One day last May, moments after his overtime goal had produced Boston's first Stanley Cup since 1941, a young man scarcely out of his teens stood in the Bruins' dressing room with the famed trophy in his left hand, a bottle of champagne in his right—and the world at his feet. No player in hockey history ever had a season quite like that just completed by Bobby Orr. A rookie only three years earlier, he finished 1969-70 as the league leader in scoring—an unprecedented accomplishment for a defenseman—the Most Valuable Player during the regular schedule, the Most Valuable Player in the cup playoffs, the leader of the No. 1 team in the game and, obviously, the best defenseman in the National Hockey League. And he still was only 22 years old. "So," asked a nearby newsman, "what next, Bobby, what next?" Orr stopped squirting champagne for a second. "Let's do it all over again," he said.
As Orr said it. it was just the happy gag of a momentarily elated kid and, naturally, everyone in the dressing room cheered. But considered soberly at the start of another hockey season, Bobby's statement becomes more of a mandate than a mere boast. If the expanded NHL is to go on making it big at the box office, this fantastic young spark of the Boston Bruins practically has to do it all over again. For in big-league hockey right now, overinflated and out of balance as it is, there is one Bobby Orr and a lot of other guys named Guy.
Three years ago the National Hockey League blew itself up into a soft, unwieldy mess by adding six teams from the minor leagues to its old roster of six. This year, before fully digesting that expansion, it has added two new teams to its Eastern Division—the Sabres in Buffalo and the Canucks in Vancouver. (Vancouver is east of Tokyo.) Last year's regular season champions, the Chicago Black Hawks, meanwhile have been sent to the West.
All of this has created so much competitive imbalance among the 14 teams in both divisions, not to mention the imbalance within each division, that virtually every other game promises to be a real yawn-maker. In the East neither Buffalo nor Vancouver has the remotest chance to make the playoffs. In the West, by any kind of form, Chicago will have clinched the championship by Christmas. The cold statistics as well as a comparison of playing personnel clearly indicate that seven of the 14 clubs cannot hope to compete on an equal basis. Consider these facts:
In 1967-68, the optimistic first year of expansion, the new six-team West Division won a fair 35% of its game? against the established East. In 1968-69, however, the West won only 24% of the interdivision games and last year it won only 19%. Moreover, during those three years, only one West team, the St. Louis Blues, won more games than it lost in a season. Last year the Blues won the West championship by 22 points, but they would have finished sixth in the East. Finally, in three Stanley Cup championship series against the East winner, the West team has not won a single game.
Nevertheless, despite this record of futility, there will be proportionally more interdivisional—and hence more lopsided—games than ever before. Failing tight competition to lure the fans to the ice and to the TV tube, the NHL this year must therefore depend on flashy personalities. Yet from where most of the fans sit, there is only one personality around: Orr. No matter how you count it, Bobby is box-office; Bobby is television; Bobby is $$$$$$$—for the owners, for himself, for the league, even for his fellow players.
In NHL cities where sellouts are not the rule, Orr always lures the largest crowds. It is no accident that Orr and the Bruins will be playing at Oakland this week as baseball's irrepressible Charlie Finley makes his hockey debut as owner of the Seals. In Eastern cities, where sellouts are the rule, some owners are riding along on Orr's skates to raise their ticket prices while holding down complaints.
Bobby Orr may, in fact, be the only reason why the NHL still has a national television contract. Although ratings went up 33% last year, the hockey telecasts, for the rights to which CBS paid less than a million, still failed to make a profit. '"We've lost money every year," said a CBS executive, "but maybe with this kid Orr playing like he is we'll be able to break even or maybe make a little."
Almost singlehanded, Orr has made hockey a truly major league sport. When he came into the league in 1966 the average player salary was less than $17,000, and even that of Gordie Howe—generally rated as the greatest player of all pre-Orr—was around $50,000. And most hockey players did not even know what a lawyer was. Orr changed all that, thanks to his own lawyer, Alan Eagleson, who negotiated Bobby's first contract with the Bruins and formed the NHL Players' Association. Now, four years later, the average NHL salary is more than $25,000; several players, including Howe and Bobby Hull, make $100,000; and a surprisingly large number of players are signed at more than $60,000. Dave Keon of the Toronto Maple Leafs didn't really mean it when he held out this year for $125,000; but the $65,000 he got was more money than he ever expected to see.
