The hockey season started with Bobby Orr's left knee encased in plaster, 47-year-old Gordie Howe becoming a right-wing president, Bobby Clarke chasing a Stanley Cup hat trick for the Philadelphia Flyers and 5'7½" Marcel Dionne jumping center with 7'2" Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As pucks dropped last week, the 18-team National Hockey League introduced five new coaches; three new owners; a tough gag rule that prohibits even the most decorous on-ice chit-chat between players and officials; and some stringent economic measures, particularly increased ticket prices (up an average $1.50 to $2). Over in the 14-team World Hockey Association, where Ol' Gordie now is the playing president of the Houston Aeros, there are no less than seven new coaches; new franchises in Denver and Cincinnati, making up for disbanded clubs in Chicago and Michigan/Baltimore; and a transferred team in Calgary, by way of Vancouver and Philadelphia.
On the business front, the NHL has lost its national game-of-the-week contract with NBC because of abominable ratings and a stubborn reluctance to provide the network with the best possible game each Sunday. Moreover, NHL players are traveling almost exclusively in the coach compartment of regularly scheduled flights on game days, rather than on luxurious charters, and they are being charged $7 for the hockey sticks they like to dispense as souvenirs. Even more drastically, NHL and WHA teams have contributed to the unemployment rate by abandoning their outright sponsorship of minor league teams and by flatly releasing large numbers of borderline players. Finally, the average NHL salary has plummeted almost 10%, down to a measly $70,000, while the average WHA paycheck has shrunk some 15%, to a piddling $45,000 for less than seven months' work. Or play.
Hockey's franchise rush is over. The frontiers have been explored, a few scouting parties have been lost along the way and now it is time to build some of the primitive outposts into self-sustaining settlements. And if hockey is a hard game on the ice, the front-office fight for survival is shaping up to be no less rough-and-tumble. Nothing illuminates the situation better than the off-season trade that brought Marcel Dionne to Los Angeles.
Jake Milford, the jovial but shrewd general manager of the Los Angeles Kings, was scouting the Memorial Cup junior (amateur) playdowns in Kitchener, Ont. last May when he received an urgent phone call from his boss back in California. "John," intoned Jack Kent Cooke, the owner of the Kings and a man who abhors all nicknames, "I'm going after Marcel Dionne on June 1." Milford nearly dropped the telephone. "How in heck do you expect to get him?" Milford asked Cooke. "Don't you worry, John, I will get Marcel Dionne from the Detroit Red Wings," Cooke replied. "I always get my man and Dionne is just what the Kings need—a star." Pause. Silence. "Do you hear me all right, John? You know that I always get my man, don't you, John?" "Yes, Mr. Cooke." Click!
Marcel Elphege (Li'l Beaver) Dionne, 24, has scored more points (366) in his first four NHL seasons than did Rocket Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull or anyone else who has ever played in the league. Last year Dionne, a floating hit-and-run center with dazzling acceleration and more body contortions than Luis Tiant, scored 47 goals and had 74 assists for the low-flying Red Wings, trailing only Orr and Esposito in the points race, and won the Lady Byng award for his sportsmanlike behavior on the ice. But Dionne was unhappy in Detroit, in large measure because the Red Wings seemed to change general managers, coaches and operational policies nearly as often as their star scored goals. Twice the Red Wings suspended Dionne after he had flare-ups with coaches-in-residence; twice they quickly reinstated him. Another time Dionne, who talks at such a rate that a former teammate, Gary Bergman, once told him to take a break and wipe the sweat from his tongue, publicly blasted the Red Wings, saying, "There are only three NHL-caliber players on the team." In truth, Dionne was exaggerating.
All things considered, the Red Wings were hardly surprised last fall when Dionne told General Manager-Coach Alex Delvecchio that he would be exercising the option year in his contract during the 1974-1975 season. In a well-publicized attempt to placate their ace, the Red Wings appointed Dionne team captain and unretired Sid Abel's Old No. 12 jersey for him. Dionne responded with his best season, and Delvecchio optimistically expected his captain to sign a new contract. Midway through May, though, Dionne's attorney, Alan Eagleson, informed the Red Wings that there was no change of heart on the part of his client and that Dionne would become a free agent on June 1.
