The news from CHICAGO is all up, though in its division there is hardly any up to go. Bobby Hull says he feels terrific. "Better than in several years." Stan Mikita says his back pains have practically disappeared, so he will not spend the season wrapped like a mummy or score the ridiculous total of only 24 goals. Pat Stapleton says his knees are just perfect, no problem. Defenseman Keith Magnuson says he has taken judo and karate lessons. Dennis Hull says he feels O.K. if his brother does. And Tony Esposito says the summer's pizza and ravioli and lasagna and fettucini did not get to him. He is ready to spread out in front of the goal wider than ever.
So that settles first place in the West. Even an All-Star squad assembled from the six other teams in the division could not beat the Black Hawks over 78 games. Coach Billy Reay's toughest job, aside from keeping Magnuson out of the penalty box at least some of the time, may be convincing the Hawks that they can take the Stanley Cup away from the Canadiens.
There will be only two significant changes in the lineup that carried the Hawks to the seventh game of the cup finals last May. Gary Smith has been brought in from California to replace injury-prone Gerry Desjardins as Tony Esposito's substitute. And the Golden Jet returns to the Black Hawk lineup after an absence of some five years.
Bobby Hull hasn't really been away—just his hair. For the sum of $900 he has had 91 plugs of golden locks transplanted into his balding scalp by the same man who gave Frank Sinatra his hair. "It will take a month or so to grow in," says Bobby. "When it does I'll look like the old me again."
If somehow the Black Hawks fail to parlay Hull, hair, etc., into a divisional championship, the fault will lie with MINNESOTA. For once the North Stars seem solid enough to justify the hopes of their boisterous fans. Ted Harris has become the anchor of what used to be an erratic defense. "We tried 28 different defensemen in our first four years," says Wren Blair, the general manager. "Now we think we have the ones we want." When circumstances suggest aggression, the Stars always call on Dennis O'Brien. He is not a graceful skater, but he throws a mean check. And Cesare Maniago probably is the most underrated goaltender in the NHL.
Minnesota's problem will be getting goals. When Jackie Gordon took over as coach last year, he preached defensive hockey so long and so loud that most of his forwards forgot how to score. The North Stars were the league's lowest-scoring team. Only the line of rookie Center Jude Drouin and Wings Danny Grant and Bill Goldsworthy was any kind of threat.
In an attempt to get more punch, Gordon has dropped Grant to the second line and traded for Bob Nevin and Dennis Hextall, both of whom scored more than 20 goals last season.
Now that Scotty Bowman has moved to Montreal as coach of the Canadiens, ST. LOUIS may discover how the have-nots live in the West. Bowman was removed last spring after a row with the controlling Salomons, Sid Jr. and Sid III. The latter had demanded a louder voice in picking players. When Bowman, a master recruiter, trader and coach, insisted that he call things his own way, the Salomons fired him. Enter as coach Sid Abel, who was dismissed by the Red Wings last January. Abel is known in St. Louis as Sid V. (There is a Sid IV. He is Sid III's son, age 10, and so far he has had no voice in player movements.)
The Blues' on-the-ice problems begin in goal, a position where they were always strong in Bowman's days. Glenn Hall has retired—definitely, this time—and Ernie Wakely has succeeded him, with rookie Peter McDuffe and Jim McLeod in reserve.
If Carl Brewer plays all season and Jimmy Roberts does not exhaust himself skating 35 minutes a game, the defense at least will be respectable. But it may have to be more than that.
Except for Garry Unger, the Blues no longer have a dependable scorer. Gene Carr, a young man who resembles Unger, was the Blues' No. 1 draft choice. He will play regularly at center. While he was not a notable scorer even as a minor-leaguer at Flin Flon, he may develop in that regard. Abel and the Blues' very large body of fans devoutly hope so.
