ST. LOUIS BLUES
Scotty Bowman, the coach and general manager of the Blues, got married in August, honeymooned in Aspen, Colo. and western Canada and, since he was in the area, dropped in on the Saskatchewan home of Glenn Hall, his All-Star goaltender. For years Hall has threatened to quit in June, only to sign in October. This time he says he means it. "We were sitting out on the porch, under a beautiful full moon," says Bowman. "Glenn looked good. He was relaxed, happy. He said it wasn't the money, that it's never been the money. He said he just didn't think he could get through another season."
Whether St. Louis can do without Hall is the cardinal question. He and Jacques Plante were the chief instruments of the Blues' West championship. Now the challenge of partnering Jacques falls to Ernie Wakeley, who was drafted from Montreal.
At other positions the Blues are strong. During the June meetings they gained depth at center ice, getting Phil Goyette from New York and Andre Boudrias from Chicago to back up Red Berenson, a superior center, and Frank St. Marseille. Ab McDonald, who scored 21 goals, returns at a wing, as does Gary Sabourin, who contributed 25 goals. Al Arbour captains a rough-tough defense featuring Noel Picard, Bob and Barclay Plager, Jim Roberts and Jean Guy Talbot.
Bowman will not have to worry over the fans' enthusiasm; St. Louis is the envy of all expansion cities. What does concern him is the possibility of overconfidence; he shudders at what happened to the baseball Cardinals. The Blues should win again in the West, but without Hall they can be beaten.
The Seals were the surprise of the NHL, rising from last place in the West to a second-place finish behind St. Louis. They led their division in scoring, terrorized some East teams and produced the NHL's Coach of the Year and even a couple of budding superstars in Carol Vadnais and Norm Ferguson. The best job of all was done by the management team—Executive Vice-President Bill Torrey, General Manager Frank Selke Jr. and Coach Freddie Glover, who somehow kept the players thinking hockey through the confusion of rumors switching the team to Vancouver or Buffalo. At the moment the Seals belong to Trans-National Communications, Inc., a New York-based outfit which recently bought the Boston Celtics and officially depicts itself as "a well-dressed, smooth-functioning organization that knows where it's going and how to get there."
One wonders how long an organization can stay well-dressed and smooth-functioning amid those empty seats at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, but if Torrey and the others continue to hypnotize the players Oakland will not be beaten easily. Ferguson (who barely lost the Rookie of the Year award to Minnesota's Danny Grant), Ted Hampson and Billy Hicke lead an attack admired for its balance, and the defense, featuring Vadnais, Bert Marshall and Doug Roberts, is young and getting better. Only the goaltending remains unsettled. The Seals took four goalies to camp, and two—probably Gary Smith and Chris Worthy—will stick.
The weakest scoring team in the NHL has added some punch—left hooks, right crosses, a few elbows and maybe a stick or two. When the Flyers oozed out of the Stanley Cup in four straight losses to St. Louis, things started happening at the Spectrum. Coach Keith Allen became assistant general manager a year ahead of schedule and was replaced by Vic Stasiuk, an old Red Wing and Bruin scrapper. Then the Flyers went out and got some beef. Reggie Fleming, a brawler, was acquired from New York, and soon he was joined by the rugged Hillman brothers, Wayne from Minnesota and Larry from Montreal. The message was obvious. "There will be no timidity around here this year," says Stasiuk. "If my linemate gets his skull busted or his nose fractured, I have to feel it's up to me to retaliate. Fleming helps keep the aggressiveness you need."
Stasiuk will deploy some of the extra muscle to help protect the Flyers' only sound scoring threat, the line of Jean Guy Gendron, Andre Lacroix and Dick Sarrazin, which last season produced 60 of the team's 174 goals. While experimenting with two other forward lines, Stasiuk is urging his defensemen to think attack, to "forget defense until possession of the puck is lost." This is certain to increase the pressure on 24-year-old Bernie Parent, the best young goal-tender in the league.
"This year we'll be tougher," says Stasiuk. "We spent the entire training camp trying to find out how much defense we can sacrifice for more offense."