Delvecchio was bitter. "Dionne is a pretty selfish individual," he said. "Now it looks as though what he did last year was all for himself." Delvecchio paused for a moment, then added, "Whatever he did, he's still a good little hockey player."
The Eagleson grapevine promptly leaked word to the rest of the hockey world: Marcel Dionne would soon become a free agent. Montreal, St. Louis, Buffalo, Toronto and Los Angeles of the NHL immediately let Eagleson know of their interest in Dionne, and so did Edmonton of the WHA. As Eagleson and Dionne opened negotiations with the NHL clubs, what they clearly wanted to avoid was a confrontation with the NHL's reserve rule. According to the Clarence Campbell Clause (unlike the Rozelle Rule, it has never been invoked), when teams cannot agree on proper compensation for a player who has exercised his option, an independent arbitrator decides the issue.
Montreal, St. Louis and Buffalo soon bowed out of the bidding. Toronto offered Dionne a five-year $1.25 million contract and proposed to indemnify the Red Wings with four regulars. Cooke countered with a five-year contract for $1.5 million, but could not match Toronto's indemnification proposal.
Dionne preferred the Los Angeles money, while Detroit preferred the Toronto players. "What finally happened," Eagleson says, "was that we helped Detroit act more reasonably." In other words, Eagleson told the Red Wings that Dionne would sign with Edmonton of the WHA—and thus leave them with nothing while delivering one of the NHL's top box-office draws to the rival league—unless they quickly reached agreement with Cooke on player compensation. "Under no circumstances were we letting the matter go to an arbitrator," said Eagleson, who, incidentally, was simultaneously campaigning to land a multimillion-dollar lifetime contract for Boston's Bobby Orr.
And so on a Monday afternoon last June, exactly one week after he had acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for his Lakers, Jack Kent Cooke got his man. The deal: Dionne and retread Defense-man Bart Crashley for Wing Danny Maloney, Defenseman Terry Harper and a future draft choice. Harper, however, has refused to report to the Red Wings, claiming that the Kings promised not to trade him when he signed a new contract just before the deal, and he has brought a misrepresentation of contract suit against the Kings and an antitrust action against the NHL.
To Cooke, Dionne represents instant box office in a star-conscious city; the Kings have already more than doubled last year's season-ticket sales. To Coach Bob Pulford, who knew nothing about the trade until Cooke had consummated it, Dionne represents both a challenge and a godsend to his highly disciplined and successful hockey system. In converting the Kings from ragged losers to efficient winners who finished with the fourth-best record in the NHL last season, Pulford has emphasized defense first, defense second and more defense third. Consequently, the Kings have won or lost a majority of their games by the margin of one goal. "We've never had a good power play here," Pulford admits, "and Dionne will help cure that."
What worries Pulford, though, are the adjustments that he and Dionne will have to make in their techniques. "I've told Marcel, and he knows it, that he can't float around center ice here the way he did in Detroit," says Pulford. "He must retreat into the defensive end and work with the defensemen to get the puck out. This type of discipline is new to him, and I know it will take time for him to learn our system."
Pulford and Dionne had a minor dispute midway through the Kings' training camp; Pulford had assigned Dionne to the "Fat Squad," which required him to do an interminable stop-and-start drill at the conclusion of regular practice. It was Pulford's suspicion that Dionne was about 10 pounds overweight, but Dionne assured him that his best playing weight at Detroit had been 185 pounds, three less than he weighed at the time. Not convinced, Pulford asked Milford to check with the Red Wings. "He weighed 178 pounds last year," Milford told Pulford, who summoned Dionne to his office.
