The temperature reached 100° on both days of that mid-October weekend in southern California—not exactly the kind of weather that sends people out looking for ice hockey games to watch. The local sports scene was dominated by three winning football teams, USC, UCLA and the Rams. The Los Angeles Kings could hardly have found a less propitious time for their entrance into the National Hockey League; and the site of their debut—a temporary home rink down in Long Beach—seemed just as unfavorable. The team that was a near-unanimous choice for last place in the expansion division of the NHL appeared likely to begin its long season in solitude.
Yet the Kings drew a surprising crowd of 7,035 to their Saturday night opener, and managed to get 4,289 the next night even though two of the main freeways to Long Beach were accident-clogged. The Kings' play was even more startling. They beat both Philadelphia and Minnesota, and they did it without using the only legitimate major league veteran on the squad, injured Goalie Terry Sawchuk. Just six weeks after he took over a training camp squad made up of 72 largely unknown minor leaguers plus Sawchuk, rookie Coach Red Kelly had produced a club about as good—and certainly as enthusiastic—as any of the new entries in the league.
The Kings have set the tone for what undoubtedly will be the most exciting year in the history of big-league hockey. The NHL's dramatic expansion from six teams to 12—an effort to make Canada's national sport a coast-to-coast American enterprise as well—has changed the entire character of the game. Although it will take several years before the new clubs can match the old ones in talent, and it could take even longer before some of them draw the kind of crowds the established teams get, at this early stage one thing is clear: expansion has brought a welcome unpredictability to the NHL.
In the past big-league hockey was a tight little business controlled by a few powerful men. Elaborate farm systems and archaic draft regulations made it possible for strong organizations to lock up most of the talented players in Canada when they were about 16 and keep them as long as necessary. A team like the Montreal Canadiens could control so many young players that it always had ample replacements for anyone who retired or got hurt. So the good teams would remain good and the bad teams would remain bad for years at a time, and only a painstaking renovation of an entire network of scouts and farm teams could slowly breathe life into a weak club.
Now, with the possible, and temporary, exception of the Canadiens themselves, all that has changed. The available talent must be spread 12 ways instead of six, and the rules for drafting young players have been written to give every team a better chance. The result is that no club can establish the kind of depth that guarantees year after year of unchallenged success. A weak club can improve very fast by adding a few important men, and even a very good team can fall apart by losing some key men, because players will be harder to replace.
This fall's most striking example of the new look in the NHL is the sudden disaster that has befallen the Chicago Black Hawks. Last year the Hawks ran away with the league title; this season they lost their first six games. The Hawks, a balanced club last season, simply found that the depth was gone, and the balance with it. They lost Goalie Glenn Hall and the good Defenseman Ed Van Impe in the expansion draft. To bolster the defense they traded several competent forwards to Boston for Gilles Marotte—and found themselves left with only one first-rate center and a very weak third line. Crippling injuries, illnesses and a salary holdout by the remaining goalie, Denis DeJordy, compounded their troubles. Bobby Hull, scoring nine goals in nine games, strove mightily to carry the club alone, but no one can do that in the NHL. In their sixth game the Hawks suffered the major humiliation of the early season by losing to Los Angeles on their own Chicago Stadium ice. They had already lost to Pittsburgh on the road.
Of course, the Hawks will get much better when stars like Stan Mikita and Doug Mohns are healthy, and they will undoubtedly be contenders. But the point is that they will not dominate the league again. Nobody will. A few purists in Canada complain bitterly that expansion has hurt the overall quality of NHL play—and it has to some degree. But, more important, it has given the league, which too often has lacked even one close race involving several teams, the prospect of two such races this season.
The Western Division, made up of the six new clubs, obviously will be weaker than the Eastern—but not nearly as inferior as it appeared to be after the June draft meetings. The new teams were able to get good goalies and a number of solid defenders, but few top scorers. The ones they have only recently have been thrown together on new lines; it will take months before these lines can possibly function as smoothly as the best ones in the NHL. As a result, many games between the expansion teams will have low scores, and there may be an unusual number of ties.
But the new clubs have already shown that they can partly compensate for lack of finesse with enthusiasm and hustle. The players are minor leaguers who have never quite made it, NHL players cast off by their teams or kids eager to become stars. All are fighting to prove something, and many are fighting for their jobs. They make few accurate passes or classic plays but, even when far ahead or hopelessly behind, they never stop skating and checking. They are not going to lose a lot of 8-1 games to the older teams, and they should win a fair number of the 24 games each new club will play against the East.
"There's still a big difference between the divisions," says Red Sullivan, coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who narrowly missed tying Montreal in the opening game. "I'd say we're still four or five top players short of the old teams, and it may take a long time to get those players. But we'll certainly beat any team in the old division that takes us too lightly."
