WEST—In the consolidation process that reduced the WHA from a three-division, 14-team league to two divisions and 12 teams, the West has emerged as the better of the twain. The best in the West, and once again the best in the WHA, is WINNIPEG. Call the Jets the Winnipeg Europeans, for half their roster is composed of European imports, and two-thirds of their best line is Swedish. Playing with Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg scored 50 goals and Ulf Nilsson had 38. The 37-year-old Hull scored 53 goals last season. However, he will miss several weeks this fall with a wrist injury.
Two more Swedes, Captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Thommie Bergman, anchor Winnipeg's defense for Goaltender Joe Daley. The son of an Irish railroad man, Daley is a devout Christian who doesn't drink, smoke or give up very many goals. Last season he allowed just 2.84 a game.
In HOUSTON 48-year-old Gordie Howe has retired. Not as a player, mind you. ol' Gordie is far too spry for that. Howe has just stepped down from the time-consuming off-ice job as president of the Aeros and now, in his 29th season, will devote total attention to his on-ice obligations, like trying to repeat as Houston's leading scorer and bettering his 1975-76 totals of 32 goals and 70 assists. Gordie's sons, Mark, the left wing who scored 38 goals, and Marty, the rough defenseman, also return, but the Howe family's days in Houston may be numbered unless the club's management signs Mark and Marty to new contracts and pays out overdue bonuses to all the Howes. If Terry (Jackhammer) Ruskowski can remain intact physically, Houston could regain the championship it lost to Winnipeg in four straight games. The 5'9", 168-pound Ruskowski, a man of doleful eyes and a Fu Manchu mustache, is cursed with brittle bones in his hands, and the Aeros have advised him to play less rambunctiously so he can avoid injury time on the sidelines.
Calgary needs about half a dozen forwards with Ruskowski-style vigor and aggressiveness to protect Forwards Danny Lawson and Ron Chipperfield, who managed to score 44 and 42 goals respectively last season when they weren't chased off the puck by intimidators. The Cowboys are well served in goal by Don (Smokey) MacLeod, and he gets strong support from Defenseman John Miszuk. Early last year Coach Joe Crozier told Miszuk, "Go home, I don't need you." The stubborn Miszuk remained in town and attended practices, but Crozier ignored him. Then an injury siege struck Calgary, and when the Cowboys were reduced to just three healthy defensemen, Crozier hastily called Miszuk. Calgary won on the day Miszuk reported—and continued to win with him in the lineup regularly. Miszuk was named to the mid-season all-star team; at the end of the schedule Crozier signed him to a long-term contract.
Gruff Bep Guidolin has coached the NHL's best, Boston, and its worst, Kansas City. Now he will try his hand in EDMONTON, but the Oilers are not gushing with talent—or money. In economy moves, Guidolin dismissed veteran Right Wing Bruce MacGregor, who had a $100,000 salary, and asked a number of other players to take severe pay cuts. Dave Dryden, who declined Guidolin's pay-cut suggestion, provides dependable goaltending, while Right Wing Tim Sheehy (34 goals) displayed a good scoring touch after being acquired from New England. The darling of Edmonton's diminishing fanship, though, is Rick Morris, the only Oiler who does not limit his checking activities to the bank.
Three years ago the NHL's Detroit Red Wings discarded Robbie Ftorek because he was too small. Two years ago PHOENIX shipped Ftorek to Tulsa, supposedly to give his ailing knee some rest but actually to forget him. One day when Ftorek was in Phoenix visiting his wife, the Roadrunners called and asked him to fill in for a sick regular. The 5'8", 158-pound Ftorek, who was born and raised in the Boston suburb of Needham, made such an impression with his hustle that the Roadrunners canceled his return flight to Tulsa—permanently. Last season he centered for Del Hall and John Gray, and the line accounted for 128 goals. Operating with the guile of a Camille Henry, Ftorek scored 41 goals and 72 assists for 113 points, and became the highest scoring American in pro hockey history. Ftorek must approach those figures if Phoenix expects to make the playoffs again. In a surprising move on the eve of the regular schedule, Phoenix sold off two of its best young players—Wings Barry Dean and Cam Connor—for economy reasons.