Meanwhile, hockey is booming in PITTSBURGH, even though the Penguins missed the playoffs a year ago. Four wealthy young Pennsylvanians have purchased the franchise, and the players no longer will wonder if their paychecks can also be used as basketballs. The new owners immediately signed Red Kelly to a five-year, $250,000 contract as coach and general manager. Kelly, in turn, waved a $100,000, one-year contract at 41-year-old defenseman Tim Horton and persuaded him not to retire to his donut shops in Ontario. All this spending has created vigorous enthusiasm at the ticket wickets; so far season sales have increased 60% (to 5,000) and the Penguins should average more than 10,000 spectators per game.
But once again Kelly has little talent to work with. His clubs win games on close checking, hustle and luck; they lose because the other team is usually better. Last year, while compiling a record of 21-37-20 with a roster of raw kids and graying veterans, the Penguins were competitive in 77 of their 78 games until the late minutes. Their only lopsided loss was a 6-1 game with New York.
What talent Kelly had kept getting hurt. Bryan Watson broke his leg, Lowell MacDonald had two knee operations, Ken Schinkel broke his collarbone, rookie Greg Polis developed mononucleosis and Goalie Les Binkley hurt his knee.
"Things can only get better," Kelly says. They will. Horton will steady the defense. Syl Apps, Jean Pronovost and Polis form a young, productive line. And all of last year's casualties are healthy again. Pittsburgh should make the playoffs.
Like most PHILADELPHIA teams, the Flyers are a mystery. New Coach Fred Shero still cannot believe how inept his defensemen are, particularly when one has the puck on his stick. "We've got to make some changes back there," he says. In one exhibition game, Shero stopped counting after the Flyers' defense passed the puck to the opposition for the eighth time in 10 minutes.
Besides the problem on defense, the Flyers may also have trouble in goal for the first time. Doug Favell, No. 1 now that Bernie Parent has been traded to Toronto, has a history of inconsistency, and for 10 years no one has been able to predict what Bruce Gamble, now the No. 2 Philly goalie, will do.
Since their first days the Flyers have needed an explosive scorer. They got one, Mike Walton, from Toronto in the Parent deal, then immediately forwarded him to Boston. Very strange.
Both California teams face similar dilemmas. For one thing, there is the weather. How do you spend the day lounging about the pool or chasing a golf ball and then try to play a game on ice that night? For another, there is the travel. "We fly close to 100,000 miles a year," says Larry Regan, the coach and general manager of LOS ANGELES. "The teams back East travel 30,000 miles a year at the most."
Nevertheless, the Kings should show substantial improvement. The line of Mike Byers, juha Widing and Bob Berry comes off a 77-goal season, and Wing Ross Lonsberry scored 25 as the Kings trailed only Chicago in the goal-scoring column. Rookie Al McDonough, who had a 35-goal season at Springfield, and experienced Ralph Backstrom, the former Canadien, were outstanding in training camp.
What ruined the Kings last year was a general defensive breakdown. The forwards rarely backchecked, and the goal-tending was porous. L.A. was the least-penalized team in the league, certainly not something to brag about. Now aging Harry Howell may stabilize the defense, and it is possible that rookie Gary Edwards will take the No. 1 goaltending job from Denis DeJordy. "We'll be better," Regan promises.
Charles O. Finley may have had a baseball winner in OAKLAND, but his hockey team there—the California Golden Seals—will be the worst in the NHL. As always, Finley will operate from his Chicago insurance office. His new general manager, Garry Young, plans to work out of his home in Oshawa, Ontario, some 2,500 miles from Oakland. That leaves Freddy Glover in charge of things in California. A few weeks ago Finley hired Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion to coach the Seals, then fired him eight hours later. Good luck to Glover.
The Seals do have one good hockey player—Defenseman Carol Vadnais. They need two new goaltenders, three defensemen and half a dozen forwards. So Finley will have to trade Vadnais, probably to New York or Boston, for some warmer bodies. Poor Finley. If the previous management had not traded California's No. 1 draft pick to Montreal for a few of the Canadiens' rejects, Charlie O. would have landed Guy Lafleur.