Terry Sawchuk, the mercurial goaltender who has been known to shun reporters and friends even after his most triumphant games, talked freely and cheerfully with everyone who came near his locker in the Los Angeles Kings' dressing room. Coach Red Kelly ventured as close to profanity as he ever does, shouting, "You guys played a hang of a game." Owner Jack Kent Cooke rushed around the room congratulating his players and insisting, "I never doubted that my boys could do it."
What the Kings (see cover) had done was trounce the Philadelphia Flyers 4-2 to move into a tie for the lead in the West Division of the National Hockey League. Within a few days they were to drop back into second as the Flyers, although dispossessed from their home arena for their final seven home games, held on to win the division title. But for one giddy evening, a week before the end of the regular season, Cooke and the Kings acted as if they had already become NHL champions. The only thing missing from the scene was the large silver Stanley Cup, filled with champagne—and Cooke was brash enough to suggest that his team could win that ancient trophy, too.
The idea that one of the new clubs might win the Stanley Cup in this initial season of expansion should, of course, sound ridiculous. As play begins this week all four of the East Division contenders are obviously better teams than any of the expansion clubs. Not one West team managed to finish the regular schedule with a .500 record (the Flyers were .492). And anyone who has watched the Kings stumble helplessly against teams like Minnesota and St. Louis during the season would have to laugh at the suggestion that Los Angeles might upset a power like Montreal in a seven-game series with the Stanley Cup at stake.
Yet the Kings do have an outside chance to win the cup, and that possibility, however remote it may seem, is one of the most intriguing aspects of the playoffs. No one can claim that Los Angeles has a solid, consistent or even a very good team. But Stanley Cups are seldom won by solid, consistent play, and sometimes they are not won by superior teams. They are won on brilliant efforts in a few key games—especially brilliant efforts by goaltenders. Last year the Toronto Maple Leafs lost 10 straight games during midseason and showed glaring weaknesses. Then they took the cup—because they rose to the occasion and received sensational goaltending from Sawchuk and Johnny Bower. The Kings have lost as many as eight straight in a very erratic season, and their weaknesses are even more striking than were those of the Leafs. But they, too, have shown an ability to rise to occasions—and now they are the team with Terry Sawchuk.
The NHL's controversial playoff schedule enhances the possibility of an upset by an expansion club. Instead of setting up interdivisional playoffs, the league decided that East and West would have separate playoffs, with the two survivors meeting in the final. The playoffs in the East promise to be highly competitive and extremely rough. Even if they lose, big, strong teams like the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins will surely leave many bruises on anyone who beats them. The East winners may be battered and exhausted going into the finals, and they will have difficulty avoiding at least a vague feeling that a series with Philadelphia or Los Angeles is an anticlimax. The West challengers may be in somewhat better shape, and they will have no trouble at all getting up for the final. They will also have the advantage of opening the series on home ice. Even with these factors going for them, the expansion winners will need a lot of luck to achieve an upset; but then, luck has been known to play a part in hockey games.
If any expansion team can accomplish all this, it is probably Los Angeles. Kelly, the rookie coach, clearly learned a lot while playing for Punch Imlach, that master psychologist who goaded the Maple Leafs to four cups in 10 years before his aging team finally fell apart and missed the playoffs this season. Kelly has had his inconsistent players at their best against established opponents, and the Kings compiled a respectable 10-12-2 record against East teams; in contrast, Philadelphia was only 8-15-1 in inter-division play.
In recent weeks the Kings had two games they felt they had to win. One was in New York against the streaking Rangers, the other at home against the Flyers with the lead at stake. Los Angeles won them both. The Kings also managed to blow many games that they had figured to win, but the fact remains that they won the biggest ones. "The players are getting over some of the feelings of inferiority they may have had," Kelly says. "They're forgetting that they were once a bunch of individuals who played against one another in the minors and are finally playing as a team. They're beginning to understand what winning means."
It would be hard for them to forget what a Stanley Cup can bring, Kelly has posted a huge sign on the dressing room wall in the Forum, explaining: "What First Place and the Playoffs Mean to You." The sign lists the various league bonuses for winning; the total comes to $9,750 a man. That's an awful lot of money," says Bill White, who has become the team's best defenseman after five years in the minors at Springfield. "In the American League the most bonus money we could hope for was something like $1,700."
