Gump Worsley would be watching this Chicago game from the bench but, as always, the Minnesota goaltender had an opinion. "To be honest," Worsley said, "Bobby Hull was the one player who upset the balance in the West. The Black Hawks don't have him anymore, so they're back with the rest of us. Or maybe we're up with them. Whichever it is, they're not running away from us this year like they always used to." When Hull was jetting around the ice, Chicago typically locked up the NHL's West Division championship by Thanksgiving. When he bolted to the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association during the summer, along with the best wishes of the North Stars he also took the nine goals that won games for the Black Hawks last season, four that gave them ties, 14 that gave them 1-0 leads, eight power-play goals and three shorthanded goals. Hull never seemed to waste his efforts on trivial scoring plays for the Black Hawks; last year, in fact, 38 of his 50 goals were so-called "important" scores. "The Black Hawks may miss Hull," Worsley said, "but we don't, that's for sure."
As the Hawks struggled into Minnesota for Saturday night's game they held a shaky four-point lead over the second-place North Stars. Chicago had lost three of its previous four games, including home-ice embarrassments inflicted by Pittsburgh and St. Louis and an 8-2 whipping in Buffalo, while Minnesota had dropped only one of its last 14 games in the raucous Met. So this figured to be a fair test of Chicago's pride and character. If the Hawks lost, they would be but two points ahead of the North Stars—and in a continuing slugging match. A win would put them six points up and pulling away.
"Our trouble," explained Chicago's Stan Mikita, "has been that we no longer have the guy who always got the big goal for us when we needed it." Not having Hull has presented serious defensive problems for the Hawks, too. "Never, never have I had to stop—or try to stop—so many good scoring chances," said Goalie Tony Esposito. "When Bobby was on the ice for 30 minutes a game the other teams had to worry about him all that time. They couldn't get very ambitious themselves because Bobby would burn them at the other end. Without Bobby to worry about, they're not afraid to take liberties." Esposito shook his head. "We lost only 17 games all last year," he said, "but we've lost 14 games already—and we're not even halfway through the schedule."
Not surprisingly the Black Hawks were pretty uptight all week, particularly Mikita, although on the ice he resembled the spry young center who won four scoring championships in five seasons during the mid-'60s. "It's my skating," Mikita said. "For the first time in five or six years I've been able to skate effortlessly. My back hasn't caused me one bit of trouble, thank goodness. As a result I don't have to pump myself—you know, force myself—to get places. I'm not even conscious of the fact that I'm skating. I just do it naturally."
With Hull in Winnipeg, Mikita has tried valiantly to become Chicago's leader. "I put the onus on myself," he said. "I've been here 12 years, longer than anyone else, and I feel I should try to do some of the things Bobby always did. But I don't know if today's kids buy that stuff anymore, particularly in professional sports."
Early in the week Mikita criticized the Chicago management. "I think we might be winning more if Pat Stapleton was still playing regularly," he said. "Here we are, still fighting for our lives. I think we could be doing better. Pat and Bill White were the best defense team in hockey last year. Now they're not together anymore and Pat's sitting on the bench. Can an All-Star change that much in one season? I'm sure if he played more often Pat could help us. We're having a few problems moving the puck in our own end, and Pat's great at moving it out, you know."
Stapleton, one of Team Canada's best defensemen in the series against the Soviet Union, broke a bone in his foot at the start of the season, and during his recovery lost his regular job to a promising 20-year-old rookie, Phil Russell. Now Stapleton takes an occasional shift on defense, a spot assignment or two at center and an occasional turn on the power play.
"I don't know what's going on, and I don't think Pat does," Mikita said. "Maybe they're slapping him on the wrist for talking about retiring earlier this year, just like they took his captaincy away three years ago when he held out for awhile. It makes me wonder about myself. Suppose I decide to sign a contract here for next year, but it doesn't go smoothly. Will they put me on the bench?"
Mikita's pronouncements prompted the Hawks to call him into the front office and politely gag him. For three days Stan refused to say anything, walking around with the index finger of his right hand pressed against his mouth. "I said it," he confirmed, "and I meant it, but I don't want to discuss the matter again."
