Like gas pumps and supermarket cash registers, hockey's great warm-body machine is running wild. Eight winters ago major league hockey meant the six teams and the 120 players of the National Hockey League. As the game embarks on a new season, "major league" means 32 teams and some 640 players competing in two leagues. The NHL has new teams in Washington and Kansas City, and the World Hockey Association has three new franchises: San Diego, Phoenix and Indianapolis. Obviously, the quality of the product is vastly diluted; at the same time the average NHL salary is close to $70,000 and a WHA journeyman can earn $40,000. So who gets shortchanged? The fan, of course. Ticket prices are up, up and away in most cities.
The NHL, also introduces a few new rules. The most significant: no more matching penalties for the instigator of a fight and his unwilling victim. If the rule is applied strictly, the aggressor will be penalized more minutes than his opponent. The WHA, meanwhile, introduces further rich defectors from the NHL, notably Frank Mahovlich and Paul Henderson. Laughing at the WHA is now out of style. Despite the loss of their series to the Russians 4-1-3, the WHA All-Stars were by no means embarrassed, and the Russian excursion proved that Houston's 19-year-old Mark Howe, son of the Old One, is the best young player in the game.
Both leagues have restructured their seasonal and playoff order. The WHA has wisely appealed to Canadian chauvinists by establishing a five-team Canadian division as part of its new three-division alignment. The top two finishers in each division will qualify for the playoffs, with two other spots wild-carded to the highest-scoring teams among the also-rans. Then best-of-seven series determine the ultimate champion. The NHL has gone from two to four divisions and has distributed the top teams in such a way as to make divisional title races entirely unlikely, except in the Lester Patrick group, which has both the Rangers and Flyers. It also has devised the most confusing playoff setup in sports history. The top three finishers in each division qualify for the playoffs; no wild cards, unfortunately. In Round One the divisional champions get byes while the remaining eight teams are seeded on the basis of total points earned during the season. No. 1 plays No. 8, No. 2 plays No. 7, etc. in best-of-three series. That produces four teams, seeded again, to play the four titlists in best-of-seven series. The seeding and playing continue until a cup champion emerges.
Turn the page for scouting reports on NHL teams, ranked not by division, where the races have little meaning, but relative strength, and to page 53 for the WHA.