The Pittsburgh Penguins had finished a midmorning sweat suit skate for their National Hockey League game Saturday night against the St. Louis Blues, and now 17 anonymous faces—the Les Binkleys and Art Strattons and George Koniks—left the ice for the comfort of the dressing room. Down at one end of the rink a solitary figure in gray was still repetitively firing pucks against the boards. Andy Bathgate, just about the only Penguin who knows how to score goals, had been in a slight slump, and he was working to regain his touch.
He shot into the boards from 10 feet, then 20 feet and later 30 feet. He aimed low to the imaginary far corner and waist-high to the near post. Every so often he would skate at the boards, dreaming he was head to head against the goaltender, would make a slight head or body fake and then flip home a backhander or slide the puck along the ice into a corner.
Finally he turned and pushed three pucks into the center of the rink, ready to practice his slap shot—always one of the best in the old NHL. He whipped the puck low and hard, the way a slap shot should be slapped, and it resounded off the boards. He did it again and again, until his stick shattered, and the puck just fizzled and died before it even reached the boards. Bathgate picked up the broken blade, threw the two pieces into the stands, collected the three pucks and—20 minutes after his teammates had gone—skated for the dressing room.
At the end of 13 full years in the established league, during which he scored 314 goals playing for New York, Toronto and Detroit, Andy Bathgate is an expansion player, the 101st to be drafted—almost an insult to the man who once was the league's MVP. The Penguins selected him on the 17th round—their next-to-last pick—and talked him out of plans to retire. It was a stroke of fortune for them, for so far this season Bathgate has been the most prolific scorer in the expansion division, firing in eight goals and assisting on seven and giving the Penguins their only touch of offensive respectability.
"But I just haven't been playing well the last couple of games," Bathgate said. "I think I tried to push myself too much the last week, and now I've lost a little bit of the zip. You know, all hockey players try to keep themselves about 85% of the way up that hill. Whenever they push themselves to the peak, they lose the touch. Now I've got to get it back."
Bathgate, like most experienced hockey people, has been genuinely amazed that the expansion teams have played so successfully against the establishment. The new teams, in fact, won eight and tied two of the first 30 games with the old. But Bathgate does not expect them to maintain that ratio through the entire season.
"The first time around the league, the new clubs have an advantage because they are new," he said. "The older clubs may take them lightly, and they want to prove something to everyone. Also the older teams don't have their books on the new players yet. You've got to know what the other guy is most likely to do. For instance, the old teams don't know anything about this Bill Flett of Los Angeles, who scored only 16 goals in the minors last year but already has six in the NHL. Eventually they'll know plenty, and I think the expansion clubs will win, say, only one out of five."
Adjusting to the Penguins, who are one for four with the old teams, has not been easy for Bathgate. Originally he was teamed on a line with the NHL veterans Ab McDonald and Earl Ingarfield, and during the early season that line carried the entire Penguin attack. However, Ingarfield was lost with a leg injury, and with a number of different small-timers trying to replace him at center, both Bathgate and McDonald have had difficulty getting the puck on their sticks.
"It's all a matter of recognition," Andy said. "Earl knows me because we played together in New York. He knows that a wing has to have the puck as he busts over the blue line. He knows that a center must be around the net after making his passes. He just knows what to do."
With Ingarfield still out Saturday night, Penguin Coach Red Sullivan started Paul Andrea against the Blues. Not a bad minor leaguer, he has not made it yet in the big league because he has not learned to go all out both ways in every game. On the Bathgate-Andrea-McDonald line's first play into the St. Louis zone, Bathgate set himself up cleanly in front—about 25 feet from Goalie Seth Martin. Ingarfield probably would have passed the puck right onto Bathgate's stick, and Bathgate from 25 feet is not Wilt Chamberlain at the free-throw line. He's automatic. But Andrea, despite Bathgate's call of "Paul, Paul," tried to maneuver for a shot himself and lost the puck, and the Penguins missed an excellent chance to score in a game they already were losing 1-0.
Sullivan replaced Andrea with Val Fonteyne the next time Bathgate and McDonald were on the ice. Fonteyne is a fine skater but not a stickhandler, and centermen must be good stickhandlers. Soon the Penguins were breaking out of their zone and Bathgate was busting up the right wing, just as he used to do in New York and Toronto and Detroit. Ingarfield undoubtedly would have headmanned the puck to him. Fonteyne did try, but the pass was 10 feet behind Andy and another play was ruined. It was that kind of night. The Penguins lost 5-1, and Bathgate, who set up their only goal with a sharp pass to McDonald at the goal mouth, was voted their top player of the game.
Afterward, his stitched face wrinkled in a grimace, Bathgate dressed slowly, then went out to have a chocolate milk shake and two pieces of Danish pastry. "It's frustrating when you lose, especially the way we did tonight," he said. "We stopped skating and didn't hit people at all. But we'll get it back. At least it's not like last year."
Playing for the Red Wings last season, Bathgate scored only eight goals in 60 games. "He just wasn't shooting the puck," said Leo Boivin, the bruising body-checker who also was with the Wings last year and now is the Penguins' only reliable defenseman. "He'd get the puck like he used to, but instead of shooting he'd try to cut around the defense and work from in close. With his shot, he's got to shoot."
At one time last year the Red Wings sent Andy to the minor leagues for six games, hoping he could regain his scoring touch. "I really never thought I lost it," he said. "It was just that they were playing me on the left wing—and I can't play that side. When I came back up, they had me at right wing on a line with Ted Hampson and Dean Prentice for a while, and we won eight of nine games. We were losing the next game to the Black Hawks 2-1 after two periods and they took me off the wing and played Floyd Smith. I knew then it probably was over for me." This year, though, Bathgate has played like the Bathgate of years past. He still skates straight up, like a pencil, and he still wheels around on the curved blade of his stick to get into good scoring position. And as the Penguins' only legitimate star, he also is the No. 1 target for catcalls in other rinks. "Hey, Bathgate," as the squealer said from the third balcony in the Boston Garden the other day, "you look like a penguin. You play like a penguin. You are a penguin."
At 35 Andy admittedly does not have too many years left, but he is well set financially, with a golf driving range and an apartment house in Toronto. "I think that some players retire too early," he says. "I mean, when you're there, why get out?"
Bathgate is there again, right where he used to be—leading his team and his division in scoring. "His legs may not be what they once were," says Sullivan, "but Andy's still got that shot and that noggin. And that's more than most people have."