Phil Esposito sat on a table in the Boston Bruins' dressing room joking with Milt Schmidt, the general manager. Out on the ice the rest of the Bruins were going through a rugged practice, preparing for an important game with the Chicago Black Hawks—a game that ended Saturday night in a 4-4 tie, leaving the Bruins at the top of the National Hockey League standings. Esposito, the big, swarthy center who has been a strong factor in Boston's dramatic rise from the NHL cellar this year, had missed the workout with a slight knee injury. He looked cool and relaxed in a blue sport shirt and yellow cardigan sweater. Tommy Williams, the first player off the ice, stalked into the room in full uniform, his face streaked with sweat and dirt. He glared at Esposito. "What do you have to do to get a day off around here? Be Italian?"
Esposito turned calmly to Williams, the only American-born player among the Canadians on the team. "You can be anything," he said, "except American. You Americans need all the work you can get."
Bobby Orr (see cover), the Bruins' crew-cut 19-year-old superstar, called to Esposito (who played on Bobby Hull's line in Chicago last year), "Hey, Hull practiced every day, didn't he? Didn't he make you practice with him?"
"You're right," said Phil, "but there are no Hulls on this team."
The remark was not quite accurate. Defenseman Orr, in his second season, is already approaching the stature of a Hull or a Stan Mikita, a player who can pick up an entire team with a key goal or a big play. But right or wrong, Esposito's flip and frequent exchanges with his teammates typify the new attitude of this year's Bruins, a suddenly brash and exuberant club that has provided the biggest surprise of all in the expanded, highly unpredictable NHL.
In the East Division, made up of the established clubs, the six teams are separated by only 10 points in a frantic race. Montreal, a title contender for 20 straight years, is currently last; the Bruins, who have not made the Stanley Cup playoffs in eight years, are Red-Soxing along in first. In the new West Division the race is almost as close, and, more surprisingly, the expansion teams have shown that they can hold their own in games against the older clubs. In the first 55 meetings between the divisions, the first-year teams have won 16 and tied five—a far better record than even the most optimistic of the West's general managers had expected. The Philadelphia Flyers, best of the new teams, have an eye-opening 4-2-1 mark against older clubs.
The biggest winners in this expansion year may be the fans, both the old ones who have followed the game all along and the new ones who are just discovering hockey in the expansion cities. The doggedly loyal Boston rooters have finally been rewarded with a completely transformed team. Last year the club management was inept and the players were unhappy, tense and so ineffective that they finished 18 points out of the playoffs. Now the players are on a cordial, first-name basis with the new general manager, Milt Schmidt, the center of Boston's revered old Kraut Line, and their second-year coach, Harry Sinden. They enjoy an almost constant routine of comedy and needling led by Esposito, Winger Eddie Shack and Goalie Gerry Cheevers. And on the ice they have changed from a small, meek team that often appeared to be merely going through the motions into a brawling, powerful unit good enough to lead the league.
Except in Minnesota, a center of hockey activity, people have not rushed to fill the arenas of the expansion clubs. But attendance has increased gradually as fans have gotten to know the game and the players, and only the Oakland franchise remains a bit shaky at the gate, averaging about 5,350 customers, while Minnesota pulls 11,500, St. Louis 7,600, and both Los Angeles and Pittsburgh better than 6,000. The Philadelphia organization appeared to be faltering as the season began, but last week the Flyers were neck and neck with the Kings for the lead in the West and the club may become one of the most prosperous of all, simply because it offers victory to a town that loves a winner. Fans in the new Spectrum forget themselves and yell, "Come on, Ramblers, skate!" although the old Ramblers of the Eastern League folded three years ago. They also yell, "We're No. 1!" and as long as the Flyers are near the top the fans will keep shouting and buying tickets.
The crowds, in turn, may help the teams get even better. "Without people," says Flyer Goalie Bernie Parent, "you feel alone in the nets. A crowd like the one watching us against the Red Wings the other day picks you up. You play above yourself." The Flyers beat high-scoring Detroit 4-2 before their biggest crowd, 12,086. "The people can bring you to life," says Forward Bill Sutherland. "When nobody's there, you try to push yourself, and nothing happens."
Things have happened almost every time an expansion team has faced an older one. "Our guys are playing a closer checking game against the big boys," says Pittsburgh's Red Sullivan. "It may not be exciting, but it is effective." The established teams, on the other hand, have often been sloppy in their checking and their style of defense against the new clubs.
The upsets are the result of more than close checking or letdowns by older clubs. "This is the first time many of these players ever had a real crack at the NHL," says Larry Regan, general manager of the Los Angeles Kings. "They know this is their big chance, and they're trying like hell." Regan's Kings, generally picked for last place, have tried so hard for Coach Red Kelly that they are giving Philadelphia a good battle for the West Division lead, and they have won five of 11 games with East Division rivals.
No one, however, had more to prove this season than the Bruins. Last year—that of the coming of Bobby Orr—was a nightmare. Orr was as good as everyone had said he would be, but by midseason the rest of the players seemed to be coming to the rink just to stand around and watch him. The Bruins desperately needed changes in personnel, in morale and in the front office. They began to get all of these things when Schmidt replaced Leighton (Hap) Emms as general manager.
It would be hard to find two men with more divergent attitudes and approaches to hockey. Schmidt, a Hall of Fame player and former coach, is frank and forceful, respected and popular. He is an astute hockey man but, more importantly, he knows how to deal with men who make their living in the big leagues. Emms, on the other hand, had long been a junior hockey executive, and sometimes the Bruins felt that he was treating them like captive bush-leaguers.
