So what did T. S. Eliot know about cruelty? In hockey April is the kindest month, for it brings to a close a seemingly endless regular season and, for most of the teams, begins the playoffs, which at last decide the champions. True enough, those champions will not emerge until the darling buds of May are in bloom. And sure, the postseason structure has become a thing of Messersmithian complexity, but progress is being made; pucks are flying, there is light at the end of the rink.
As the National Hockey League's 1975-76 season came to the bottom of the schedule sheet last Sunday night, confirming what fans had long known about Philadelphia and Montreal being the class of the league and deciding the lingering divisional race between Chicago and Vancouver in the Black Hawks' favor, a man could get an extra measure of satisfaction thinking of the quirks of fortune that produced the season's most fascinating team, the Boston Bruins.
Boston had not merely survived a plague of injuries, it also overcame to an astonishing degree the loss of the player, Bobby Orr; the player, junior grade, Brad Park; and the goal-scorer, Phil Esposito. Orr, the magical defenseman, hockey's most eminent name since Howe, Richard and Hull, has not played since Nov. 26 because of knee and contract complications. Since then the poor deprived Bruins have been 42-14-13.
Park, who had come from the New York Rangers in the Esposito trade, also last November, was supposed to help fill the chasm left by Orr, and he did. But in late February he hurt his knee. Since then Park has had surgery and the Bruins have been 11-4-6.
What happened? The Bruins became a team. They came blinking into the sunlight and found out that they knew something about the game, too. Says the veteran, sweet-shooting Winger John Bucyk, 40, who enjoyed one of the best of his 19 seasons with Boston, "When Bobby went out and Phil was traded, guys came off the bench who had never seen much ice time. And there was no one big star to pass the puck to. Then Brad Park was out, and we all discovered that we could play hockey. We didn't have to let Phil or Bobby or Brad do it—although I admit I wish we had our stars back now."
Bucyk, no stranger to the afflictions that have made the Bruins a skating emergency ward, has a bruised nerve in his arm. Winger Ken Hodge suffers occasionally from a similar ailment. Defenseman Dallas Smith has a tender hip. Defenseman Gary Doak has a cracked rib but plays. Center Gregg Sheppard has fragile legs. Let 'em lose another regular or two and they might go all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.
One who isn't hurt is former Ranger Center Jean Ratelle, who has become the team's leading scorer. "Ratelle was the sleeper in the deal for Esposito," says Bruin General Manager Harry Sinden. "He is a magnificent center, but he is not a loner like a Bobby Clarke or a Gil Perreault. He quietly does his job, defensively as well as offensively, but he is the kind of player who depends on his teammates."
Doak and Darryl Edestrand, defense-men who were eclipsed by Orr, have become workmen worthy of some ink of their own, as has oldtimer Smith.
Up forward the story is the same. A tired and disgusted John Davidson, the Ranger goalie who was beaten 8-1 by Boston the other day, said, "It was Ken Hodge and Wayne Cashman. I just couldn't see around them." These are two veterans who had been dwarfed by the man they passed the puck to, Esposito. Andre Savard, who played some 12 minutes a game last season, now centers a frequently explosive Bruin line, with Terry O'Reilly and Don Marcotte as his wings. Then there is Sheppard, a man of the Pete Rose 110% effort persuasion. In a recent taut 4-4 tie with champion Philadelphia in the Boston Garden, Sheppard lofted a shot from center ice at recently returned Flyer Goalie Bernie Parent, and the puck lazed over Parent's left shoulder for a goal. A little luck may be riding with the Bruins, too.
After that game, Philadelphia Defenseman Jim Watson said, "It is the Boston forwards doing the job. They hustle incredibly. And they play very well defensively. They forecheck as hard as we do."
In goal Boston is getting commendable play from Gil Gilbert and Gerry Cheevers, the latter recently returned to the Hub from the Cleveland Crusaders of the WHA. "I think it's the locker room," says Cheevers. "This place is beautiful."
