say something nice about a guy, keep your mouth shut," says Bobby's teammate Stan Mikita, doing just that. "No comment," says Chicago Coach Billy Reay.
The Black Hawks are extra touchy about Watson, because it was at their expense that this tempestuous young Red Wing first achieved his reputation as the No. 1 nuisance of the NHL. All through the season of 1965-1966 Bobby Hull, the toughest fighter, the highest scorer and the most spectacular all-round player in hockey today, had made pigeons of the Red Wings as he slammed the puck into net after net for a record 54 goals in a single season. Ten of those goals were scored against Detroit. By the time the two teams wound up matched against each other in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Detroit Coach Sid Abel had had enough of Hull. He called Watson over and gave him a terse order: get on Hull and stay there.
Bryan did. The result was that Hull scored only twice in six games, Detroit won four of them and Chicago took its customary postseason nose dive into obscurity. The mismatch triumph of 160-pound Watson over 195-pound Hull, coupled with the fact that Bryan somehow managed to score two goals himself while policing Bobby, gave the young Detroiter a season-end popularity rating exceeded only by that of Governor George Romney.
When, therefore, the current season started a few weeks ago at Olympia, with Chicago once again matched against the Wings, an opening-game-record 14,214 fans were there to see Bryan Watson climb on top of that famous No. 9 on Hull's back for another session of needling, prodding, cursing and provoking.
On that particular night Hull managed to pull up short at one crucial point when Watson was bearing down on him at top speed. To avoid crashing head first into the boards, Watson careened sharply, wrenched his left knee and was lost to the Wings for two weeks. The fortnight of comparative peace that followed gave all those concerned a chance to consider the phenomenon of Bryan Watson in an atmosphere of calm.
Watson's own point of view, expressed between mouthfuls of macaroni and cheese at the Detroit Press Club, is simple: "When I'm told to watch a guy, I watch him." That of the rest of the league is more complicated. The Red Wing management insists that Bryan is just doing his job and is no dirtier about it than any other hard-checking forward. The Black Hawks just as firmly insist that Watson's watchdog tactics, particularly toward Hull, are often besmirched by such fouls as tripping, hooking, slashing, spearing, boarding and cross-checking. As evidence they point to the fact that Watson was third in the league in penalties last year, amassing a total of 133 minutes in the box. Despite his two weeks' absence from the ice, Bryan already has managed to accumulate 29 minutes this season. Whatever his ethics, it is certain that Watson has made a deep impression and one that has some of the finest players in the NHL glancing nervously over their shoulders when they should be skating or shooting in confident security. As far as sheer skill is concerned, the consensus is that Bryan Watson is no more than a fringe player. Everyone agrees that his determination far outweighs his natural ability. But it is that determination—to hit and scrap, with no fear whatever of the consequences—that brought this youngster to the big league and makes him a valuable part of it.
"Watson has that will to win," says Montreal Coach Toe Blake, "and that goes a long way in hockey. He spruces up the players on his own team."
"He's a fighter," says Punch Imlach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "He hits hard and he can handle himself. He's the type that shakes you up, because he gets under your skin."
"Look," says Ken Hodge, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Hawk forward whose job it is to pry Watson off Hull's back whenever he gets on it, "you can't blame Watson for what he does. If a guy scores 54 goals, you've got to do something to try and stop him. You've got to give Watson credit. That's a pretty good chuck to chew, you know."
The effort shows. Bryan Watson's face is a mass of welts and bruises laced together by scars. A tussle with Hull in Chicago last week added 18 new stitches. The Watson countenance has been marred so often by fists, sticks and pucks that Watson would rather not talk about it. The nose is flat because it is all plastic, "and it still leaks." he says. The eyebrows are puffed, like Carmen Basilio's, and the teeth are a set he received in exchange for a slap shot caught flush in the uppers last year. When Watson walks into the Mayfair Restaurant, his favorite, those heads that don't snap up in recognition do so out of compassion. "I'd better get married soon," Bryan jokes, "before I get any uglier."
One thing he has gotten is quicker. Assailed recently by 6-foot, 185-pound Phil Esposito of the Hawks, Watson suddenly found himself spread flat on the ice, his face the painful recipient of stinging, gloveless right-hand blows. "So when he cocked the right again," remembers Bryan, "I ducked." Esposito's fist crashed into the ice, crushed a knuckle and put the attacker out for two games.
Provoking opponents into just such flare-ups is perhaps Bryan Watson's greatest skill. And he doesn't scrap with just anybody. All of his altercations have a touch of class to them, enough so that when Bryan heads for the penalty box he usually drags a Hull or a Richard or a Mikita along with him. Verbally, he can top them all. Recently, in a game in Detroit, Montreal's Canadiens had a two-man advantage and were pressing for an almost certain power-play goal. Suddenly, the puck eluded the Canadiens' Yvan Cournoyer, and the Wings cleared it from the danger zone. As the red-faced Frenchman skated past the Detroit bench, Watson leaned over and whispered a word of advice. Whatever it was, it made Cournoyer so mad that he slammed his stick against the boards near Watson and drew a two-minute penalty. The Montreal threat was over, and Coach Sid Abel couldn't keep from laughing.
The Detroit fans love Bryan Watson for what he is and what he does and for the obvious contributions he makes every night he plays, but it is doubtful that they cherish him as do the Red Wing players. Watson is a team favorite, particularly of 38-year-old Gordie Howe, whom he is constantly—and unsuccessfully—attempting to needle.
"Hey, Gordie," Watson will yell across the red-carpeted floor of the Detroit locker room at Olympia, "when you gonna hang 'em up and let some of us young guys play a while?" But Gordie responds with a look of mock disdain.
"Look at me when you speak, Mumbles," he will say, "so that I can read your lips." Then, feigning helplessness with his palms turned up, Howe will turn to Abel and say, "Sid, when you gonna schedule a few open dates so Bugsy here can rest his face?"
Mumbles, Blinky Jr., Spotty, Bolts, Bugsy, Wasp, Superpest—the nicknames are all there, but they mask a young man who is genuinely bright and plays the stooge role only by choice and because he is smart enough to handle it. He is tickled to death to be playing with players he read about as a boy in Bancroft, Ont. He is a student at Carleton University n Ottawa and is studying, among other subjects, psychology. His reading encompasses Jane Austen and T. S. Eliot. When not on the ice he is in constant demand for personal appearances and speaking engagements, which he handles like a professional. And, as you would expect of a 24-year-old big-leaguer who loves people, he is a soft touch for autograph seekers. Charging out the back door of the Detroit locker room, dressed in a sports jacket of gold-and-brown tweed, sharply tailored slacks and double-button boots, Watson is always the last Wing to reach the parking lot. When he does, he will pull down the brim of the black hat with the feather, climb into the 1964 white Pontiac that has been painted live times, stolen once and is affectionately nicknamed "White Charger," and head for the expressway that gets you fastest to the Roostertail, Lindell's AC, or the Red Carpet out on the east side.
Unless you happen to be playing across from him, it is not difficult at all to like Bryan Watson. On the ice, however, it is just as easy to hate him. As one opposing player put it: "He'll be all right as long as he realizes his capabilities. But don't forget, Bryan weighs only 160 pounds. If he's not careful, one of these days somebody is going to mash him up."