The doctors who removed Punch Imlach's gallbladder last week issued the following bulletin about the postoperative condition of the Buffalo Sabres' testy general manager: "The patient seems in a very cheerful mood." Gallbladder or no gallbladder, seeing your third-year expansionists way up in the standings in the National Hockey League East—and ahead of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins—is reason enough for euphoria. For once the Sabres are not causing Imlach any pain; in fact, they may be just what the doctor ordered for his heart condition and his sizzling stomach.
Imlach has created the Sabres with a surgeon's touch, melding the recklessness of youth with the steadying influence of age to produce a sports team that the people of Buffalo finally can observe without developing an ache or two of their own. Indeed, the Sabres could boast: 1) the highest-scoring line in hockey—a mod group of Gallic Canadians known as The French Connection, 2) the outstanding rookie in the" NHL, 20-year-old Defenseman Jim Schoenfeld, who prefers spaghetti out of the can to steak from the pan as a pregame meal, and 3) the second best defensive record in the league, thanks mostly to 42-year-old Tim Horton, the Donut King of Ontario, who was playing in the NHL before Schoenfeld was born, and 30-year-old Goaltender Roger Crozier, who gave up his own gallbladder—and appendix, too—to conquer the interior awfuls he used to feel during every game.
The French Connection has 22-year-old Gilbert Perreault of Victoriaville, Quebec, centering for 23-year-old Rene Robert of Trois Rivier√®s, Quebec, and 21-year-old Rick Martin of Montreal. After a brilliant start—58 points in 10 games as the Sabres rolled along undefeated—the Frenchmen slowed down and scored only eight points in Buffalo's next five games. As a result, Coach Joe Crozier—no relation to his goaltender—may be disconnecting them shortly.
"The trouble is," Crozier says, "that a classic line must have a big, tough guy working the corners, and the kids, though they're aggressive enough, don't specialize in roughhouse play." As in Philadelphia last Saturday night where the Flyers, hockey's premier collection of home-ice brawlers, beat the Sabres 3-1 with such Muscle Beach maulers as Bob Kelly, Don Saleski and Dave Schultz battering the Frenchmen at every turn. "The other teams all know that the kids are our only real scoring threats," Crozier admitted. "When they stop them we're in trouble." To get some Buffalo muscle alongside Perreault and Martin, Crozier finally switched Schoenfeld from defense to left wing late in the Philadelphia game. Schoenfeld was agreeable. "I like to hit in the corners," said Jim, a rusty-haired, 6'2", 205-pound strongboy who was playing amateur hockey in Niagara Falls a year ago.
Perreault and Martin played together on the Montreal Junior Canadiens for several seasons, and now they share a garden apartment in the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville. Perreault, potentially hockey's next Jean Beliveau, speaks little English and is extremely shy (during the Philadelphia trip, he went into a drugstore and haltingly asked the countergirl for a "brush teeth"), while Martin speaks French and English fluently and is outgoing enough for both.
On the ice Perreault is as shifty as Bobby Orr as he wheels and deals from his bowlegged base, consistently leaving defensemen wondering where he went. "Gil's so shifty, though, that he does not shoot enough," says one NHL goaltender. "On a breakaway, or even when he gets the puck in close, he'll usually try to fake out the goaltender instead of shooting the puck past him. A lot of goalies have discovered that on breakaways he always makes the same move, shifting the puck to his backhand and trying to beat them low to the glove side. But he's only 22 and we're all afraid he's going to learn pretty soon."
Martin, who has scored 13 goals already this year, usually is the chief beneficiary of Perreault's passes. Last year Martin's heavy shot beat NHL goalies 44 times—breaking Perreault's previous record for rookies (38)—and so far this year he has shown some new moves to the inside. Martin, though, does not backcheck very often, particularly when someone has taken the puck from him or the goaltender has blocked a good shot. "He sulks too much," one player says, "and he gets a bit bullheaded. But he's young, too."
Schoenfeld is the youngest Sabre, and like the last Rookie of the Year from Niagara Falls, Derek Sanderson, he has flair. He wears $250 French-knit suits, has a penthouse apartment in Fort Erie, Ontario ("Actually," he says, "it's on the second floor of a motel") and is not timid about knocking opponents down. "I'm the happiest kid alive," he says. "No reason to be sad, not when you're 20 years old and making the money I'm making." Schoenfeld does not squander it on food. "Cooking for yourself is a drag," he says. "I just open a can and throw what's in it into the pan."
After drafting two high-scoring forwards—Perreault and Martin—the first two years, Imlach turned to the defense last June and plucked Schoenfeld. To help Schoenfeld he also persuaded Horton to play at least another season. How? With about $125,000, which could buy a lot of cinnamon crullers in his donut shops. "I watched Timmy play on television when I was just a little kid," Schoenfeld says. "Then I met him here in Buffalo and he told me that I'm making more money in my first year than he made in his 15th season, and he always seemed to be on the All-Star team."
Even with Horton's help, though, Schoenfeld had a rough training camp. Imlach wondered if he might need a year in the minors. "It was my fault," Schoenfeld says. "I got to know all the guys in camp and we became buddy-buddy. Then they'd come at me during a scrimmage and I wouldn't want to hit them or hurt them." Schoenfeld corrected the problem during the exhibition schedule, however, and now is the Sabres' No. 1 policeman.
"It's going to be rough tonight," he said before the game in Philadelphia. "The Flyers started a fight with Rick in the first minute here a week ago. If they start one tonight, I'll be there." He was, and when the period was over he and Kelly had gone to the penalty box together three different times.
"It may be that Schoenfeld will have to play wing with Perreault and Martin," Joe Crozier said afterward. "But then, what do I do with my defense?"
Good question. But with Horton not only playing but serving as tutor-in-residence for Schoenfeld and another rookie defenseman, Larry Carriere, he may come up lucky. This is the second straight season Horton has been lured out of retirement by big money. Last year the Pittsburgh Penguins had a $105,000 persuader. "They tell me I'm helping them," Horton says, "but they're helping me, too. They take the puck up ice for me. All I have to do is stay behind and cover up. My old legs don't get up the ice like they used to."
He's just being modest. Undeniably, Horton has been Roger Crozier's chief rush-crusher in front of the net, too. Crozier retired a time or two himself when he played for the Red Wings, but now, at 30, he seems lively and well enough to last another five or six years. "I still don't sleep nights before a game or after a game, and I don't eat very well," he says, "but I feel one helluva lot better than I ever did in Detroit."
Crozier always had stomach trouble when he was with the Red Wings; customarily he went to Florida for a week in midseason to restore his nerves. "I had these problems," he says, "but there was so much pressure to win in Detroit that management never could communicate with me." Indeed, when Ned Harkness took over as coach, the first thing he did was trade Crozier to the fledgling Sabres. "I don't want a goalie who never knows until game time whether he'll be able to play," Harkness said at the time. Crozier's pains persisted in Buffalo, so last summer he finally had his operation. "They removed my gallbladder and appendix and they also enlarged the largest tube to the pancreas. I still can't drink liquor or eat any pizza, but at least life is bearable."
Bearable for Crozier, perhaps, but not comfortable for NHL shooters, who have beat him only an average of 2.13 times per game this season. Who needs a gallbladder anyway, Punch?