Fans, the question is this: Do you want quality or parity in your hockey? Forget about having both. If you want quality, stick with the NHL—at least on those nights when the Bruins or Rangers or Canadiens or Black Hawks come to town. But if you want parity—you know, contests between teams of more or less equal inability—then switch to the WHA. Most games in the new league ought to resemble a Vancouver Canuck scrimmage, with scores like 10-8 and 9-7, which means the spectators should not be exposed to many of the 10-2 and 8-1 things played so often in the NHL. As Derek Sanderson of the Philadelphia Blazers says, "The WHA will be a demolition derby."
There are a number of things WHA fans can look forward to. For instance—assuming the judges let him play—Bobby Hull might score 120 goals, with, say, 12 in one game against the Los Angeles Sharks. Final score: Jets 19, Sharks 13. Some night Quebec City's J. C. Tremblay will introduce his famous side-straddle semi-shuffle and become the first defenseman ever to play keep-away with the puck for 60 minutes. Another night Cleveland Goaltender Gerry Cheevers will arrive late for a game in L.A. because he did not want to miss the last race at Hollywood Park. Sanderson will lose a face-off to some flat-topped kid from Saskatchewan and get mad enough to throw a lemon meringue pie at Coach Johnny McKenzie. "I think you'll find that the WHA will make hockey fun again for the players as well as the fans," Sanderson says with a dead-serious expression. "We're not going to have any stuffed shirts around here."
The best teams will be Winnipeg in the West and the New England Whalers in the East. According to Jet Coach Bobby Hull, Left Wing Bobby Hull will return to the electric style he displayed in Chicago before the Black Hawks forced him to become a back-checker. That is, Hull once again will be firing away at goalies from all angles. Taking no chances, Hull brought along his playmaker from Chicago, Center Christian Bordeleau. Winnipeg will have the top goaltending in the West, with Ernie Wakely (ex-St. Louis) and Joe Daley (Detroit). On defense Bob Woytowich and Larry Hornung, regulars in the NHL last year, know their places, which means they rarely abandon their goaltender.
Rather than spend money it did not have for players such as Hull and Sanderson, Minnesota has filled its roster with local boys who made good and a few established but uncelebrated pros, including Wayne Connelly, Mike McMahon and Ted Hampson, who once played well for the rival North Stars. Goaltenders Mike Curran and Jack McCartan, both of whom starred for the United States in Olympic competition, Defenseman Dick Paradise and Forwards Mike Antonovich, Keith Christiansen, Bill Klatt and Frank Saunders all have Minnesota connections that the Fighting Saints hope will help lure paying spectators. "We don't have any stars," says Coach Glen Sonmor, who previously coached at the University of Minnesota, "but we will hold our own."
Houston signed 10 of its first 14 draft choices and 12 Aeros have NHL experience, including a rough defenseman, John Schella (Vancouver), and Center Gordon Labossiere (Minnesota). "We got more of our top choices than any other team in the league," brags Coach Bill Dineen. The Aeros seem strong through the middle, with Wayne Rutledge and Don McLeod, both out of the NHL, in goal; Schella, Larry Hale and Dune McCallum on defense and Labossiere and Brian McDonald at center ice. Schella will be the policeman. What the Aeros lack is scoring strength on the wings. Ted Taylor (Vancouver) may be the leading scorer, although he has been a defensive specialist heretofore.
Alberta will play in an Edmonton arena known as The Klondike Palace and, like Minnesota, will feature homebodies, including five former captains of the amateur Edmonton Oil Kings. Two of these, Defenseman Alan Hamilton and Center Eddie Joyal, were NHL regulars a year ago. The Oilers' best player and probably the most reckless skater in the league is Center Jim Harrison, another defector from Toronto. To help Goalies Jack Norris and Ken Brown, Coach Ray Kinasewich persuaded Glenn Hall, former net minder extraordinary for Chicago and St. Louis, to become an assistant coach. But there is a scarcity of capable wings, and Kinasewich says, "All I expect of my young wingers is that they show up for the games on time and put on their equipment. Anything else will be a bonus." One certainty: the Oilers will lose money playing in their 5,200-seat arena. They anticipate a $500,000 first-year deficit.