LOS ANGELES KINGS
The trouble with Hal Laycoe, they say, is that he coaches dull hockey. Laycoe, who won seven Western Hockey League championships in his last eight years at Portland before moving to the Kings this season, retorts that the only people who criticize him are those who have lost to him. "The most exciting hockey is junior hockey," he says. "Why? Because they make so darn many mistakes. I could have the most exciting team in the world—but we wouldn't win."
In one grand concession to show biz, however, Laycoe has signed the former Boston strong boy, Eddie Shack, and has moved him from left wing to center, the position Shack likes best.
Laycoe's game is position play with a lot of passing and tight checking. Since L.A.'s checking was exceeded in mildness only by Pittsburgh last year, Dennis Hextall and Ross Lonsberry were picked up to help Shack bloody some noses. To step up the scoring, Laycoe spent a lot of time in training camp looking for a center to force-feed Cowboy Flett, the club's best shooter, and a wing to run interference for Center Eddie Joyal, who scored 33 goals.
At the other end of the ice, the Kings gave up too many goals—more than any other team except Minnesota—but it wasn't Goalie Gerry Desjardins' fault. In Desjardins and his backup man, Wayne Rutledge, Los Angeles has one of the better combinations. The problem was getting the forwards to come back and help out on defense, something Laycoe's orthodox style should help solve. Bigger and rougher than last year, the Kings could rise to second or third place.
In the two years of the West's existence, Pittsburgh has been its invisible team—a club incapable of generating excitement or success and the only one to miss out on the playoffs both years. Now the Penguins have been shaken well, and some class has been added in the person of Coach Red Kelly. This is the classic maneuver of installing a "winner" on a losing team to give it a kick in the psychological fanny. Undeniably a winner as a player with Detroit and Toronto, Kelly coached Los Angeles to second- and fourth-place finishes in the past seasons, and the consensus is that he squeezed from the Kings the best that was to be gotten—even while wrangling with Owner Jack Kent Cooke and General Manager Larry Regan.
Among the manifold problems Kelly inherited at Pittsburgh was a player shortage down the middle and on defense. The only holdover at center is Wally Boyer, still undistinguished at 32. Ron Schock was drafted from St. Louis, and Bryan Hextall was picked up from Vancouver, and Kelly hopes the association with these pennant winners will rub off on their teammates. Kelly also believes the veteran Billy Harris can be of help. "I played with him in Toronto," says Red. "I may have visions of grandeur, but I think his true abilities haven't come out." Wings Dean Prentice (obtained from Detroit) and Glen Sather (Boston) should strengthen the offense somewhat. The Penguins are O.K. in goal with Les Binkley and Joe Daley, but have only two defensemen of quality: Bob Woytowich and Bob Blackburn.
"We'll be shooting for first," says winner Kelly. And lucky to finish fourth.
MINNESOTA NORTH STARS
Nobody really knows what to expect from the Minnesota North Stars. Last year, widely favored to win the West, the Stars flopped to fifth place, missing the playoffs and bitterly disappointing the 490,000 home fans—hockey nuts all—who paid to see them. Some changes have been made. Of the 20 players invited to camp, only seven spent all of last season with the club—and, since the Stars gave up more goals than any other team, it is not surprising that none of the holdovers is a defenseman. To help clear the ice in front of the Minnesota net, the Stars acquired Barry Gibbs from the Boston chain and John Miszuk from Philadelphia. Wily old Leo Boivin, who joined the team in mid-season, is back; Lou Nanne and Tom Reid fill out the defensive roster. Coach Wren Blair still must find adequate relief for his goaltender, Cesare Maniago.
The Stars, however, should have little trouble scoring. The line of Danny Grant, who was Rookie of the Year, Danny O'Shea and Claude Larose is intact. Ray Cullen, J. P. Parise and Bill Collins also return, and Minnesota got an unexpected bonus when Pittsburgh allowed Center Charlie Burns to go unprotected in the draft.
"We played too much wishy-washy hockey last year," says Blair. "We were pushed too many times and we didn't push back. This time we've gone out and got some guys who'll crack a few heads together."
In spite of last year's debacle, fans in the north country have bought more than 8,000 season tickets, and this year they may start getting their money's worth.