Knowing their stars get paid well, however, is not what brings the fans to a hockey game. What they want and have to have is hockey. And so, though Bobby Orr is the man who plays it best, the cry on the ice is, paradoxically, '"Stop Orr!" For unless you stop Orr, you can't stop the Bruins. And unless you stop the Bruins, or make a good try at it, you won't have any competition on the ice. But trying to stop Orr is one thing. Stopping him is quite another.
Ned Harkness, who graduated to Detroit this year as coach of the Red Wings after long, successful tenures at Cornell and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, suggests that the "only way to stop Orr is to shoot him." Short of that, most of the teams will try to assign a certain forward to check Orr bodily while he has the puck in the Boston end of the ice. "You must hit Orr early, take him out of play and then not let him back in," says Punch Imlach, who returns to the league this year as coach and general manager of the Buffalo Sabres after a year's sabbatical as a hockey writer. "Orr tends to get frustrated, and when he does he takes too many chances. That's the time for everybody else to capitalize."
Orr himself is aware of the Stop Orr campaign, but it does not seem to bother him. "Hey, we've got plenty of great scorers on the Bruins," he says. "We're not any one-man team. Stop one guy one night, and 10 others will beat you. Look at Phil Esposito. Who has ever stopped him? He scored 126 points two years ago and 99 points last year. We have too many guys on our club to stop."
Bobby is at least partly right. With Orr, Boston clearly is the strongest team in hockey as the 1970-71 season begins, and, when it ends, the Bruins should have won another Stanley Cup. Without Orr, who knows? But there are other uncertainties in the Boston picture. Teddy Green, who is returning to the lineup with a plate in his head and a helmet on it, so far seems something short of his old intimidating self. Tom Johnson, the former Montreal defenseman who was chosen to replace Harry Sinden (page 38) as coach, is new to that department of the game and he has a tough job to face.
"He's got pressure on him," says Derek Sanderson, the flamboyantly mustachioed Boston center. "How can he improve this club?'" If the Bruins win, Johnson will get little credit because, after all, he inherited a winner. If they lose he will get most of the blame. "I've never coached before," Johnson says, "so I don't know what type of coach I'll be." Because he is a strong, silent defensive type, Johnson will probably try to make the Bruins play a more controlled, less robust style than they have the last few years. But that may not be possible.
Besides Orr, Boston's main strength will lie at center ice, where the Bruins have the best threesome in hockey—Esposito the goal scorer, Freddy Stanfield the playmaker and Sanderson the agitator.
The Canadiens? Well, last year the Canadiens missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in practically anyone's memory, and it's not too likely to happen again. "For this year I will accept second place," says Coach Claude Ruel, "but only if Boston finishes first." At Ruel's request the Canadiens have disposed of a few players he felt did not "contribute their all" to winning last year. "My players will play hockey for me or they will not play hockey in Montreal," Ruel says flatly. What the Canadiens need most, however, is more consistent goaltending by Rogatien Vachon. If Vachon fails to provide it, the Habs may try to pry Ken Dryden away from law school. He is a former Cornell University All-America whose physique—6'4", 215 pounds—covers most of the goal. "I cannot tell you how many games we did not win last year because of bad play in the goal," says Ruel. And, like all of hockey outside Boston, the Canadiens could use a superstar on the order of Rocket Richard, Howie Morenz, Doug Harvey, Boom Boom Geoffrion and others of whom aging Jean Beliveau is now the only reminder.
The New York Rangers led the East Division most of last season, then collapsed miserably and barely made the playoffs on the last day of the season. But, as always, the Rangers were eliminated from cup play in the first round. In the last four years New York has won only four playoff games and lost 16. The Ranger defense is one of the strongest in hockey, with 22-year-old Brad Park rated behind only Orr. Up front the Rangers lack muscle on the wings, but they do have two exceptional centers, Jean Ratelle and Walt Tkaczuk. The Ranger season, though, will depend upon how General Manager-Coach Emile Francis uses Eddie Giacomin.
