So the Bobby Hull Money Crusade is skating out for an encore. Despite Hull's charismatic presence and his unceasing office efforts to promote the league in its rookie year, the WHA's 12 owners suffered a net loss of some $15 million, ranging from a low of $300,000 in Winnipeg to more than $2 million in New York. Among the consequences: during the off-season the Philadelphia Blazers moved to Vancouver and the Ottawa Nationals became the Toronto Toros—or the Toronto Lawn Mowers, as the rival Maple Leafs call them—while the showcase New York team underwent a superficial facial.
So what promise does Season II hold for the bookkeepers? Even with the legendary Gordie Howe performing alongside sons Marty and Mark in Houston, the WHA faces another red ink flood unless people begin coming to the games. Only four franchises—the champion New England Whalers, Hull's Winnipeg Jets, the Quebec Nordiques and the Blazers in Vancouver—seem likely to lose less than $500,000. The Houston Aeros have increased their season-ticket sales from 600 to 2,500 since signing the Howe family en masse, but the total revenue from those 1,900 additional tickets will not even cover the club's salary payments to the three Howes.
Economics aside, New England will romp to another Eastern Division championship and another Avco World Trophy unless the Boston Bruins kidnap Goaltender Al Smith and chain him to the door of their sauna down the corridor at the Boston Garden. Not only is Smith a valuable property, his back-line protection is the strongest in the WHA. At least 12 NHL teams would trade defensemen with the Whalers. Semi reformed tough guy Teddy Green returns as the defensive ringleader, and three former Maple Leafs, Ricky Ley, Brad Selwood and Jim Dorey, are as quick with their fists as they are with their sticks when the enemy arouses their ire.
Offensively the Whalers are strong at center with 39-goal scorers Larry Pleau and Terry Caffery, although Caffery's sore knee may limit his ice time during the early season. The Whalers are powerful on the right wing with Tom Webster (53 goals), Tim Sheehy (33) and Mike Byers (25), and much improved on the left wing where holdover John (Knuckles) French will be joined by NHL defectors Al Karlander, Hugh Harris and Don Blackburn. The Minnesota-born Sheehy may be the classic example of what the WHA has done for hockey. NHL scouts judged Sheehy "too timid and too slow" when he played for Boston College and later the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. Signed by the Whalers, he quickly developed into the most complete right wing in the WHA. "Sheehy is a crackerjack player," says Cleveland Goaltender Gerry Cheevers.
October 21, 1973
Unfortunately for Cheevers, Cleveland does not have enough crackerjacks of its own to challenge the Whalers for first place and will be pressed to finish second again. Cheevers no longer had Bobby Orr out there blocking shots for him, but the ex-Bruin had enough talent of his own to be the WHA's best goaltender last season. Except for Paul Shmyr and an 18-year-old rookie, Tom Edur, the Crusader defensemen are far from agile. Wayne and Larry Hillman, Ray Clearwater and Wayne Muloin seem anchored to the ice in front of Cheevers. "All I know," says Cheevers, "is that they don't let the opposition stand around too long." Coach Bill Needham will test-market a power line of Center Ron Buchanan (37 goals) and Wings Gary Jarrett (40) and Skip Krake—at least until the Blue Cross bills pour in. "They don't have any size or muscle," admits General Manager Jack Vivian, "but they can move the puck. Once they start getting battered, though, maybe we'll change them." Under no circumstances will Needham break up the Jim Wiste (28 goals)-Rich Pumple (21 )-Gerry Pinder (30) line. Instead, he probably will move aggressive Bill Young, acquired from the Minnesota Fighting Saints, into Krake's position as a bodyguard for Buchanan and Jarrett.
The Toronto Toros have a former Maple Leaf (Billy Harris) as their coach, two more Leafs (Forwards Wayne Carleton and Guy Trottier) scoring goals and yet another (Defenseman Carl Brewer) trying to keep Goaltenders Gilles Gratton and Les Binkley from getting puck fright. The iconoclastic Brewer, 35, is attempting Comeback No. 3, and if he decides to play the way he can, the Toros could finish second. The trouble is, Brewer might decide to fly off to Finland or Miami Beach at midseason.
Strange things happen to Defenseman Dale Hoganson. Last spring in Montreal he collected a full Stanley Cup winner's share of $15,000 even though the Canadiens did not let him dress for any cup games. Now Hoganson finds himself the only Anglo on the roster of the Quebec Nordiques. He may also be their only player who knows how to execute a body check. "Hogey will be our hitter," says J. C. Tremblay, a nonviolent type. Hoganson will toughen the meek Quebec defense and run interference for Tremblay when J.C. Superstar, the WHA's best defenseman—he played more than 50 minutes in most games last year—saunters off on one of his slow rushes up the ice. Besides Hoganson, the Nordiques also lured Goal-tender Michel Deguise and Forward Rejean Houle from Montreal and signed retired NHL supergoalie Jacques Plante—last seen with the Bruins—as coach. All they need now is a Berlitz teacher for Hoganson, some teammates like Yvan Cournoyer for Houle and an alter for Plante's ego.