"You're dogging it in practice, Marcel," Pulford said. "Ah, I'm not a practice player," Dionne said. Pulford shook his head. "You'll be a practice player here," he snapped, "and you'll also get your weight down—or else." Dionne took to wearing a heavy rubber jacket over his Kings' sweater during the double workouts, skipped the customary postpractice cans of Coors, limited himself to one main meal a day—and soon was down to 180.
Li'l Beaver also has worked overtime trying to blend into the California scene. "Geez, the Rams lost a big one down in Dallas," he said one night to Yvon Pedneault of Montreal's La Presse. Pedneault, who was making a 5,000-mile round trip to Los Angeles for an interview with Dionne, asked him who the Rams were. "Our football team," Dionne said. However, Dionne apparently does not plan any nocturnal invasions of Beverly Hills and Hollywood because he plainly flunked his first guest-celebrity test:
Q. What's the Polo Lounge?
D. Maybe a place where they rest polo horses?
Q. What's Grauman's Chinese Theater?
D. Where they show Chinese porno flicks?
Q. What's 77 Sunset Strip?
D. Yeah, I heard of that. It's a massage parlor.
Q. What's Schwab's Drug Store?
D. That's where we get a deal on toothpaste.
Q. What's a Hollywood Fluff Dry?
D. Who knows? Probably a haircut.
Yes, a Hollywood Fluff Dry is a haircut or a perm—or something.
"Now let me ask the questions," Dionne said. "I come from Drummondville, Quebec, not Hollywood. I'm still learning. I even watch The Honeymooners on television because they're new to me. I watch Fonzie, too, in Happy Days, and I like Carol Burnett. You know, Carol Burnett is a new name for me. Now tell me: Who is Mireille Mathieu? Stupid! She is Guy Lafleur's favorite singer. One wrong. Now who is Charles—do do do da da—Aznavour? Stupid! He's a big singer from Paris, and he's also Pierre Jarry's favorite singer. Two wrong."
He laughed. "I understand a lot of people are mad at me because I didn't sign with the Canadiens and play in Montreal," he said. "The people back there still think it is supposed to be destiny for a French-Canadian boy to play in Montreal—the Forum—with Les Canadiens. Listen, I owe the Canadiens nothing. Maybe they're worried about losing their image as the Flying Frenchmen, I don't know. They're about half-and-half now: half English and half French. Sure, I wish I could have played in Montreal, but I'm here in Los Angeles—and I like it." Dionne stopped talking and reached into his pocket for his money. "Yvon," he said to Pedneault, "I've got a lot of Canadian money here if you want to exchange your American dollars."
The next day Dionne wrote a check for 600 American dollars, the first month's rent on his leased home in Rolling Hills Estates, near Palos Verdes. "I think I told them the house was for me, my wife and our little girl, but forgot to tell them about my dog," he said. "Ah, when they get the check and it doesn't bounce, they'll be happy. My wife will be here soon, and then we'll start looking for a house to buy. For $70,000 out here you get nothing. Back home in Niagara Falls my $40,000 house was like a $90,000 place here. Hey, they pay me to go first-class, so I'll go first-class. I'm not going to walk around Los Angeles with any holes in my shoes."
Back in the Kings' dressing room before another workout, Dionne sat on the bench in front of his temporary locker, kicked off his shoes and listened as they fell to the floor. "Can't they lower this bench or something?" he said to Mike Murphy, taking the departed Harper's place as captain of the Kings and Dionne's new line partner at right wing. "Whose locker is this, anyway?"
Murphy smiled as he stared at Dionne's feet dangling in midair. "You're in Cazzie Russell's place," Murphy said. "He's 6'5", not 5'7"."
"I'm 5'7½", not 5'7"," Dionne said. "I'm not 'little,' either. I'm stubby, not little. My father is 6'2" and 225 pounds. Two of my sisters are 5'8". So what happened to me?" He stopped and wiped the sweat from his tongue.
What happened to Dionne and Jabbar was that Jack Kent Cooke got his men. Right, John?