Picture this, hockey fans. It is the final game of the 1974 Stanley Cup playoffs, right there in prime-time living color, and as the peacock yields to the stars during the national anthem, whom do we see? Bobby Clarke? Bobby Orr? Henri Richard? Tony Esposito? Sorry. Would you believe Tom Lysiak of the Atlanta Flames and Gene Carr of the Los Angeles Kings? Impossible? Probably. But while the thought of an Atlanta-Los Angeles championship series might give NHL President Clarence Campbell chills and send shivers throughout the NBC executive suite, the odds against such a showdown are not much longer than the overwhelming ones the Flames and the Kings have fought all season just to qualify for the cup playoffs that begin next week.
The drastically revamped Kings, strangers to the playoffs since Owner Jack Kent Cooke fired Coach Red Kelly five years ago, poured the bubbly last week after clinching a playoff position by whipping the New York Islanders 4-1 at the Forum in Inglewood. With UCLA dead, the Lakers wilting and the WHA Sharks sinking off Santa Monica, the Kings may be L.A.'s last best hope for wassail. The Flames, those brash 2-year-olds who have no respect whatsoever for their elders, routed the Minnesota North Stars 4-1 at the packed Omni in Atlanta, thus eliminating St. Louis and Pittsburgh from the playoff race, and then the North Stars—Atlanta's last challenger—eliminated themselves by losing to Buffalo. "My guys, dey are great," said Atlanta Coach Boom Boom Geoffrion. "If you told me we'd make the playoffs in our second season, I'd have told you that you were crazy. My guys, dey work all the time, like we always worked in Montreal."
Barring unexpected changes in the final standings, the Kings will play Chicago and the Flames will meet Philadelphia in the West's opening playoff round. "If we don't get frustrated by their tight checking we can beat the Black Hawks," says Defenseman Terry Harper of the Kings. "As a team we may be new to the playoffs, but remember that Rogie Vachon, Bob Murdoch and I all played on Stanley Cup champions with the Canadiens. The playoffs don't scare us, believe me." Although Atlanta's assignment against the Flyers (who clinched the West championship Saturday night with their first victory over Boston in 27 games) seems tougher than L.A.'s, the feisty Flames never let prestige or muscle bother them. Atlanta won its season's series against both Boston and Montreal and played the Flyers to a 2-2-2 standoff.
"Philadelphia tried to push us around in the exhibition season," recalls Lysiak, the tall rookie center who is Atlanta's answer to Philly's Bobby Clarke. "We fought back then and we fought back all year. I'm sure they know they're not going to chase us off the ice." Dave (Hammer) Schultz, Bob (Hound) Kelly and Andre (Moose) Dupont—Philadelphia's foremost bullies—all were involved in fights last week when the Flyers and the Flames played to a brisk 3-3 tie at the Omni and they earned no better than a draw fistically, either. "Dose guys won't be running us out of any rink," rasped Geoffrion in his hoarse Gallic Georgian. "Dey got to be afraid of us now because dey know we're not a bunch of nothing."
Both Los Angeles and Atlanta have skated into the cup playoffs as the result of shrewd moves by their front offices and the exuberance of their youth, while the once-proud St. Louis Blues slumped out of contention because of the interference of Team President Sid Salomon III—or Sid the Third, as he prefers to be called—in player trades and on-ice strategy. Compared to Sid the Third, the A's Charles O. Finley is an absentee owner. The problems in St. Louis started when Salomon fired General Manager-Coach Scotty Bowman and his chief aide, Cliff Fletcher, after the 1970-71 season. Bowman, now the coach of the Canadiens, and Fletcher, now the general manager in Atlanta, had made St. Louis a model expansion franchise. Salomon evidently came to resent the success of the Bowman-Fletcher regime and figured he could do as well himself. He has employed four general managers and five coaches in three seasons. Actually, Salomon is his own general manager and his own coach. "The trouble around here," says one Blues player, "is that Sid the Third gets down on you if you play even one bad game; then you never know where you'll end up." Salomon has made three dismal trades this year, including a disastrous body shuffle with Pittsburgh that in effect destroyed the St. Louis defense. "If he hadn't traded Ab DeMarco and Steve Durbano we would have made the playoffs," says another St. Louis player. "Thanks to his trades, we've got about six or seven kids on this team who should be down in Denver learning how to play the game."
