For every player in hockey's major leagues there are 10,000 others—young and old, male and female—beating pucks around the rinks of North America. So precious is the available ice, at some rinks they play from midnight to midnight, resplendent in uniforms with the colors of their favorite big league teams. In any winter week a man with an open plane ticket and the stomach for undercooked miniature filets and coffee milkshakes can witness the game at every level. Come along for the view in coldest February; the plane is leaving for Toronto, where there is a rental car that is waiting to take us to the frostbitten community of Oshawa.
SUNDAY. Canadian Graffiti has nothing to do with carhops or roller skates; it is a junior hockey game in the Oshawa Civic Auditorium. The temperature is one above zero in downtown Oshawa, a city of 90,000 some 30 miles northeast of Toronto, and it is almost as cold inside the arena, so the crowd keeps warm by making enough noise to be heard in Vancouver. Mothers and fathers wearing Oshawa Generals lapel buttons swig coffee from Thermoses—or more potent stuff from pocket flasks. Kids wait in line for slices of mushroom pizza. Ten years ago a 15-year-old, towheaded defenseman named Bobby Orr introduced Oshawa to junior hockey, and ever since the citizens have had an eye out for another. The latest "new Orr" in Oshawa is 19-year-old Bill Lochead (pronounced La-head), who stands 6'1", weighs 190 pounds, looks like the Chicago Black Hawks' brawler, Keith Magnuson, and scores learly a goal a game for the Generals. A right-handed shot who plays left wing, Lochead will be among the first three juniors selected in the NHL's amateur draft his year, which means he probably will slay next season for one of the incoming expansion teams, Washington or Kansas City, or last-place California. "I don't nave a great shot like Richard Martin of Buffalo," Lochead says, sounding almost apologetic. "I score most of my goals from right around the net. I guess I'm a lot like Phil Esposito."
Cheered on by the raucous crowd, Lochead gets two goals in Oshawa's 5-1 victory over Ottawa. For the first he waits patiently behind the Ottawa net until the puck arrives, then moves in front and slides a forehand shot past the startled goaltender. For his second Lochead displays what scouts call his "NHL move." He breaks down the left wing, turns to the outside, skates around a defenseman, cuts back inside and fires the puck past the goaltender just before crashing into the post. "I've still got some improving to do," Lochead says, "especially on my defensive play." True. He obviously thinks checking is solely connected with banking.
The Generals pay Lochead the standard junior salary of $60 a week, and he earns another $100 for 30 hours of filing at Gen-Auto Shippers. His major expenses are $25 a week for room and board, $10 for gas and whatever he spends on beer. He recently borrowed "a few thousand dollars" so he could buy a new Firebird, his fourth car in three years. Anticipating a financial windfall when he signs in the big leagues, probably $400,000 over three years, Lochead says, "Believe me, it's a wealthy feeling."
February 24, 1974
MONDAY. It is the opening night of The Beanpot, the annual college hockey shootout among Harvard, Northeastern, Boston University and Boston College. The champion wins bragging rights around Boston for the next 12 months, as well as an authentic beanpot. Outside the Harvard dressing room in the Boston Garden, Billy Cleary, the Crimson coach, is saying, "I wouldn't walk across the street to see a professional hockey game." The night before, Cleary had walked across Causeway Street and into the Garden to see a game between the Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Two of Cleary's 1973 Harvard stars, Dave Hynes and Bob McManama, were playing with the Bruins and the Penguins, respectively. "We used to graduate Nobel Prizewinners and Rhodes scholars," says V. Ambrose Harrington, Harvard '40. "Now it's hockey players."
Cleary insists "college hockey is a faster and better game than pro," and while the 23 pro scouts scattered around the Garden may not agree with that assessment, they are impressed by today's collegiate talent in the U.S. "We have to be," says Bruin Scout John Carlton, "because the Canadian base is shrinking." Besides Hynes and McManama, two other 1973 Beanpot skaters—B.C.'s Tom Mellor and B.U.'s Paul O'Neil—have played for NHL teams this season. There are nearly 30 former collegians on NHL rosters, while WHA games look like alumni-club bashes. The New England Whalers won the WHA championship last year with four players from B.C., two from B.U., one from Colgate and one from the University of New Hampshire.
In the Beanpot's opening game B.U. destroys Northeastern 6-1. "My team would make the playoffs if it had B.U.'s discipline, control and common sense," remarks one NHL scout. B.C. vs. Harvard is next, and when these schools meet the emotional highs rival those of Texas-Oklahoma football. The Harvards think the B.C. boys should drink their beer over on Beacon Street, not in Harvard Square, while the B.C. boys think the Harvards still overdo the Brooks Brothers button-down act. As the game begins there are more Harvard followers than B.C. boosters in the Garden, and the Harvard band drowns out the B.C. band in their first confrontation. On the ice the Harvards break a 3-3 tie on Bob Goodenow's penalty-shot goal in the second period, then pummel B.C. 11-6 in a game that is not as close as the score indicates. If B.C. Goaltender Ned Yetten had not delivered a premier Horatio performance, Harvard would have scored 20 goals. "Wait and see," Carlton says. "I'll bet you some scout here puts Yetten's name on his club's negotiation list within 24 hours." (Harvard wins the Beanpot a week later by upsetting B.U. 5-4.)