The owners of the new teams are gambling that the fans will not take them lightly. The six clubs have spent an estimated $65 million on franchise fees, stadiums and major and minor league players. The players' salary demands were not modest. Fringe players from the old clubs suddenly wanted to be paid like stars. Holdouts were common in both divisions—veterans on the older clubs were not about to be left out of the bonanza—and hockey players are perhaps paid more now in relation to their accomplishments than any other team athletes. "I didn't think we drafted any superstars until I got to the bargaining table," said Bill Putnam, president of the Philadelphia Flyers. "Some of the guys were asking 140% raises. We'll be paying over $300,000 to our players. The same men earned less than $150,000 last year."
All the new clubs will play in bright arenas that make places like the Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium seem more antiquated than ever. Minnesota and Philadelphia have opened in new stadiums, and Jack Kent Cooke's dazzling Forum in Los Angeles will be ready by January 1st. The rinks in Oakland, Pittsburgh and St. Louis are also modern, pleasant ones that should help the NHL sell its desired "image" as the "in" sport for wealthy businessmen who demand comfort and luxury. So far the only eyesores in these stadiums have been large, glistening blocks of empty seats. The biggest disappointment came when Los Angeles played the California Seals in Oakland in what was hailed as the start of a rivalry to match the Dodgers-Giants and Rams-49ers games. It drew 3,419 people.
Right now only Minnesota, which is in a real hockey area, and Los Angeles, which has the flamboyant Cooke and his Forum, look absolutely certain to succeed financially. St. Louis also seems a good bet, and Pittsburgh may be all right despite some disquieting rumors. The Philadelphia franchise appears to be a little shaky, and the Seals clearly will have to recruit some hockey fans in Oakland, since smug San Franciscans have always refused to cross the bridge and venture as far into the provinces as the nearby Coliseum. But all the owners are optimistic, claiming they need only a few seasons to "educate" new fans.
The Flyers could overcome many problems simply by winning, and they are the team most likely to do so in the evenly matched West. Van Impe would have been Rookie of the Year with Chicago if he had not arrived in the same season as Bobby Orr. In Boston, Joe Watson looked better than the flashier Marotte at times. He will join Van Impe in leading what may be the second-best defense in the division. The goalie is 22-year-old Doug Favell, who beat out the highly regarded Bernie Parent for the job and may become a big star.
The Flyers' attack is sporadic, but it is also young and capable of improving sharply. The key to it is Brit Selby, 22, who was the NHL's top rookie two years ago with Toronto. Last fall he came to camp overweight, was sent to the minors and then broke a leg. Punch Imlach hated to lose him in the draft, and Selby could become the kind of high scorer who can pick up a whole team. The average age of the Flyers is 26. Over the grueling 74-game season they are a good bet to persevere and win.
Pittsburgh has the best new offensive team, led by the experienced and much-traveled big-leaguers Ab McDonald and Andy Bathgate. Bathgate, one of the alltime NHL scoring leaders, is playing like a kid again and should lead all division scorers if he avoids injury. "Andy had announced his retirement, but I knew he still loved the game," said Sullivan. "I knew he'd come back. And I told him, 'Look, I don't want you coming to practice with the Wall Street Journal or the Racing Form, or I'll fire you. You play hockey now, and that's all.' " Among the Penguins Bathgate is a hero, and he is rising to the role.
The Pittsburgh defense is weak, but the goaltending looks surprisingly good. While neither Hank Bassen nor Les Binkley is too durable, they could complement one another well over the season.
California has the best defense in the division, headed by Kent Douglas and Bobby Baun, both tough and both overjoyed at their escape from the Maple Leafs. Douglas didn't like the hard practices in Toronto; Baun didn't like his salary, or Punch Imlach. The Seals work even harder under Bert Olmstead—"He makes Punch's practices look like nursery school," says Baun—but Douglas is accepting it and Baun loves it. "I feel like a young guy again," says Bobby, who is 31. "It's like starting all over—with the advantage of experience. I'm even learning new things, and I've regained the enthusiasm that I lost in Toronto." The Seals will also get good goaltending from Charlie Hodge, but they have very little offense. Bill Hicke, a failure at Montreal and New York, is finally scoring, but almost nobody else is. Olmstead, a fine checking wing himself, is emphasizing defense. He will have to find more scoring to finish higher than third.
Los Angeles will make the playoffs if Kelly can sustain the enthusiasm he generated in training camp. "They had to get in shape fast and work hard," says Red, "and I guess that shows in our fast start. They move, they don't give up. They want to show all those people who said they'd be so bad."
The Kings may also enjoy a unique form of home-ice advantage. Visiting hockey players who arrive in sunny southern California in midwinter and find swimming pools and girls in bathing suits have been known to forget what night the game is, or even how to play.
The Minnesota North Stars have a more normal home-ice edge—bigger crowds than anyone else. They also have an energetic manager-coach, Wren Blair, who is always looking for trades to strengthen his club. Unfortunately, Blair gave up a chance to get Claude Larose in the draft in order to deal with Montreal for more quantity, and thus hurt his offense. He has also traded the skilled Jean-Guy Talbot away for Bob McCord, a mediocre defenseman with a bad back. Most puzzling of all, he selected Cesare Maniago first in the draft, leaving himself with the weakest goaltending in the league.
