All through training camp the rumors had been circulating: Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, two of the biggest stars in hockey, were not going to be treated as stars anymore, they were going to be treated just like the rest of the Chicago Black Hawks. Sure. There were other rumors. The freewheeling Hawks were going to start playing defense. They were going to bring up some kids. This last was the most absurd rumor of them all—for these were youngsters who had played college hockey in the U.S. You just don't step out of college and into the National Hockey League.
Well, it happened. The Black Hawks broke in three U.S. college graduates, who stuck, and tightened up on defense and subordinated Hull and Mikita, who not only scored goals but also prevented some. As a result, this week the Black Hawks were in third place in the NHL's East Division and were making eyes at the front-running Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. Actually the overall race in the East was one of the finest ever; just 10 points separated first-place Boston from fifth-place(!) Montreal.
No team had started more poorly (1-6-1) than the Hawks. When Hull ended a 15-game holdout he was not in shape, nor was he enchanted with the Hawks' new, disciplined game. "There's no way I'll ever get in shape the way things are going," he snorted after a game in early December. "I'm just not the kind of player who can go up and down his wing like he's on a string, playing 15, 16 minutes a game. That's just not my style."
By that time, though, the Black Hawks had proved they could win games without Bobby. Led by rookie Goaltender Tony Esposito, who had been drafted from Montreal, they went undefeated in eight games after the initial slump. Since Dec. 19, when they were fifth with a 12-12-4 record, the Hawks have been the hottest team (24-8-3) in the league.
"If I had to pick a key," Coach Billy Reay said last week, "it would be Esposito. He has given us the big save, the save that gives you a lift. So many times you get that big save, and bang! You go right down to their end and put the puck in the net."
But as you watch Tony Esposito in a game you think it is indeed fortunate he has a degree in business from Michigan Tech. The way he flops and dives it is easy to see why the Canadiens gave up on him. Surely his next game will be his last—but, of course, it isn't, for Esposito has been the best goaltender in hockey. An All-Star selection at the halfway mark, he is in the running for Rookie of the Year, with 11 shutouts (only two short of the NHL record) and a goals-against average of 2.24.
People have stopped trying to figure out Esposito. Opposing forwards simply say he has a great glove hand, and there is so much of him there really isn't much of the net to shoot at, especially down low. Consequently, it is necessary to pick a high corner, and only the sharpshooters can do that in a hurry. "He's alert," says Reay. "Some goaltenders are a split-second behind the play; Tony's a split-second ahead of it. He may be awkward, but he's rarely out of position. You know, I get kind of tired of people knocking his style. He keeps the puck out."
As for his other three rookies—Defenseman Keith Magnuson and Wings Cliff Koroll and Gerry Pinder—Reay says the Black Hawks have been "kissed by angels." A redheaded youth with wide green eyes and a quick grin, Magnuson looks deceptively innocent. Still filling out at 6', 185 pounds, he plays and fights with equal enthusiasm. Last week he took over the league lead in penalty minutes, with 182.
"I really don't go looking for fights, but I just love to hit," he says. "Heck, I knew they would be running at me this year, testing me, so I took karate all last summer. The only trouble is I haven't been able to use it that much. The secret is using your feet, and when your feet are in skates it's not exactly legal. Next summer I'm going to practice boxing and wrestling."
Magnuson shares an apartment in suburban Schiller Park with Koroll, who has scored 15 goals on Mikita's line this year. Inseparable off the ice, he and Cliff were teammates at Denver University. Mag and Cliff like the apartment fine; situated near O'Hare airport, it is a swirl with airline stewardesses.
While the youngsters have given Chicago an inspirational lift, the veterans have been outdoing themselves. The big loss of Captain Pat Stapleton, out with a damaged knee, was softened by the recent steal from the Los Angeles Kings of All-Star Defenseman Bill White and Gerry Desjardins, a promising 25-year-old goaltender.
Through it all, no Hawk has been more admirable than Stan Mikita, although the 29-year-old playmaker has been troubled by a bad back. He wears a brace, but no treatment has given him real relief. Last year the four-time NHL scoring champion "slumped" to 30 goals and 67 assists. Because of his back and the fact the club was breaking in youngsters all around him Mikita could not get going early this year, but he started to warm up in December. In January he caught fire. A number of five-and six-point games have now moved him into third place in the scoring race.
As for Bobby Hull, he has not forgotten his problems with the front office, but for the time being, at least, he is cooling it. Hull showed up for a noon workout in Oakland last Thursday wearing a bright yellow sweater and a pair of wild beachcombers he had purchased the day before in Malibu. TV cameras whirred at him throughout the session, and one cameraman got some footage of Hull's slap shot from behind the net. ("Either that guy's got a lot of guts or he's crazy," said one player. "Those cords are pretty old, you know.")
Bobby said, sure, he would like to play more and sure, he gets the urge to take off every once in a while on one of those headlong, end-to-end rushes. "It's not my game, the game we're playing now," he said. "I'm just following orders. There are times when I'd like to go it myself, but we're winning this way, and winning is the important thing. This is a good club, a real good club. Everybody's playing well, and the kids, well, the kids have been great. They aren't the rah-rah types; they're quality kids."
Keith Magnuson reflected on the 15 games Hull had missed, then on the 31 goals he had scored—and gulped. "You can't appreciate him until you've played with him," he said. "I wasn't around here last year, but the guys who were say Bobby's never skated his position and come back to help on defense like he has this year. He missed a game the other night in L.A., and I want you to know we missed him. Me, particularly. It's really nice, you know, to throw that puck up to Bobby on the left wing—and then watch it disappear."