TUESDAY. The Squirt League game in Oak Lawn, Ill., near Chicago, is scoreless late in the first period when a tiny defenseman in a red and white uniform fires a slap shot from the blue line. Coming from nowhere, Terry Philbin, who plays for the team in the green and yellow uniforms, dives feet first at the flying puck and redirects it out toward center ice. As play continues, Terry hobbles to the bench on one skate and starts to cry, "My foot, my foot." Theresa Philbin, 10, is in pain. "Shake it off," mumbles one of her male chauvinist teammates, "you're not going to die or anything." Two minutes later the little brunette is back in the game, and to celebrate her return she elbows the boy whose shot hit her foot.
Temperamental Terry and blonde, seven-year-old Melissa (Mike) Krolak have introduced lib to the otherwise all-male program at the Saints Spectrum. "They treat me like one of the boys," Terry says. "They tell me, 'You stink, Philbin,' when I hit them too hard." Melissa broke the sex barrier a year ago, although her teammates did not realize that "Mike" was a Melissa until the end of the season. "I was spending all my time here at the rink," says Bob Krolak, Melissa's father, who directs the program, "and my wife told me I wasn't being fair to Melissa. In other words, either Melissa played hockey or we got a divorce. I figured it was cheaper to have Melissa play hockey." So Krolak put "Mike" on the Bruins team in the Mite League. "I got dressed in my uniform at home," Melissa says, "and I always put on my helmet before I came into the rink. The boys never knew I was a girl, and they wouldn't know now if my mother hadn't made me wear a dress to the banquet last year. You should have seen the looks on their faces."
While Melissa plays, Krolak has a bitter argument with a father who claims his eight-year-old son does not get enough ice time. "My boy's the best player on the team," the father says, "and he should be playing twice as much as the other kids." Krolak shakes his head in disgust as the father walks away. "I've had it," he says. "Parents are the kids' worst enemies. They don't do anything except criticize. They live on half-truths and rumors. They come here once a week, yet they know everything about hockey. This man here can't get it through his head that we want recreation, not competition, for these kids. All he cares about is seeing his own score 50 goals. We just try to give them all equal time. I can't wait for the Little League season to begin."
WEDNESDAY. We are off to see Andy Hebenton, the iron man of hockey. In 22 years he has missed only two of his teams' 1,652 games. He played a record 630 consecutive NHL games before the Toronto Maple Leafs released him to the minor leagues in 1965. Hebenton, now 44, is scheduled to play tonight for the Portland Buckaroos against the San Diego Gulls. Andy makes the game, naturally. We miss it. Photographer John Hanlon and I are snowbound at Chicago's O'Hare Airport through the afternoon and evening. The weather grounds all flights that could have landed us in Portland in time for even part of the game. We try now for San Francisco. With midnight approaching, United has rescheduled our departure for the 1,652nd time.
THURSDAY. We have had a nightmarish few hours of sleep on the plane, but it is considerably warmer in San Francisco than it was in Chicago, Boston and Oshawa. We drive north on Route 101 to Snoopy Place in Santa Rosa.
Charles (Sparky) Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown and friends, is a frustrated hockey player from St. Paul. So frustrated that he has built his own $2 million rink—with Snoopy etched into the stained-glass windows—across the street from his private office building and private tennis court on Snoopy Place. Schulz, 51 and trim, plays in three hockey games each week and referees three others. "I'm a certified American Hockey Association referee," he says proudly in the lounge at the rink. "Like all officials, I've been hit on the shins on purpose and I've been spit—spat?—upon by players. But the parents are monstrous. One night I kicked a parent out because he called me a creep after I'd nailed his kid with a cross-checking penalty. I wouldn't have cared if he had said, 'The ref's a creep,' but he said, 'Schulz is a creep,' and that was too personal."
Schulz plays mostly in semi-organized pickup games with his son Monte, a couple of airline pilots, some local insurance brokers, the business manager of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat and his three sons and, as Monte says, "a lot of kids who bum around like me." "I haven't set up a league," Schulz says, "because that would establish rivalries. The games are rough enough as it is. I got butt-ended in the chest three years ago and it hurt for six months. And last week one of the guys tried to blind-side me into the goalpost because he didn't like the way I had knocked him over backward the week before.
"I find hockey to be a necessity. I go out on the ice for an hour and forget everything. What's really strange, though, is seeing these kids growing up and becoming better than me. Only a few years ago I used to go out to the garage and show Monte how to shoot. Now he's got a great slap shot and mine's, well, not so great anymore." Last winter Schulz played in the 40-and-over Senior Olympics hockey tournament in Los Angeles; he has no plans for a return engagement. "We got beat 15-7," he says, "but I played my heart out. I got an elbow in the eye and took an awful physical beating. I had muscle aches that didn't go away for four months." He laughs. "I wish I could find a tournament for 50-year-old players. Then I'd show them."