Says Harry Sinden, "Don Cherry has done a tremendous job with this team. He has taught them a good deal this year. Maybe most important, Don has taught them their individual limits and how to play within them." Which is another way of saying, if you haven't got a soloist, you had better learn harmony.
Chief Harmonist Cherry goes into the playoffs with a message of inspiration and sacrifice: "We have to work all the time. We can never rest. If Bobby Clarke has a bad night, the Flyers may get beat 3-2. If Guy Lafleur has a bad night, the same goes for Montreal. But if one or two of our guys have an off-game we get beat 9-2 or 11-3." For the time being, at least, off-nights have been banned entirely in Boston.
In case you haven't been studying page 195 of the NHL Guide, the playoffs, which began on Tuesday, work like this: champions of the four divisions draw a bye in the first round, leaving the eight second- and third-place finishers to reduce themselves to four by means of best-two-of-three series. The team with the most points plays the one with the fewest, the team with the second-most points plays the one with the second-fewest, and so forth. Which in concrete terms this week meant Buffalo opening against St. Louis, the New York Islanders against Vancouver, Los Angeles against Atlanta and Toronto against Pittsburgh.
Subsequently, the four victors play the divisional champions in traditional best-four-of-seven quarterfinals in the same "best-points-against-fewest" manner. Of the titlists Montreal has the most points (127), followed by Philadelphia (118), Boston (113) and Chicago (82). After this come the semifinals and, glory be, the championship series itself. If Boston should stagger through to victory it will be the best medical soap since General Hospital.
Boston's season of surprise in the NHL was paralleled by that of Indianapolis in the WHA, which was in a fight for the East Division title that would not be decided until rival Cleveland's Tuesday windup. The Racers' climb to divisional contention has been startling, and the explanation may be as Norman Vincent Pealean as Dick Proceviat, a penalty-killing marvel of a defenseman, believes it to be.
"I saw a TV movie with a character who always said he wanted positive waves around him," he says. "It started as a joke, but the positive-wave theory is now sort of our rallying cry." Some of the better waves have been made by Defenseman Pat Stapleton, who has been playing hurt all season, and Center Dave Keon, the former Toronto Maple Leafer who went to Indianapolis when the Minnesota Fighting Saints folded.
In the Canadian Division, Winnipeg was led as usual by the man who first made the WHA credible, Bobby Hull. Despite generally not feeling well he collected 50 goals and 70 assists—and he seems to have at least one more season of play in his 37-year-old bones.
"Last year we missed the playoffs altogether," Hull reflected last week, "but this time around we have a balanced club that doesn't depend on me and my line-mates, Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg." Hull has underscored his point by occasionally corking his famous slap shot and playing defensive hockey. "You can't wheel and deal every night," he says, "so you make a contribution wherever you can.
"I should have listened to my dad last summer. He told me a man has to take it easy now and then let his body recuperate, to recharge his battery. That damn Superstars competition was one thing. Then we went to Europe to train. I caught some kind of intestinal bug. Added to that was a shoulder problem that still bothers me a bit."
And back next fall may come the Houston Aeros' wonder of wonders, Gordie Howe, who is 48 years old. Retire? "Who started that ugly rumor?" says Gordie. Howe's statistics are awesome: in 28 seasons of NHL and WHA play he has 882 goals and 1,224 assists—the most by anyone now and surely forevermore, except those Gordie adds himself. Like Philadelphia in the NHL, Houston is shooting for its third straight championship, symbolized in its league by the Avco World Cup.
The first round of the WHA playoffs, so rigged as to produce a final that will pit a Canadian-based team against one from the U.S., shapes up this way: in the Canadian Division, the Jets against the Edmonton Oilers and the Quebec Nordiques against the Calgary Cowboys in best-four-of-seven series. In the U.S., Indianapolis or Cleveland and Houston draw byes, and there are best-three-of-five series between the New England Whalers and the Crusaders or the Racers, and between the Phoenix Roadrunners and the wild-card San Diego Mariners. Remaining series are best-of-seven. The WHA assures us that out of this mess will come an orderly series of series and an eventual champion.