Los Angeles suffered for years with a meddling owner, the irascible Cooke. But this season he has been living 3,000 miles away in New York, so General Manager Jake Milford and Coach Bob Pulford have been able to make decisions without much interference. Cooke insisted that Milford drop the Jake and answer to his given John when he hired him last summer, but by any name Milford has helped build a solid team in L.A. Milford operated minor league franchises for the New York Rangers for many years and, not surprisingly, he has raided the Rangers for several key players. In exchange for Defenseman Gilles Marotte and a future draft choice, Milford managed to acquire four Ranger irregulars who have become stalwarts for the Kings. Mike Murphy and Tom Williams take regular turns on the wing, Center Gene Carr has found a haven for his long hair and faddish clothes and Defenseman Sheldon Kannegiesser has struck a vein of gold.
Carr, one of hockey's fastest skaters, reported to the Kings late in February and promptly scored the hat trick against Boston. That is the only kind of hat he favors. "In New York they all cut their hair short, wear ties and prefer dark suits," he says, "but I like the casual life style out here."
Kannegiesser has strengthened the Kings' defense by teaming well with Bob Murdoch to complement the other defense tandem of Harper and tough Barry Long. Kannegiesser is a hoarder. "Every cent I can get my hands on goes into gold," he says. "Most of my money is in gold coins; in fact, I have already borrowed against my 1974-75 contract to buy even more gold. Economics has always been my hobby. I've kept my nose in The Wall Street Journal for a year. Gold is selling for $177 an ounce now, and I think it will go past $300 soon and eventually reach $1,000. In a bad monetary crisis gold could be a man's only bargaining tool." To prepare for that day, Kannegiesser also wants to buy a cottage in the bush territory of northern Ontario. "I like the retreat aspects of such a place," he says. "What I need is a place with fresh water and good land to grow foodstuffs. I'd stockpile a lot of dehydrated food, too."
The retreat aspects of the team itself are minimal. "Do you know that we've given up fewer goals than the Canadiens?" Harper says. Goalie Vachon, who once shared a Vezina Trophy in Montreal and twice carried the Canadiens to the cup with brilliant seasons, was benched by Montreal when General Manager Sam Pollock discovered Ken Dryden. "I told Sam that if he gave me just 25 games a year I'd be happy with the Canadiens," Vachon says. "He told me no, so I asked to be traded." Vachon played 34 straight games during one stretch during the Kings' push to the playoffs.
The sparkplug in Atlanta is the 20-year-old Lysiak, who leads the Flames in scoring and, with Denis Potvin of the Islanders and Borje Salming of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is a top candidate for Rookie of the Year. Lysiak skates erectly, carrying the puck out away from his body, and prefers to set up his wings rather than make plays for himself. So far he has scored 16 goals and 43 assists. He has resisted his coach's attempts to mold him in the image of Jean Beliveau, the incomparable center of Geoffrion's teams in Montreal. "Boom Boom wants me to lead the play and have my wingers come from behind," Lysiak says. "Well, I've never played that way and I don't like to play that way. I like to maneuver with the puck and then get it forward to my wings. Boom Boom also wants me to move closer to the net and stand in the slot when the play is in the attacking zone. Right now, though, I want to think more about defense than offense, so I stay back closer to the blue line. We've reached a meeting of the minds for now. Maybe next year I'll change my ways. Being a rookie, I've got enough to worry about."
Lou Nanne of the North Stars calls Lysiak "Atlanta's Bobby Clarke." Like Clarke, Lysiak is from western Canada, and like Clarke he has learned some of the subtleties that separate the Clarkes from the nondescripts. "What I've learned," Lysiak says, "is that whatever you do in hockey, you should cheat at it. Everyone cheats in hockey. It's unbelievable how much you can get away with—if you do it when no one is looking, of course. For instance, all the good centers cheat on the faceoffs. I was straight on faceoffs for a while, but now I cheat just like the rest of them." Lysiak rubs a finger against a bandage over the top of his left eye. "I got this from the Flyers," he says. "Rick MacLeish caught me with his stick. Five more stitches. That's another thing I've learned. In the NHL everyone carries his stick high."
So, when the playoffs begin, Lysiak will be carrying his stick as high as his hopes. "We can beat them," he says firmly. "They'd better not think we're pushovers."