Giacomin invariably is the league's best goalie until the end of February, when he falls into a slump. Giacomin has convinced Francis, or maybe Francis has convinced Giacomin, that he can play most of the schedule. Last year Giacomin played 70 games, more than any other goalie in the league. In the old days, when the NHL was a six-team league, one goaltender was enough. Today, when teams play in Minnesota one night and in Boston the next, two goaltenders are mandatory. Both Francis and Giacomin now appear ready to admit this, so Gilles Villemure, the best goalie in the minors over the last few years, will probably play 20 games or so for New York. If he does, and does it well, the Rangers could win everything.
Detroit and Toronto will battle for the final playoff spot in the East. Harkness and the Wings lost their best defenseman when moody Carl Brewer decided to retire again, so Ned asked Gordie Howe, ready for his 25th season, to move back and play defense. Gordie, who can do anything, adjusted well but the Wings missed his goal scoring up front during the exhibition season, and Harkness may have to find another defenseman instead. Although Harkness, a stern disciplinarian, will try to have Detroit play a two-way game, the Wings again will be mostly an offensive club. Howe, Alex Delvecchio, starting his 20th year, and Frank Mahovlich form the strongest scoring line in the league, and Center Garry Unger collected 42 goals last year.
The faded Toronto Maple Leafs need at least another year of fertilizing before they are ready to grow green and tall again. Jacques Plante will strengthen the Leafs in goal—unless he suffers from puck exhaustion due to the fact that the Leafs have only two defensemen who played more than 50 games in the NHL last year and one may not be returning this year. Buffalo should beat out Vancouver in the struggle for sixth place, or maybe Vancouver will beat out Buffalo for seventh place. In either case Punch Imlach probably has the league's best rookie since Orr in 21-year-old Gilbert Perreault, a center who now would be replacing Jean Beliveau with the Canadiens if the old amateur player-protection rules had not been changed. Since the Sabres do not have a single defenseman who has played regularly enough to be called a veteran, Goalie Roger Crozier, who has had stomach problems before, will probably get them again.
Vancouver, meanwhile, has only one player who scored more than 10 goals in the league last year—Ray Cullen. Still, Coach Hal Laycoe may find the Canucks a considerable improvement over the Los Angeles King squad he coached for a while.
Although there should be some competition for first place in the East, there will be no rivalry whatsoever in the West. The Chicago Black Hawks—Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito, Keith Magnuson, Pit Martin, Pat Stapleton, etc.—won the East Division championship last year and should win the West before the season gets fairly under way. "But we still have to play the games," moans Bobby Hull, and that about says it.
Somewhere behind them, but not very close behind, should be Minnesota's North Stars. For years they have had talent without stability behind their bench. Now Wren Blair has signed a permanent coach, Jackie Gordon, who may well bring the Stars to their potential. Gordon will have at least five former Canadiens in his lineup, including Goaltender Gump Worsley, who has signed the best contract of his career. Gump gets a $37,000 salary, $3,600 for living expenses, $500 for each win, $250 for each tie and $100 for each shutout. In U.S. dollars, too.
The Stars should finish ahead of the St. Louis Blues, who also have a new coach, Al Arbour, and half a dozen new young players, including former Denver University All-America George Morrison. Coach Arbour's toughest job will be finding a replacement for himself on defense.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and Oakland Seals all are about evenly matched in the dogfight for the fourth and final playoff spot, while the Los Angeles Kings again will tail along on the end. One of Coach Red Kelly's toughest duties will be to keep his Penguins from worrying about their paychecks. The club is for sale—anyone with $7.5 million can buy it—and, in the end, the franchise might be transferred to someplace like Atlanta. Philadelphia will offer its usually sound defense, backed by Bernie Parent in goal, but the Flyers still do not have either a consistent goal scorer or good scoring balance. They missed the playoffs last year by scoring only one goal in their last three games.
Oakland now belongs to Finley, who planned to have his new Seals wear white boots on their skates until someone told him they would look footless on television. How will they finish? See baseball's yearbooks.
Larry Regan, the general manager of the Kings a year ago, made some, well, strange trades late in the season, giving up his goalie, Gerry Desjardins, and his best defenseman, Bill White, among others. Then he convinced Jack Kent Cooke, the Kings' owner whose affection for Regan can be traced to a business connection, that he should coach the team, too. "I am completely familiar with our problems," Regan said.
That's a good thing—because big-league hockey this year has lots of problems. Which brings us right back to Bobby Orr.