The excuses are all there. Salary disputes and holdouts interfered with training camp. Crippling injuries forced a drastic reshuffling of a once-solid lineup. Opposing teams began getting lucky goals. You can put these things together and come up with a nice, neat explanation for the dramatic collapse of the Chicago Black Hawks, the most powerful team in the National Hockey League last year. You can even try to accept the tired clichés, like, "There's nothing wrong with this club that a few wins won't cure."
Last week the Hawks got a few wins, but they are not cured. There is something wrong with the Hawks beyond injuries and scoring slumps—and the players are too honest to hide it. "We had a terrible camp," said Stan Mikita one day last week during the Hawks' western swing, "and not just because some guys weren't there. Most of us—including myself—just didn't think enough about playing hockey." Another player said, "We're just not a very sound hockey team anymore."
The Hawks, who won the NHL race by 17 points last season, are deep in last place after the first month of this one, with a 2-7-2 record. They have won two and tied one of their last four games, but the successes were against the weaker expansion teams. In six tries against the league's established clubs Chicago has managed only one tie. Things brightened a bit on the five-game road trip they have just completed, which featured the team's first West Coast games. Swimming at Malibu and dining in Chinatown in San Francisco seemed to stir up some of the exuberant spirit that characterized the Hawks last season, and victories in Minnesota and Los Angeles and Sunday's tie with Oakland didn't hurt either. But the Hawks aren't kidding themselves; they are still in serious trouble.
"I think our defense has been our biggest problem," said Pat Stapleton, a defenseman. Doug Mohns, left wing on the famous Scooter Line, said, "Defense-men always need help from the forwards. Our guys haven't been getting much, so you have to blame the forwards, too." Coach Billy Reay prefers to blame Denis DeJordy: "Our biggest weakness has been that we've been outplayed in the goal."
It is almost unbelievable that so many weaknesses could suddenly appear on a team that had no real weakness only six months ago. But the Black Hawks were the major victims of the expansion of the NHL to 12 teams. As the club with the best record and the most talent, the Hawks figured to lose the most in the draft; they may not have figured on some other effects of expansion. For one thing, the impending draft led Tommy Ivan, the shrewd Chicago general manager, to gamble on the league's major trade of last summer. Figuring that he would have to lose some of his young forwards to the new clubs anyway, Ivan traded three of them to Boston for Center Pit Martin and Defenseman Gilles Marotte.
The trade seemed logical enough at the time; now it looks like a steal by Boston. Phil Esposito and Freddie Stanfield have been scoring very well since leaving the Hawks. Martin appears adequate as the new center on Bobby Hull's Chicago line, but he is small and often injured, and Marotte, the key man in the deal, has been a big disappointment. "He was a little slow getting adjusted," insists Reay, "but he's coming around." Some of the players are less satisfied. "He'll be very good someday," said one forward, "but right now he hurts us. We used to feel free to take chances, because we could always count on our defensemen to save us. Now we find ourselves looking around and worrying a little when he and Stapleton come on the ice." Some of the players are still amazed that, in order to protect Marotte, Ivan allowed Ed Van Impe, a brilliant rookie last year, to be claimed by Philadelphia.
An even more damaging effect of expansion came in the furious salary disputes that followed. With minor leaguers suddenly earning big-league money on the new teams, stars on the old teams increased their own demands. "It was certainly the toughest session I've ever been through," said Ivan. The bargaining was confused by one of the first attempts at unified action by the new NHL Players' Association and when it ended, the Hawks had been weakened both physically and in morale.
In midsummer all NHL players received a confidential mimeographed letter from the Players' Association suggesting that none of them should go on the ice in training camp until he had signed. "I was under the impression that by staying away I was sticking by all the players," said Kenny Wharram, who held out through most of training. "It seemed like a good idea—but it sure got messed up."
Exactly how the scheme collapsed is not clear, but players who were staying off the ice were stunned to see Bob Pulford, the association's founding president, work out with Toronto before signing. The Hawks then watched their own player representative, Pierre Pilote, do the same thing. "The contract from last season extends through training," said Pilote. "I honored it. If other guys chose to stay off the ice, then it became a personal matter for them to decide. The whole thing was a misunderstanding."
Three Hawks—Wharram, Martin and DeJordy—chose to stay away. A number of others worked out without signing. This did not exactly mold the players into a loyal unit during camp and may have had something to do with their sloppy play. Now it is pretty well forgotten, but one effect remains—the weak goaltending of DeJordy, who had been counted on to take over the entire job after Glenn Hall was lost in the draft.
DeJordy proved last season that he is an excellent goalie, but he is the type who needs work. Hall could probably hold out for two years and retain his great reflexes; DeJordy must sharpen his with action. Since missing camp he has been sharpening up in regular games at the team's expense, and he has become the most maligned hockey player in Chicago. As a result, Denis has lost much of his natural enthusiasm and humor.
"I'm more tense," he admits, "knowing that Glenn is gone and I have to play every game. Last year if one of us felt tight, he could go to Billy and sit out a few games. Now I can't. And I know what people are saying about me. But, don't worry; I'll have an answer for them—at the right time."
The right time should arrive when the Hawks' best offensive weapon, the Scooter Line, finally begins producing. The early season has been a nightmare for hockey's Most Valuable Player, Center Stan Mikita. Last year, when he tied the NHL point-scoring record (97), Stan got five goals and 11 assists in the first nine games. After nine games this year he had exactly one assist. And last week this man, who collected $11,000 in award money in the spring, found $500 deducted from his paycheck—a fine for indifferent play. Left Wing Mohns has been badly hurt and has played little, and Wharram alone is very good but not a one-man line.
Bobby Hull is a one-man line when he has to be. He has done everything possible to carry his club. He contributes his goal per game, and with any help at all he could get the Hawks going. Even if his efforts remain futile he seems certain to break his own record of 54 goals. The longer schedule and weaker opponents in the new division make 60 goals seem likely and 70 quite possible.
But behind Hull everything has gone sour, and Reay has been forced to juggle his lines constantly to combat injuries and ineffectiveness. Unfortunately, the Hawks are peculiarly set in their styles; they are not the kind of players who will work equally well in any combination. When Eric Nesterenko was needed on Bobby's line, for example, younger brother Dennis Hull had trouble on the third line without veteran Eric's passes. Mikita, who likes to work clever passes to both sides, cannot center for Bobby, who needs many passes to his side. Other forwards have similar difficulties switching lines—but Reay has no choice. He has to try something.
When Bobby's right wing, Chico Maki, recovers from an appendectomy in a few weeks, things should improve. When Mikita and Mohns hit their stride, when Marotte learns more and Matt Ravlich comes back to aid the defense, the Hawks should again be a good team. But not a superior one. There are big holes, especially on the third line, and there is no one to fill them. For the first time in years, the Chicago farm system has come up dry. "The kids have been the biggest disappointment," said one veteran. "If it weren't for expansion, not one of them would be in the NHL." The rookies have not only been ineffective but also annoyingly docile. "You expect kids to at least be hungry," said another Hawk. "But do you know that not one of them even hit anybody in camp?"
The Chicago team leaders are so good that they may be able to carry the weak members, but the entire Eastern Division of the NHL is improved enough to scare the Hawks a little. "When I argued about my salary with Ivan," said Pit Martin, "I said I wanted what I would have been paid in Boston. He said I could take less because here I would be sure to get the playoff money for the next few years. Right now I wonder how sure he is about making the playoffs." Martin hesitated. "Come to think of it," he said after a moment, "how sure can any of us be?"