In Los Angeles the Sharks have a marketing director, a street-sales staff, a telephone-sales staff and a speakers' bureau, not to mention the stamp lickers who have mailed brochures to every man, woman and child between San Francisco and Mexico City. One other thing they have working for them is the guaranteed annual collapse of their local rivals, the NHL Kings. What the Sharks do not have, however, is many hockey players. Mike Byers, who was the Kings' best two seasons ago, is the Sharks' best now.
In Chicago, ruddy-faced Coach Marcel Pronovost will not see facsimiles of his old Detroit teammate Gordie Howe as he watches the Cougars thrash clumsily about. Empty seats probably will be their punishment.
In the East Division New England is a smorgasbord of NHL jumpers, U.S. Olympians and Boston University alumni. General Manager and Coach Jack Kelley, who guided BU to the NCAA championship the last two years, has the strongest defense in the league, thanks to the NHL. Kelley lured Brad Selwood and Ricky Ley from Toronto, Jim Dorey from New York and Teddy Green from the Bruins, and rounded out his coup by getting Goaltender Al Smith from Detroit.
The Whalers' top scoring threats all have Boston backgrounds. Center Larry Pleau grew up in nearby Lynn before moving on to the Montreal Canadiens. Tommy Williams and Tom Webster were with the Bruins. Tim Sheehy, Kevin Ahearne and John Cunniff played for Boston College, and John Danby, Mike Hyndman and Toot Cahoon for Boston U. "I think the top college players can step right into pro hockey," Kelley says. "After all, hockey is still a game of passing and shooting, no matter where you play it." Yes, there is that.
The Whalers already have sold more than 8,000 season tickets for the 19 games they will play in Boston Garden, and they expect to sell out the 6,000-seat Boston Arena for their other 20 home games. So far they have not been able to clear April playoff dates for the larger Garden, but as one club official said, "If the Bruins don't make the playoffs, we'll have our pick of dates."
By signing Bernie Parent, Derek Sanderson and Player-Coach Johnny McKenzie, Philadelphia bought more charisma than the town's NHL Flyers ever had. Unfortunately, that leaves the Blazers with a three-man team. "It will be a whole new bag for me," Sanderson says. "For years the people in Philly have booed me and spit at me. Now they're going to love me."
Although it was the last team to enter the WHA, Cleveland had a productive recruiting season. Besides netting Goalie Cheevers from Boston—he already has purchased a home in suburban Rocky River—the Crusaders wooed Gerry Pinder, Paul Shymr and Gary Jarrett away from the Golden Seals and signed several solid minor league veterans, including Center Jim Wiste and Wing Grant Erickson. As one innovation for fans, the Crusaders intend to play eight doubleheaders in Cleveland. No, they will not play two games in one night; the minor league Cleveland Barons will open the program, then the Crusaders will finish it.
To hear General Manager Marvin Milkes tell it, New York has signed 24 Bobby Orrs, 10 Bobby Hulls and six Ken Drydens—at least that is what it sounds like he is saying. The Raiders have signed Bobby Sheehan, Ron Ward, Alton White, Garry Peters, Jamie Kennedy. Norm Ferguson and Kent Douglas, which means they lack quality forwards and defensemen. They also need a capable goaltender. The battle between the Raiders and the New York Islanders for the title of Fun City's worst hockey team may be more exciting than following the Rangers.
Coach Maurice (Rocket) Richard and J. C. Tremblay will be magic names in Quebec City, but the Nordiques will hardly be a magic team. Most of their players have French connections—men like Rejean Giroux, Francois Lacombe and Pierre Roy—but only five had NHL connections. Too bad.
In the Canadian capital Ottawa has a Hull, too. He is Garry Hull, Bobby's little brother. But the Nationals possess no goaltender with experience, no defensemen with experience and only a few forwards, like Wayne Carleton and Guy Trottier, who know where the net is. They will be to the WHA what the Washington Senators were to baseball.