Billy Reay, the tough-talking coach of the Chicago Black Hawks, is a man who tends to get uptight over pretty trivial things. Early in the season he deposed Pat Stapleton as captain of his team because Stapleton had held out for more money. Some weeks later he refused to let Stan Mikita, his star center, appear on a postgame TV show because the host had been too critical of Chicago's player trades, particularly that one in which the Hawks let Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield slip away to the Boston Bruins.
Last week Reay was uptight again, but this time, for a change, he had some pretty serious things to get uptight about. Reay's Black Hawks, champions of the East last year and now part of the NHL's expanded West Division, were about to put to the test the efficacy of that ill-advised trade—among many other things—by playing the Montreal Canadiens (still rankling over the rude way the Black Hawks shut them out of Stanley Cup competition last year) and the Bruins (now the top team in the East) in back-to-back games that could cost Reay his lead in the West.
Before the current season got under way, most prophets had taken it for granted that the mighty Hawks would have the divisional championship all trussed up and stuffed like a turkey by Thanksgiving Day, but things did not work out quite that way. Chicago has been in a neck-and-neck race for the West lead with last year's champion St. Louis Blues since the season began, and the Black Hawks were only two points, or one game, ahead of the Blues when they faced the Canadiens on Wednesday night. Even more remarkable in the way of upsets was the fact that the West Division was leading the East in points won, a fact that put Reay's team even more centrally on the spot as it faced the East leaders.
Up to a year ago the expansion teams representing the West had never earned more than 34% of the points racked up in NHL contests. Last week as the Hawks faced Montreal, the West had won 51% of this season's total league points with a win-lose-draw tally of 30-29-13 against East teams. As if to underline the absurdity of this topsy-turvy situation, the California Seals (or whatever it is that Charlie Finley is now calling that last-place team he keeps in Oakland) had not won a single game against their West colleagues but they had beaten East teams—including the Bruins at Boston—five times.
What gives? Superior goaltending and defenses as permanently uptight as Billy Reay himself provide the only answer.
Aware that they cannot score in the same league with the sharpshooters of the East, the Westerners have discovered a way to stop that lethal firepower. Every team now plays a close checking game, designed to blunt scoring to the point where the teams of the old establishment become loose, disorganized and even disheartened. "I realize it is not very appealing to the fans," says Scotty Bowman, general manager of the St. Louis Blues, "but we are doing the only thing we can to beat the East."
To back up this tight defensive play, the West has an army of goaltenders as stubbornly intransigent as Horatius himself, topped by Chicago's Tony Esposito, who won the Vezina Trophy last year as the best goalie in the entire league. Tony, brother of Phil, the hard-hitting forward traded to the Bruins, was sitting tense and motionless in the Hawks' dressing room as he prepared to face the Canadiens. "I get very nervous before a game," he said. "I have a lot of trouble with my emotions and my nerves. I keep my food all right because I eat about seven hours before game time. But I worry about making a mistake. If I make a bad play, the puck is in—and everybody sees it. The feeling makes me sick."
As it turned out, not everybody did see at least one of the goals scored against Tony that night—Billy Reay, for example. It was not exactly a goalie's game, and the Canadiens' third tally—which made the final score 5-3 for the Black Hawks—was bitterly protested by Esposito, who claimed the puck never entered the net. But the red light went on—and Referee Bruce Hood, who was standing alongside the cage, signaled goal as well.
"You've got pretty bad eyes," Reay screamed at Hood.
"It was a good call, Billy," Hood shouted back. "The puck was six inches over the line."
"Mind your own business," Reay yelled.
"I am minding my business," Hood countered, with some logic.
Whether or not the Canadiens deserved that goal, it made little difference. Billy Reay's team had won again and in doing so proved the Black Hawks can still do more than just stop goals. The best moments in the game were provided by young Bryan Campbell, who centers Chicago's top-scoring line for Bobby Hull and Chico Maki, and Defenseman Keith Magnuson, the youngest cop in the NHL. Campbell came to Chicago from L.A. with Goalie Gerry Desjardins and Defenseman Bill White in exchange for Gilles Marotte, Denis DeJordy and Jim Stanfield. If the Hawks' trade with Boston three years ago was one-sided in Boston's favor, that deal with Los Angeles balanced the books. Campbell has scored 10 goals for the Hawks, White is the team's steadiest defenseman and Desjardins is the other half of the best young goaltending pair in the NHL.
"In Los Angeles it was a hard thing to get up for games," Campbell says. "It was always 80° or something out there, and most of the guys couldn't think about hockey in that weather." Now he fits well with veteran Bobby Hull and, along with Stan Mikita and Pit Martin, has given the Hawks excellent balance through center.
Keith Magnuson is scrawny as ever but even tougher after taking boxing lessons all last summer from Johnny Coulon, a former featherweight contender. "Now I shadowbox every day with three-or four-pound weights in each of my hands," he said. "I'm trying to develop a good left jab." Although some might question what this has to do with playing ice hockey, the benefits were apparent last Wednesday night against such tough Montrealers as John Ferguson and Pete Mahovlich. What Keith would prefer to master, though, is one of Coulon's anatomical tricks. "Johnny touches this nerve center in your neck," Keith says, "and you can't even lift him up. He won't tell me how to do it."
It's a pity Johnny wasn't there to touch a nerve or two in Billy Reay's neck at that point, for the coach was still spluttering as Chicago headed out for Boston immediately after the game.
"This schedule is ridiculous," Reay said when they arrived. "This is our second of four games in five nights. Here we are in Boston after playing the night before 1,000 miles away. Don't you think they could have found some other night for us to play in a hotbed like this?"
In a surprise move that night, Reay elected to use his No. 2 goalie, Desjardins, who had not lost once in nine previous starts. "To beat Boston," Reay said, "we've got to skate both ways for 60 minutes. We're not like the Bruins, who can turn it off and turn it on. If we don't skate, we're in trouble all the time."
Alas, however, the Black Hawks rarely skated this night and the Bruins took a 3-0 lead in the first period. As Reay predicted, they turned themselves off for a while in the third period, so the Black Hawks scored twice within 12 seconds, but a few minutes later, in true Bruin style, they turned on again to protect their lead, and the game ended with Chicago down 3-2.
Back in the dressing room, Reay gradually talked himself down to earth as he pondered the seemingly venial sins of his top defenseman. "Magnuson's got a lot to learn," he said. "O.K., he took a five-minute penalty for fighting, but he took out a pretty good player with him." Reay was referring to Boston's equally pugnacious forward, Derek Sanderson, who also got five minutes. "But then," Reay went on, "he let Sanderson get under his skin, so he acts up and gets a 10-minute misconduct and we lose him for the game. We can't lose Magnuson for the game when we're only down by a goal.
"Well," the anguished coach concluded at last, "we picked up two points—a split. I have no complaints." But, an impartial observer was forced to think, it was not precisely the way Coach Billy Reay would have chosen to celebrate Thanksgiving.