The Hawks had some other problems. Defenseman Keith Magnuson seems to have forgotten how to hit people. The chief enforcer up front, Jerry (King Kong) Korab, 6'3", 220 pounds, has also turned tame. And both Esposito and Gary Smith, who combined to allow the fewest goals-against in the NHL last season, have been consistently inconsistent in goal. "Team Canada drained me," said Esposito. "It's been a long year already."
Meanwhile, the North Stars had not lost any player of consequence to the WHA and were rolling merrily along, playing the same three lines, the same penalty-killing units, the same defense pairings and, well, practically the same everything in every game. Hockey's most elderly team, the North Stars like to call themselves the Golden Oldies and, as Lou Nanne, who at 31 is one of the young Stars, says, "We're cheering like crazy for the Washington Redskins. Go get 'em, Georgie Baby."
Nanne may be the indispensable North Star—if not on the ice, where he plays right wing on the checking line, then certainly in the dressing room, where he has become the club's Duke of Discount or, as Worsley calls him, "I Can Get It for You Wholesale Louie." Want a deal on a new car? See Louie. Need a new raincoat or a new suit or a snowmobile or a snow thrower? See Louie.
Nanne took a strange route to the NHL. He played junior hockey in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, with the Esposito brothers, but instead of turning pro he attended the University of Minnesota on a hockey scholarship. After graduating in 1963 he stayed in Minneapolis and became a full-time envelope salesman, a part-time color man on local television shows, a weekend hockey player and an assistant coach at Minnesota. When the North Stars joined the NHL in 1967, Nanne was their radio-TV color man and handled the postgame scoreboard show. At the same time he also was working with the U.S. Olympic team. He played at Grenoble in 1968 ("I took out my U.S. citizenship papers in 1967") and then turned pro with the North Stars for the last month of the '68 season.
Except for a stay in the minors, Nanne has been with the North Stars ever since. Last year he finally won a regular job—and scored 21 goals.
The one thing that rankles Nanne about his career in the NHL is the fact that he has never scored against Tony Esposito. "I owned him as a kid in the Soo," he says. "I did score on him once last year, but the referee said I hit the puck with my stick above my shoulder. My goal, if it had counted, would have cost Tony a shutout and a bonus. I'll get him someday."
Someday was not Saturday. Understandably there was great optimism in Minnesota as the largest crowd of the season, 15,632, braved subzero temperatures and ice-slick roads to storm the Met. And early in the first period Nanne had two excellent opportunities to beat Esposito. The first time he was alone in front, with the net open, but his back was to the goal, and he rolled a backhander wide. The next time he intercepted a clearing pass and fired quickly at Esposito, who just deflected the shot with an outstretched leg pad.
Then Mikita took over for the Black Hawks. Late in the second period he picked up a loose puck in the North Star zone, moved in and beat young Goaltender Gilles Gilbert with a rising shot through a maze of players. Early in the third period he poked the puck away from a Minnesota defenseman, skated behind Gilbert and set up Cliff Koroll in front for an easy goal. Esposito contained the North Stars throughout as the Hawks won 2-0. "My best game since Moscow in September," Tony said.
Mikita's two points thrust him into the scoring leadership in the West Division—19 goals and 34 assists for 53 points—and the game conceivably set the tone for the rest of the season. Though the Hawks certainly are not the team they used to be, Mikita's performance was "big" even by Hull standards. Next day in a nationally televised game Mikita blazed on, getting a goal and four assists in Chicago's 5-4 victory over Boston to give his scoring totals—and all the Hawks—a mighty lift. The North Stars suddenly were closer to seventh place than first.
While the top four teams in the East—Montreal, Boston, Buffalo and New York—all seem assured of Stanley Cup playoff spots, only the Black Hawks now appear certain of a place in the West. Minnesota has that geriatric problem. Philadelphia generally forgets to pack its muscular body benders for road games; it has won only three away from home all year. Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and St. Louis all have cup ambitions. But bet on one thing: the California Golden Seals are a cinch for last place. Only a Bobby Hull could lift that woebegone club higher.