There are six ex-Montreal players on the North Stars, including good ones like Dave Balon, Andre Boudrias and Mike McMahon. The team is fast and makes plays like a well-drilled unit, but Blair may have to make more trades.
The St. Louis Blues have the best goalie in all hockey, Glenn Hall. But Hall, 36, only played 32 games last year for Chicago. The Blues will be in trouble if he is injured or becomes exhausted, and since he is being asked to carry the club, Glenn could get pretty tired. His backup man is Seth Martin, the world's oldest rookie at 34.
Veterans Ron Stewart, Jim Roberts and Don McKenney are competent forwards, and newcomers Ron Schock and Larry Keenan arc promising. But the St. Louis forwards have shown a tendency to get in one another's way. Venerable minor leaguer Al Arbour heads a modest defense that features brawling Bob Plager. Bob punches like Sonny Liston but sometimes skates like him, too. A great year from Hall could make the team a contender; anything else will be disastrous. Lynn Patrick, the manager-coach, presided over a long run of solid losers in Boston. He may be starting a new one in St. Louis.
The older teams begin the season with much the same personnel that finished out the last season. The difference is in the depth. The teams with the best remaining reserves—and the fewest injuries—will be the most improved. Montreal should win. Toe Blake has largely the same club that finished second and went to the Stanley Cup finals last spring, and it would be hard to imagine the Canadiens suffering a series of injuries comparable to last season's.
Yvan Cournoyer, used mostly in attacking situations last season, now takes a full shift and is an early scoring sensation with nearly a goal-a-game average—and looks ready to become a superstar. Talented but moody Defenseman Jacques Laperriere is hitting harder. Jean Beliveau, plagued by injuries last year, will not be held to 12 goals this time around. And as usual, the team is sound down through the third line. "It's a funny thing," said Blake. "For years everybody has been saying that there aren't enough players to go around for 12 teams. Yet here we are—and we had better players in training camp than we ever had before."
Emile Francis of New York is in a similar position. Not only did he keep almost everyone out of the expansion draft—he actually gained by it, acquiring Larry Jeffrey in a post-draft deal with Pittsburgh. The Rangers also profit by the return of a healthy Jean Ratelle, the center who teams so well with high-scoring Wing Rod Gilbert. And with Ratelle back at his best, big Orland Kurtenbach moves down to give power and stability to the third line. The strong farm system that Francis has built virtually from scratch in the last three years also helps give the Rangers depth they have never enjoyed—and a chance for second place.
The Black Hawks have already spotted the leaders a lot of points. If all their stars return at once they can wipe out that margin in one dramatic winning streak. But any injury to Hull, Mikita, Kenny Wharram or Pierre Pilote would put them in trouble again. The Hawks leaned heavily on their nucleus of superstars for years—and never finished first. Last season they had balance and won easily; now they are back on the star system and may settle for third place.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, as usual, appear to have problems. With Sawchuk gone to Los Angeles they must depend on Johnny Bower, who will not play a full schedule at his age (which has been estimated as high as 48), and Bruce Gamble, who is inconsistent. The regular defense consists of three old men and a rookie named Duane Rupp. The forwards are young and talented, but once again the Leafs are rated the team most likely to drop out of the playoffs.
And once again Imlach will somehow get them there—probably by finishing fourth. Then Bower will suddenly be 21 again, and the old defensemen will come to life and the kids will show that they have finally come into their own. Old Punch will throw in his usual dash of profanity and psychology and come very close to stealing one more Stanley Cup.
Milt Schmidt, new general manager of the Boston Bruins, made the best trade of the season when he got Centers Phil Esposito and Freddie Stanfield and Wing Ken Hodge from Chicago. For the first time in years the Bruins have a potent offense. They also have Bobby Orr, the league's best offensive defenseman last year, who should be the best all-round defenseman with the experience he gained. If Schmidt can avoid the disputes that arose last year between management and players like Ted Green and Ed Johnston, he and young Coach Harry Sinden should have a club that can give Toronto a good fight for the last playoff spot.
In Detroit Sid Abel is using two rookies on defense and hopefully predicting that Goalie Roger Crozier can reverse the atrocious season he had in 1966-67—a doubtful proposition. Gary Bergman could duplicate his good second half of last year; Howie Young could be more consistent; the rookies could work out—and the Red Wing defense would then augment the good offense, and the club would make the playoffs. But this is a lot to ask, and, in addition, the offense may fall off a bit. Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio et al., are growing old very gracefully, but they are still growing old.
The NHL has adopted a fairly silly plan for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Each division will have its own four-team playoff, and then the two winners will meet, sometime around the middle of May, in what could be one of sport's most memorable anticlimaxes. Imagine, for instance, the Canadiens battling through brutal seven-game series with both Chicago and Toronto, and then heading off for Philadelphia or Pittsburgh to play a team they have beaten something like three out of four times? Sounds like a sad mismatch—almost as sad as it sounded last June when people talked about the first time the Los Angeles Kings had to play at Chicago.