"Some of us haven't made that much in a whole season before," adds Bob Wall. "It's a hell of an incentive."
"The money is a big part of it," Kelly says. "But these guys have another kind of spirit going for them. Don't forget, the fans are really getting behind them, and that's a big help." Playing on a temporary home rink in Long Beach and in the Los Angeles Sports Arena, the Kings attracted little support through the first half of the season. But since Cooke's Forum—by far the best of the new NHL arenas—opened three months ago, crowds have gotten larger and much louder. Paid attendance in the Forum has averaged almost 10,000 a game, bringing the Kings' season average up to about 7,000 and averting serious trouble for the franchise. "The fans are getting to know what they're watching," says Forward Ted Irvine. "It's even nice to hear them get on our backs when we play badly. At least they're showing that they care."
Irvine, a 6'2", 195-pound left wing with great promise, could be an important factor in the playoffs. His fortunes throughout his rookie year have closely paralleled those of his team. He started fast, suffered through a terrible midseason slump, then began scoring again in the final weeks. "My legs started to feel weak after the first few months," he says. "Then I got depressed and everything seemed to go wrong. I guess that happened to a lot of us, but we finally snapped out of it. I think there's a great feeling on this club now, because we all have to do our part. There are no superstars except Ukey, and he doesn't act like one."
No matter how he acts, "Ukey"—Terrance Gordon Sawchuk, who may be the greatest goalie in NHL history—is the key to Los Angeles' hopes. The Kings' offense, led by Eddie Joyal and Bill Flett, is the best in the West, but the defense has given up more goals than any other expansion team. Even if they play fairly well, the defensemen will make mistakes. Sawchuk will have to make up for most of them.
Terry has had a spotty season. Drafted from Toronto and signed to a huge contract, he was expected to be the mainstay of his young team. But he ran into a series of injuries that often plague 38-year-old men trying to play a boy's game and lost the first-string job to rookie Wayne Rutledge. Not a public-relations genius to begin with, Sawchuk also managed to alienate almost everyone he met in his new home city. He snapped short answers at journalists and coldly refused interviews at a time when the Kings needed all the publicity they could get. In Toronto his friends were attuned to his low-key sense of humor and his fiery moods; in Los Angeles people thought he was nastier than he was droll, and few were heartbroken when Rutledge took over the goaltending.
But Kelly, who played with Sawchuk on championship clubs in Detroit and Toronto, knew what his goalie was undergoing. Terry has no special fondness for hockey; he is in it for the money. But he is too proud to accept a bad season—or even a bad game—with resignation. Kelly understood this; he also knew that Sawchuk would do everything possible to be at his best, mentally and physically, when the most money was on the line. Ukey played only 25 of the Kings' first 60 games, but through the final weeks he has played all but two of 14 and has gotten sharper with each game. In the recent 4-3 victory over New York—a game that might have been the biggest of the season for Los Angeles—Sawchuk stopped 34 shots and left Ranger Coach Emile Francis, an ex-goalie himself, shaking his head. "He's still amazing," Emile said after the game. "He may have been as good tonight as he was last spring."
"Goaltending can be the whole story in the playoffs," says Punch Imlach. "I don't think L.A. can give Ukey enough help to go all the way, but I've seen a lot crazier things happen than that."
Sawchuk himself laughed when someone suggested that he was coming up to the playoffs the way he did a year ago. "I haven't even thought of that," he said. "The fact is, I'm finally in good shape. That's all there is to it."
To even approach the wild possibility of a Stanley Cup, the Kings must get past Minnesota in the first round. This will not be easy; the North Stars have troubled Los Angeles all year. The Kings were not pleased when St. Louis swept the season's last two games from Minnesota to take over third place. If they had held third, the North Stars would have been forced to meet Philadelphia in the first series. They won only three of 10 games with the Flyers this season; against the Kings they were 6-2-2.