In his first official pronouncement as a millionaire, Pat Stapleton, the newly acquired and lavishly paid player-coach of the Chicago Cougars, declared, "We won't finish worse than sixth in our division." Then, realizing there are only six teams in a WHA division, Stapleton confessed, "] guess I don't know this league yet." For his personal comfort, Stapleton also persuaded Center Ralph Backstrom to jump with him from the Black Hawks, and later he convinced another former Hawk, Eric (Elbows) Nesterenko, to forget about the retirement haven he had found in Switzerland. If Stapleton could convince a few more Black Hawks, like Dennis Hull, Pit Martin and Bill White, to join him with the Cougars, they might make the playoffs.
The only thing golden about the New York Golden Blades will be their golden blades. An artistic and financial flop when they were known as the Raiders, the Golden Blades at least will be managed now by someone who knows the difference between ice hockey and the Ice Capades. Portly Jerry DeLise made $1 million running minor league teams in Muskegon, Mich., and along the way he says he learned some things from Montreal's Sam Pollock, the shrewdest man in the game. If DeLise is correct, the Blades someday may be golden. While they do have something shiny in Andre Lacroix, the WHA's leading scorer last year in Philadelphia, for now they are dross—last again.
In the Western Division, Winnipeg Coach Bobby Hull and Winnipeg Left Wing Bobby Hull both agree that the Jets must acquire a semblance of balance in order to keep Minnesota or Howeston (all right, Houston) from stealing first place. "Last year we were too much of a one-line team," Coach Hull admits, "and we can't win that way again." Rather than dissolve the line of Player Hull (51 goals). Christian Bordeleau (47) and Norm Beaudin (38), Coach Hull has formed another potentially dangerous line composed of Danny Johnson and Kelly Pratt and veteran Winger Ab McDonald, much traveled as an NHLer and Hull's Chicago teammate a decade ago. More important, Player Hull expects to have a better season. "With Gordie Howe in the league I won't have to spend half my time running around North America promoting the game." Hull says. "I was just about all worn out by the middle of last season."
The question in Houston is whether Howe's 45-year-old legs will carry him through his 26th season. "Why not?" Gordie asks. "It's easier to skate than walk, and I don't have any trouble walking." There certainly is nothing wrong with his shot (he scored a goal 21 seconds after taking the ice in his first WHA exhibition) or his temperament (he gave a New England player a mouthful of elbow and a vicious butt-end in one game, then took 15 minutes in penalties the next). Says Howe: "As long as they want to jazz around with me, they'll get it." Howe's 18-year-old son Mark is a wing. The third Howe, 19-year-old Marty, will be Houston's swing defenseman. "Mark's probably my best defensive winger already," says Coach Bill Dineen, "and he's got a mean streak in him, just like his dad."
Minnesota should be the most improved team in the league. "Forget that David and Goliath stuff, the Fighting Saints against the North Stars," says General Manager Glen Sonmor. "We're on trial here, and the people won't accept us unless we give them what the North Stars have already given them—major league hockey." Sonmor hit the road, wallet in hand, and signed Forwards Mike and Rob Walton, Steve Cardwell and Murray Heatley, Defenseman Rick Smith and Goaltender John Garrett.
One of the few quality goal-scorers Sonmor missed en his midnight raids of the NHL was Marc Tardif, the left wing who scored 75 goals for Montreal the last three seasons. Tardif signed with the Los Angeles Sharks, and if one of the team's young centers—either holdover J. P. LeBlanc or Reg Thomas, snatched from the Black Hawks—can headman the puck to the flying Tardif, he may score 75 goals this year. One of the more pugnacious Canadiens, Tardif will fit well with the Sharks. "They used to call us a bunch of animals," says Shark Coach Terry Slater. "We'll be more discreet now, but we're still going to push the other guys around."
In Vancouver, the Blazers will try a fresh start thousands of miles away from Bernie Parent's attorney. Better still, they have sold 10,000 season tickets. "We had too many stars and too much confusion last year," says Phil Watson, the former NHL coach who works the bench so that Coach Johnny McKenzie can play right wing. "We used to have to beg Parent to get in there and play. Now we've got five goaltenders who really want to play."
After missing the playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers decided to try another coach with the same players and hired Brian Shaw, tutor of the amateur Edmonton Oil Kings. He needs Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe.