A year ago this Friday night the Montreal Canadiens won their opening game of the National Hockey League season. The fact that the Canadiens won was hardly novel, but the opposition was. It was a team from Pittsburgh. And so began the most daring expansion scheme ever brought forth by a pro league—a doubling in size, the sudden embrace of Philadelphia, St. Louis, Minnesota, Oakland and Los Angeles, as well as Pittsburgh.
Everyone knew that the expansion teams, with their rosters of has-beens and never-weres, would try with all their supposedly paltry strength to win their games with the established clubs, but few dared hope they would do so well against the East—that they would win 40 games and tie 18 while losing 86. And who could have anticipated the race that materialized in the West, where the championship was not decided until the next to last game and only six points separated first place from fifth? Who would have dreamed that the St. Louis Blues could put the Canadiens—hockey's Green Bay Packers—through four absolutely spellbinding games before losing in the Stanley Cup finals, twice in overtime? "The season," said St. Louis Executive Vice-President Sid Salomon III, "exceeded our wildest expectations."
This week begins the second year of the great experiment, with each team playing a record 76 games, two more than last year, and all's well East and West. That includes Oakland, the one weak-sister expansion team last year, which now has new owners, new money, a new coach and some new bodies. Oakland won only 15 games all year, finished 22 points out of the playoffs and blew $1.8 million. Puck, Inc., owned by three millionaire sports enthusiasts—Potter Palmer, John O'Neil Jr. and George Gillett—purchased the club and assumed its losses and a big loan from Labatt's Brewery, which earlier had attempted to buy the team and move it to Vancouver. The three men are no newcomers to sport: they own the Harlem Globetrotters and have interests in the Miami Dolphins, the Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Chiefs soccer club. Rumors that the club is still labeled for Vancouver were apparently quelled recently by Palmer, who said, "If there was a time to move the Seals, that time has passed."
A stable franchise in Oakland is all the NHL really needs to protect its image of solid success. CBS-TV once again will televise nationally a schedule of regular-season and playoff games under the terms of a three-year, $3 million contract signed with the NHL two years ago. Most of the teams have local TV contracts of their own.
Attendance in the East is perennially strong. There has not been an unsold seat in the Montreal Forum or Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens since the end of the Second World War, and in Chicago the ticket scalpers are gainfully employed. Every established team has increased seating capacity during the past few years, but none so craftily as Toronto. The dollar-adoring owners of the Maple Leaf Gardens have upped the size of a full house from 12,800 to 16,355 in several years by narrowing aisles and squeezing extra seats into every inconceivable nook and cranny. Garden employees get a pair of $2.50 seats to a game of their choice if they can stuff one more seat into a spot no one has utilized before.
The expansion teams, led by Minnesota and St. Louis, drew more than two million people in their first season. The Blues had the largest single gate (16,177) and the North Stars led in average attendance (11,762). This year every expansion team except Oakland has reported an increase in season-ticket sales, with the Blues' remarkable performance in the playoffs tripling the advance sale to 9,000. Minnesota's has risen to 8,000. Los Angeles, which had to play two-thirds of its home games in three different arenas last year, averaged 11,562 after moving into Jack Kent Cooke's glittering Forum. Philadelphia was averaging 9,875 and had drawn capacity crowds (14,646) four times when the winds of March lifted the roof off the Spectrum and forced the Flyers to play their seven remaining home games in New York, Quebec City and Toronto.
The new teams' success against the old last year was the result of a combination of two factors: superb goal-tending and complacency on the part of the East. In hockey a good goal-tender is as valuable as a strikeout pitcher in baseball. "There's no substitute for it," says Chicago Coach Billy Reay, who lost Glenn Hall to St. Louis in the expansion draft and has been suffering ever since. "If you took Bob Gibson and put a minor league baseball team behind him I'd venture to say that team would win 50% of the games Gibson pitched. In hockey the teams with the good goalkeepers have an excellent chance of winning half of their games before the season even starts."