Coach Wren Blair has done a fine job with the North Stars, holding the club together after the crushing death of Bill Masterton and a series of injuries. Blair did not succeed by coddling his men. "I drove the hell out of this team," he says. His discipline helped make Cesare Maniago into a good goalie and Wayne Connelly into the West's top goal-scorer. It also enabled Blair to reclaim high-liver Parker MacDonald, 34, whose lack of attention to hockey had apparently finished his NHL career. But the Kings can beat the North Stars—if they skate tirelessly and shoot often.
Philadelphia enters the playoffs after a remarkable late-season performance. When part of the roof blew off the Spectrum on March 1, the team management lost seven expected sellouts that would have kept the franchise healthy, and the players lost the home-ice advantage that could have kept them in a comfortable lead. The Flyers transferred "home" games to New York and Toronto, then settled on Quebec City, where their top farm team plays. The move to Quebec may have saved first place. Eight of the 18 Flyers had once played for the Quebec Aces; a few, like rookie Andre Lacroix, were local heroes. "Morale was pretty low," said one player. "But the fans in Quebec gave us a lift." However, the Flyers joined in the general slump of top teams last week and edged the Kings for the title by just one point.
The Flyers are back in the Spectrum for the playoffs, and they should have little trouble with St. Louis. The Blues are a close-checking, well-drilled team with a tremendous goalie, Glenn Hall. Under most circumstances, they would be a team that could excel in playoff games. But they have drawn the wrong opponent; the Blues have not beaten Philadelphia all season, and probably won't begin now.
A Flyer-King series would match Philadelphia's vastly superior defense against L.A.'s "strong offense. It would also test the Flyers' fine young goalies, Bernie Parent and Doug Favell, against Sawchuk and possibly Rutledge. When Parent-played in Boston there were rumors that he was not at his best under pressure. Favell may turn out to be the better clutch player, but he too is inexperienced in playoffs. The Flyers are a better team than the Kings, and they are young enough to expect years of high finishes in the West. But they may not be good enough to handle the Kings this spring.
The Montreal Canadiens, easy winners of the East Division, are logical favorites to win the cup. Team leader Jean Beliveau had one of his finest years at the age of 36; Worsley, 38, teamed with Rogatien Vachon, 22, to win the Vezina Trophy for the best goaltending.
Boston, however, can upset the Canadiens. The Bruins are bigger and stronger, and they are angry. They realize that a blunder by a goal judge in their 5-4 defeat by New York last week may have cost them not only a goal they deserved but also second place in the standings—and a much easier playoff matchup with Chicago. The Bruins have proved a point to themselves by staying in contention despite an injury to Bobby Orr, the 20-year-old defense-man who was thought to be irreplaceable. "Of course we missed Bobby," says Coach Harry Sinden. "Nobody really replaces a guy like him. But we got great effort from everyone else on the club. Now these guys know they're good—even without Bobby." With Orr back for the playoffs, the Bruins feel they can win, and they will if they hit the Canadiens' fast skaters before they can get going—and if Goalie Gerry Cheevers, another unknown playoff quantity, has a good series.
The well-balanced Rangers managed to finish second despite the scoring collapse of their two stars, Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle, in the final dozen games. This feat alone makes New York a solid choice over the Black Hawks, who would drop right out of the league if their two stars, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, ever stopped scoring. Mikita is one of the most dogged competitors in the game, and he alone could spark the Hawks to an upset. If Hull should go on a sudden streak, he too could carry the team. But, as usual, the Hawks seem to be asking too much of their leaders. They should lose to the Rangers while Phil Esposito and Fred Stanfield, two key men they traded away, help Boston beat Montreal—and then New York.
Finally, in May, long after an ice-hockey season should be over, the East winner will finish what everyone expects to be an anticlimactic rout of the West champion. But if it doesn't turn out that way, the finals will be dramatic indeed. The new teams won 40 and tied 18 of the 144 interdivision games and were seldom embarrassed by lopsided losses. The Kings, of course, are the most dramatic example of how wrong many people were about the expansion clubs. "Now," says Cooke, "if we can just win the Stanley Cup, we'll be the biggest sports story of the year." He paused, perhaps realizing how incredible the idea sounded, and concluded: "And even if we don't win it, we're already the biggest story in hockey."