"He was a minor league guy," said Goalie Ed Johnston. "He could probably handle kids, but he sure didn't know how to work with guys who earn $20,000 at this game." When Sid Abel picked Ted Green to play in the All-Star Game. Emms announced publicly that he did not think Green deserved the honor. Emms also bickered with several players through the newspapers, making it rough for Harry Sinden to salvage anything out of the season.
"As soon as I took over," said Schmidt, "I spoke to each guy about what I wanted from him. I think morale and spirit have to begin in the front office." Veteran Wing Johnny McKenzie said, "Eve been on a lot of teams, and I've never seen one with spirit like this."
Of course, the Bruins needed more than pep talks; they needed scorers, big, strong forwards who could shove their way in front of the goal and stay there. So Schmidt gave up his highly rated young defenseman, Gilles Marotte, and a clever center, Pit Martin, to get Esposito, Ken Hodge and Freddie Stanfield from Chicago. Then he sent Center Murray Oliver, no muscleman, to Toronto for Shack, the colorful, unpredictable wing, strong and snappish as a sled dog, whom Punch Imlach was anxious to unload. "I was gambling," said Schmidt. "I took a big chance letting Marotte go, but things have worked out just fine."
The trades worked partly because two young players, Don Awrey and Derek Sanderson, filled the holes at left defense and center. And all four of the new acquisitions fit beautifully into the Boston attack. Esposito, Shack and Hodge brought size and strength and Stanfield has been a superb playmaker for McKenzie and Johnny Bucyk.
With Stanfield's help, Bucyk, a notoriously slow starter, has been so hot that he is second only to Bobby Hull in scoring; on Saturday night against Chicago he broke Schmidt's own Boston goal-scoring record with his 230th, and later in the game he got No. 231. On Sunday he scored again amid the season's wildest stick-and fist-swinging as Boston beat Montreal 5-3 and pulled cleanly ahead of Toronto in the race. "There's much less pressure on me this season," says Bucyk. "This is the first year I don't pick up a paper once a week and read that I'm about to be traded."
While Stanfield sparked one line and Esposito and Hodge joined another, Sinden turned to Shack to lead a third one. "When he got here." says Sinden, "I told him we didn't need an entertainer. We needed a left wing. He said O.K. And he's turned out to be a big man for us."
And so, after his year of frustration. Sinden found himself with a team: three lines and two good goalies in Johnston and Cheevers—and a supporting cast that could complement Orr rather than lean on him. "For the first time," said Sinden last week, "Bobby can play a more sensible game. We don't have to keep looking for him to make the big play, to bring us back from behind. He can fit in on the team instead of trying to carry it by himself."
Bobby, playing like a veteran at 19, seems to improve all the time. "You watch him every night," said one Boston observer recently, "and you keep saying, 'There's the best play he's ever made.' Then you look again and he's doing something even better." Orr's reflexes and anticipation allow him to block many opponents' shots before they ever reach the goal. It is not unusual to see him block a hard shot with his legs, knock down the shooter and skate forward with the puck. Offensively he still has the heavy, accurate shot that excited the fans last year, and now he can set up more plays because he has more scorers playing with him.
Orr has matured rapidly off the ice, as well. He arrived in Boston calling the players "Mister" and "Sir." Now he talks and jokes with them and more and more is becoming their leader.
"You could see the difference in this team as soon as training camp started," Bobby said last week. "After one practice a few of us went out for a beer, and the whole team ended up in the same place. It's been that way all year. We go to the same places, we hang together as a group." Orr lives in an apartment with Defenseman Gary Doak and Assistant Trainer Frosty Forristall. Although he is two years too young to be legally admitted into some of Boston's more active singles' hangouts, he enjoys as much social life as you would expect a rugged-looking, good-natured, rich, famous, eligible, star athlete to enjoy.
But much of Bobby's fun comes just from being part of the team. "You can see that we're not very serious," he said after one recent workout, gesturing around the dressing room. Stanfield was tanning his face with a sunlamp, Esposito was berating Williams for his "American" long hair; others were laughing at a sign Cheevers had posted over Doak's locker, proclaiming him "second star" of the previous night's game—although Gary had played all of three minutes. Esposito interrupted his talk with Williams to give a short speech. "What a forechecker! What a shooter! What an all-round star!"
"You talking about Bobby Hull?" he was asked.
"I'm talking about myself."
"See what I mean?" said Orr. "Nobody's very serious." To some Bruins, this kind of thing is a little new; to Esposito. who always expected to win when he was centering for Hull in Chicago, it is not. And that is why Phil means far more to the team than the goals he scores. He knows about pride and the kind of relaxed spirit that comes from winning. "I don't think the style of this team," he said in one moment of seriousness, "is very different from last year's Black Hawks."
You may recall that the Hawks won the NHL race by 17 points last year. The Bruins will not match that. They have a few weaknesses and they depend heavily on young players, who are more prone to go into slumps than the experienced men. They have an occasional sloppy night—and have lost three of the seven games they have played with expansion clubs. But they have gotten the jump on their rivals in the tight East Division race, and they are not likely to give it up in any overall collapse. They are talking about the playoffs as if they are already in them.
Leaving the dressing room one day last week, Williams stopped to talk to Schmidt about playoff bonus money. "Now is not the time to talk money," said Milt. "I have an office for that." "Sorry," said Williams, who has been with Boston seven years.
"I couldn't help myself," he said later. "I'm so excited. You know, I've never been so close to anything like this before."