For a combo that was picked to finish an easy last in practically everybody's book, Dale Tallon and the Retreads are doing all right. The Vancouver Canucks, to give them their proper name, came into the National Hockey League—along with the Buffalo Sabres—with five strikes against them: the Bruins, the Canadiens, the Rangers, the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs, five of the six established teams that for more years than many remember made up the entire NHL.
For reasons comprehensible only to the governors of hockey's one major league, the two expansion teams brought in at the beginning of this season were both arbitrarily assigned to the East Division, thus pitting the rawest recruits against the most seasoned veterans. It was like inviting the kiddies to the backyard pool and then throwing them into the ocean with the sharks.
"Beating Buffalo is No. 1 for us," said the Canucks' general manager Bud Poile in a discussion of his team's immediate future. "If we go beyond that and beat any of the established teams in the East, that will be peaches, cream and chocolate layer cake."
So, being new to the league and hence responsive to all the tired clichés of the sports pages, the "hungry" young Canucks proceeded to help themselves generously to the goodies. So far they have beaten the Toronto Maple Leafs—their seniors in the league by 53 years—three times and lost not once. And, after their first 28 games in the major league, they had managed to entrench themselves solidly in fourth place, three points ahead of Detroit and only five points behind the Canadiens. "The Vancouver guys look like Stanley Cup champions already whenever we play against them," grumped Maple Leaf President Stafford Smythe.
For Vancouver fans, who had waited not always patiently to get into the big time ever since the NHL was founded, the idea of a Stanley Cup the first time out is pretty exciting, but nobody really believes that could happen. Just having the Canucks in a playoff position is wonder enough, considering what the team has to work with.
Of the 20 players on Vancouver's roster, only Tallon—a 6'1", 195-pound defenseman with some startlingly Orr-like habits—is worthy of real note. The other Canucks—players like Orland Kurtenbach, Andre Boudrias, Wayne Maki, Murray Hall, Gary Doak and Charlie Hodge—have all bounced around the NHL and the minor leagues like so many Ping-Pong balls. According to Coach Hal Laycoe, this is not a bad thing at all. "What we have," he says, "is a lot of coachable players. These guys will listen. They don't think they know everything about the game."
What the players have in Laycoe is a sound fundamentalist who favors defensive tactics and probably knows more about how to coach than anyone in the NHL. Even Jack Kent Cooke, who fired Laycoe as coach of his Los Angeles Kings after a 24-game trial last year, might admit that by now.
Laycoe's budding star, the 20-year-old Tallon, came to the Canucks as a second choice in the amateur draft when Poile lost Gilbert Perreault, the best of the available amateurs, to Buffalo's Punch Imlach. The loss was not too tragic; Vancouver's young second choice has already scored more goals (six) than any defenseman in the league except Orr. He is a strong puck carrier, a dependable player at the point and a stiff body-checker around the goal.
"Sure, we hoped to get Perreault at the draft, but right now we don't have a complaint in the world about the way Dale has played for us," says Poile. "He has more responsibility on the ice than you'd like a 20-year-old to have. Someday he'll help win a Stanley Cup for the people of Vancouver."
A scratch golfer who won the Canadian Junior championship in 1969 and rejected half a dozen golf scholarships to colleges in the U.S., Tallon is already the people's favorite. His picture was on the cover of the Canucks' program for the game against Philadelphia last week (which Vancouver won 5-4) and it helped the program sell out. After the game Dale stood outside the locker room and autographed programs for more than an hour.
"We have an obligation to these people," Tallon says. "Vancouver waited—what was it?—half a century for the NHL to come out here, so we have to play well for these people. We owe it to them. They make us want to play well, too. Sure they greet Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr with standing ovations, but when the game begins they are for the Canucks all the way."
Hockey fans long before the NHL even began, the citizens of Canada's third-largest city have turned out to root the Canucks home at an average of 14,950 for their first 12 games. "The people here waited too long for NHL hockey," says Poile, "and now they want to prove to the world that a Vancouver team should have been in the league years ago."
"Hey," yelled one fan as he left the rink following the Canucks' win over the Flyers, "we belong at last."