Accustomed though they are to humiliation and despair, Philadelphia sports fans could hardly believe their wary eyes last week as $3.5 million worth of shiny new hockey talent went crashing to the ice. There they came, the gaudy Blazers, among the biggest, boldest spenders of the infant World Hockey Association and, sob, there they went: Center Derek Sanderson, possessor of a $2.3 million contract, with an injured shoulder; Goalie Bernie Parent ($750,000) with a broken foot; and Player-Coach Johnny McKenzie ($450,000), self-banished temporarily from the bench in favor of crusty old Phil Watson, once the mind and mouth of the New York Rangers. As the week ended the Blazers had settled into last place in the WHA's East Division with a 1-8 record, dutifully following the example of the town's woebegone baseball Phillies, football Eagles and basketball 76ers.
It was Sanderson above all—trendy and tactless but a superior player when he was a Boston Bruin with McKenzie—who was supposed to win hockey fans away from Bobby Clarke and the Flyers of the National Hockey League. Or at least draw enough new ones to Civic Center (formerly Convention Hall) to pay his keep. Not surprisingly, Sanderson was in a let-'em-eat-cake mood. "I got an ulcer in Boston over winning," he said. "I ain't gonna get one in Philadelphia over losing."
By so saying, Sanderson assumed a central role in a developing morality play. Bum shoulder or no, bad Derek conceded that he was not in very good shape to play hockey anyway. Followers of the Canada-Russia series will recall that the fast, fit Russians exploited the Canadians' soft underbelly. The question was bound to come: Doesn't a handsomely paid star like Sanderson owe the fans a little fitness? And just how fit are North American hockey players? It was clear last week that the best-conditioned teams were doing far better in the standings than their more lackadaisical opponents. One was Detroit, innocent of superstars but winging along at a 6-2 pace. Another was Buffalo, a product of recent expansion but now, if you can believe it, undefeated. Still another: Montreal, a dynasty reawakening.
And how sharp was the contrast in Philadelphia between Sanderson, he of the $31,000 Rolls-Royce, the circular water beds, the gossip-column flings with Joey Heatherton, and Clarke, the Flyers' quiet kid from Flin Flon, Manitoba—married, a suburbanite and a mere $100,000-a-year player. There was a difference at the gate, too. The Flyers were averaging 14,732 spectators, the Blazers 4,920.
"Nothing is going right for us," Sanderson complained Wednesday morning when the Blazers came home to play the Cleveland Crusaders after opening the season with six straight losses on the road. He didn't know the half of it. In the game's first minute Parent broke his foot while making a routine save—and now he will not play for at least a month. Moments later a Cleveland rookie making maybe $20,000 checked Sanderson—and there went his bad shoulder again. Unable to play because he had broken an arm in a preseason game, McKenzie buried his face in his good arm as the Crusaders won an 8-2 laugher. "There'll be some changes before Friday night," McKenzie said. "This is ridiculous."
Well, one change put Chief Scout Watson behind the bench as McKenzie took to the stands to get the overall picture. A new goalie, Yves Archambault, was brought in from Roanoke, Va., of all places. Nevertheless, the Blazers finally won a game, defeating the Los Angeles Sharks 5-4. "That figures," Sanderson said. "They pay me millions, and we don't win a game until I leave the lineup. Maybe I ought to give them back some of the money. They can have $200,000 if they want it."
What Sanderson and a few dozen other members of hockey's nouveaux riches could give without pain in the pocketbook is old-fashioned effort. "There's no doubt about it," Sanderson himself said. "We're all making so much money that we've become complacent." Before the Russians came along and rudely spoiled the good life, most hockey players thought a push-up was something you did to get out of bed around noontime and a jog was a doctor's prescription for an elderly eccentric with irregular heartbeat. Judging by the success of Soviet-style conditioning elsewhere, those thoughts may become as obsolete as $25,000 salaries for rookies just up from Shawinigan Falls.
It is not mere coincidence that the three leading teams in the NHL—the Canadiens, the Buffalo Sabres and the new-model Detroit Red Wings—all have become physical-fitness freaks with visions not only of winning the Stanley Cup but also the world's wrist-wrestling championship and the Boston Marathon. Nor is it coincidence that some of the game's worst-conditioned teams—for example, the Bobby Orr-less Bruins and the Blazers—look as though they are skating on snow tires.
In Buffalo a new coach, Joe Crozier, recruited a former wrestling bad man named Fred Atkins and charged him with sharpening the Sabres. Each morning before practice all the Sabres do 40 minutes of calisthenics for Atkins, and after that they take off on a three-mile jog. "This year," Crozier says, "we've been in better shape in the third period than every team we've played."
For last Saturday's clash at the Montreal Forum of hockey's only undefeated teams—the Sabres and Canadiens—Crozier had Atkins on hand to supervise a lengthy morning exercise, unheard of in conventional warfare. Muscles bulging, the Sabres scored a third-period goal to tie the Canadiens 3-3 and push their undefeated streak to nine games. Buffalo's No. 1 line, with Gilbert Perreault centering for Richard Martin and Rene Robert, accounted for two more goals—both by Martin, who has 11 already in his sophomore-jinx season—to lead the NHL with 22 goals and 55 points.
In Montreal the Canadiens do not schedule three-mile jogs down Ste. Catherine Street, but they do begin each workout with 20 minutes of trunk-twisting contortions on the ice, featuring pushups, sit-ups, body rolls and belly flops, before anyone dares fire the first practice shot at Goaltender Ken Dryden. "Coincidence or not," Dryden said, "the only day we didn't do the exercises was the same day I pulled a muscle in my leg during practice. Now I hear we may start playing basketball on Mondays, just like the Russians."
"Maybe the Russians woke some people up," said Detroit's general manager, Ned Harkness, "but all we are doing is what Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy and Vince Lombardi did in football. We are trying every possible means to make our players better." The Red Wings have discarded the mindless shoot-and-circle training drills traditional in the NHL for game-situation exercises, and all players take part in a rigid health program.
Along the same thoughtful lines, the Red Wings have installed a new training facility and have undertaken the most imaginative scouting program in the NHL. Last year Harkness decided to scout the Olympics at Sapporo, so Scout Jack Paterson took a cram course in basic Japanese and flew off to find the next Gordie Howe. He returned with 24-year-old Thommie Bergman, the top defenseman on Sweden's national team. Quick with his stick, strong on his feet and a thousand times more aggressive than the normal Swedish hockey player, Bergman proved immediately that he could play in the NHL—a full three periods a game. As Philadelphians await the return of their prodigal stepsons, that is the kind of fitness they hope someday to get—and fully deserve.