The new clubs will be fortunate, however, if they can approach last year's record; they must play each established team two more games than before, and the feeling in the training camps in Ontario and Quebec was that the East is complacent no more, "Last year, even though we lost a few games to the new teams, we never really took them seriously," said Claude Larose, who was traded by Montreal to Minnesota during the summer. "I doubt if the Canadiens will feel that way this year."
"We have seen," said Claude Ruel, the new coach in Montreal, "what can happen to a club that takes the new teams for granted. They cost Toronto a spot in the playoffs [the Leafs were 10-11-3 against the West], and I don't expect that to happen to any Eastern team again."
Billy Reay agrees. "Last year they were rookies. They played with the spirit of rookies trying to prove themselves, Now, they're all sophomores."
Nevertheless, in the next five years the true difference between East and West should diminish, just as the American Football League has begun to approach the level of the NFL. "I look at our players now and I see them skating better all the time," says St. Louis Coach Scotty Bowman. "They've gotten better just by being exposed to the old clubs. What we have to do now is take care of our established talent, because there's not much of it around in our league. A veteran like Doug Harvey can help you so many ways—on the ice or off of it. When he says something those young kids listen."
Yet in their haste to land the established player—or the good minor league prospect—several new clubs, most notably Minnesota have begun trading away their choices in the universal draft. Launched last year, the draft closely parallels the pro draft of college football players in the U.S.—and since the Canadiens have more good young players than anybody else, they are collecting an alarming number of choices from the new teams in exchange for players from their powerful farm system. Already Montreal has acquired 10 draft picks from the new teams, including Minnesota's first choices from 1969 through 1973 and Oakland's in 1972. Green Bay has its NFL opponents in a similar fix. "Maybe they'll have to make a rule against the new teams trading their draft choices," says Bowman. "If things continue as they are, Montreal will wind up with all the players."
There are those who say the Canadiens already have all the players they need to dominate the NHL for years to come. Claude Ruel, one of the season's four new coaches (along with Bernie Geoffrion in New York, Bill Gadsby in Detroit and Fred Glover in Oakland), admits the Canadiens have "no weakness."
However, a major renovation of the Montreal Forum, begun moments after the playoffs ended on May 11 but not due for completion until November 2, could keep the Canadiens from breaking open the race in the first month. Montreal must play eight of its first nine games on the road.
"Taking over a first-place club, that is a challenge," said Ruel, the Canadiens' former chief scout. "But playing so many games on the road at the start, that is the biggest challenge of all. Some coaches, you tell them they can have the job but they must play eight of the first nine games on the road, and those coaches, they will say you can keep your job."
They do not say that in Montreal, which has been voted the East championship and the Stanley Cup in every opinion poll from Chicoutimi to Cucamonga. New York and Boston should make a bitter fight for second place, and a highly interesting contest is likely over the remaining playoff spot. That struggle may not be settled until the final week, when all the probable contenders—Toronto, Chicago and Detroit—play a flurry of games with one another.
No team in the West can be counted entirely out of the race for that division's playoffs, but only three look like sure pennant contenders. Defending champion Philadelphia once again will give up few goals, but since the Flyers score so few themselves they may have difficulty holding off Minnesota and St. Louis. The North Stars are the most improved club in the league. They have added strength at center and on defense, and Wayne Connelly, one of the new division's potential superstars (St. Louis' Red Berenson is another), is a 35-goal man. The Blues have increased their scoring strength with the addition of Camille Henry and Ab McDonald. Los Angeles and Oakland split 10 games last year. Their intrastate rivalry could grow even more heated should the two wind up fighting for the last playoff spot.
"We are convinced we'll win," says Oakland General Manager Frank Selke Jr., an optimist in a league teeming with them, "but we're willing to dig in." For detailed scouting reports on his and all the other NHL teams, turn the page.