Not all of Schulz' aches are muscular. "I built this beautiful rink strictly for the use of the people of Santa Rosa," he says, "and would you believe they sent me a $40,000 tax bill the other day?" He is irate, too, at the way teams have destroyed the visitors' dressing room at the rink. "I've learned that you should give the visiting teams a rock room with a bare bench," he says. "If they happen to lose a close game, they feel they have to punch their sticks through the walls."
Schulz drives to Oakland Friday nights when the California Golden Seals play at home. "In a way the games are a big insult," he says. "They aren't on television here, but they are interrupted to let visiting teams fit commercials into their telecasts back home."
The Zamboni has finished resurfacing the ice, and Schulz leads 20 players out for a pickup game, which means 80 minutes of continuous high-sticking, tripping, boarding, elbowing and goal-scoring. He wears a helmet and a mouth guard and, "to show my great humility as a player," a New York Islanders jersey. Schulz' team wins 11-3. He scores one goal, on a deft deflection at the net, and collects three or four assists as well as some new bruises. "Not bad for a 51-year-old right wing," he says afterward in the parking lot. He laughs, then gets into his car. "Here's the world famous hockey player," he says, "driving from the game in his Jaguar."
FRIDAY. Getting from Snoopy Lane in Santa Rosa, Calif. to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame with its glistening trophies on Hat Trick Avenue in Eveleth, Minn. and then to Bob Zimmerman's old hangout in the back room at the Androy Hotel in Hibbing in six hours is, well, no easy hat trick. Bob Zimmerman never played hockey for Hibbing High School. "That's probably why he changed his name to Bob Dylan," says one of the Androy's cocktail waitresses. "If he kept the name Bob Zimmerman, people around here would still know him as the kid who didn't play high school hockey."
Just as high school football is religion in Texas, so is high school hockey in Minnesota, particularly here in the Iron Range, an ethnic caldron of Serbs, Italians, Finns, Slovenes, Croats and Swedes, with a few sprigs of Irish for seasoning. The Iron Range Conference is the best high school league in the country; Hibbing has won the state title the last two years and recognition as the No. 1 team in the U.S. The Bluejackets are currently No. 4 in the polls. Tonight they are playing the No. 2 team, the Virginia Blue Devils, from 20 miles down the road.
More than 4,200 Minnesotans jam the Hibbing Memorial Building. Three people press into every two places on the benches, and the overflow crowds six-deep into aisles and corners. Banners are everywhere: BLUE DEVILS ARE RED NECKS. BURN THE DEVILS AND SEND THEM BACK TO YOU KNOW WHERE. The invaders from Virginia quiet the crowd, though, by dominating the early play and skating to a 3-1 lead, backed by the sensational goaltending of Brad Harala. But the referees whistle three successive penalties on Virginia players in the third period, and Hibbing sends the game into overtime by scoring twice in the last five minutes. A sudden-death period begins, and there is so much tension that the Virginia cheerleaders never stop crying. But neither the Bluejackets nor the Blue Devils can score in the overtime, and at the end the Virginia players understandably are happier than their Hibbing rivals. Virginia still may be only No. 2 in Minnesota, but Hibbing is No. 4, and who could ask for anything more? Back at the Androy the hockey fans are subdued. "I've got a funny feeling we're not going to take home the bacon again this year," says one. "Ah, well, let's have a drink."
SATURDAY. The old bus pulls up to the rear door of the Cambria County War Memorial Arena in Johnstown, Pa. and the general manager of the Broome Dusters, out of Binghamton, N.Y., leads his players into a dingy dressing room. Over the entrance to the room is a life-size picture of Bobby Orr. "That Orr kid has some good moves," says the general manager. "We could use him for a couple of weeks. He'd get us into the playoffs, that's for sure."
The general manager is Ron Orr, Bobby's brother. Ron is 26, a year older than Bobby, and he could pass for his twin. "I've always looked up to Bobby," Ron says. "If I had had his desire, I think I could have made it as a player, too."
The Dusters, a first-year team in the North American Hockey League, are battling Johnstown for the fourth and last playoff position. "We carry 17 players on the roster," Orr says, "and pay them between $180 and $300 a week. Sometimes I think we treat them too well. We also give them a new car to use during the season, and they don't pay for anything in Binghamton because our fans always beat them to the check. Next year I'm going to try to be a little tougher with them." The toughness will be tempered with understanding. "If a kid doesn't make it in this league," Orr says, "there's no place else for him to play."
As the game begins, Orr takes a seat directly behind the Dusters' bench. "I never get excited over the game, just at the referees," he says. Not 10 seconds later Orr yells "Meathead" at an official who makes a bad call. Seventy-five meatheads later, the Dusters are trailing the Johnstown Jets 4-3, with less than six minutes to play. "I'm leaving," Orr says. "Sometimes when I go under the stands and have a smoke we score a goal. Maybe it will happen now." Sure enough, with Orr pacing the corridors and chainsmoking cigarettes, the Dusters get the tying goal, and after a scoreless 10-minute overtime period the game ends 4-4.
Orr is ecstatic. He walks off to phone the result to the three radio stations, two television stations and two newspapers back in Binghamton. "After this I've got only one more thing to do," he says. "Buy the beer for the six-hour bus ride back home."