San Diego has a new owner, McDonald's hamburger king Ray Kroc, who also owns the baseball Padres. The Mariners still have the leading scorer in WHA history in Center Andre LaCroix, but their primary strength is defense. Kroc's Eggs McMuffin money acquired Paul Shmyr from the late Cleveland Crusaders. Rugged around the net and an aggressive puck carrier, Shmyr is the league's best defenseman. Complementing Shmyr is 5'11", 202-pound Kevin Morrison, the former minor league tough guy who last season learned to control his temper tantrums and wild fisticuffs and scored 22 goals. They provide superior protection for Goaltender Ernie Wakely, a lover of exotic dishes whose day revolves around his dinner meal. Wakely came to the Mariners a year ago in one of hockey's strangest deals. To get him, San Diego gave Winnipeg the privilege of talking to any Mariner who became involved in a contract squabble with the club. There have been no major contract squabbles in San Diego, so the Wakely trade has not been consummated.
EAST—The only Canadian team in the East, QUEBEC should rule the division. Still, the high-scoring Nordiques are not without worries. Forward Rejean Houle, after 51 goals last season, redefected to the Canadiens, and Left Wing Marc Tardif, the WHA's 1975-76 scoring champion with 71 goals and 77 assists, is still recovering from head injuries suffered during the Nordiques' playoff brawl against Calgary last spring. Tardif, Center Christian Bordeleau and Right Winger Real Cloutier—French Connection II—scored 168 goals, most in the league. The pivotal man is Bordeleau, nicknamed "Pepe," the oldest of the three hockey-playing Bordeleau brothers. J.P. skates for the Black Hawks, and baby-brother Paulin joins Quebec after two seasons with the Vancouver Canucks. Christian is a hard, quick shooter. Once criticized for his inability to make accurate passes to his left wing, who happened to be Bobby Hull, Bordeleau made dozens to help Tardif score his 71 goals.
Quebec's principal pressure should come from NEW ENGLAND. Thommy Abrahamsson, who scored 14 goals as a rushing defenseman, and brother Christer, who allowed just 3.42 goals a game before a pinched-nerve injury forced him to miss the last half of the schedule, steady the defensive side. Nineteen-year-old Gordie Roberts of Detroit already may be the best American-born defenseman in the game. As usual, the Whalers' offense will be led by another American, Center Larry Pleau of Lynn, Mass. The first player signed by the Whalers in 1972, Pleau, a 29-goal scorer last season, is underrated. He wears No. 4, the numeral of his cousin and former Montreal Canadien teammate, Jean Beliveau, and he is almost impossible to budge in front of the net. "If there were more Larry Pleaus in hockey," says Coach Harry Neale, "they wouldn't need coaches."
It rarely rains goals in INDIANAPOLIS in the wintertime. Last year no full-time Racer finished among the WHA's top 50 scorers. Fortunately, Indianapolis doesn't permit many goals in the wintertime, thanks to 22-year-old Michel Dion, who allowed an average of just 2.74 after winning the job from Andy Brown.
Cincinnati had a remarkable 26-14 home-ice record in its first season but still failed to make the playoffs. In Year 2 the Stingers need help in goal, where Paul Hoganson has been overgenerous, and some experience up front, where the average age is less than 23. The Stingers' graybeard is 27-year-old Rick Dudley, the fearless left wing who always seems to be wrapped around a goalpost or eating someone's hockey stick. He is the Pete Rose of the Stingers. What they need now are a few Johnny Benches and Joe Morgans.
The well-paid Toronto Toros were the WHA's most disappointing team last season, winning just 24 games. Not surprisingly, proper Torontonians managed to find ways to avoid spending their dollars on Toro tickets. So Owner John Bassett has moved them south to BIRMINGHAM, where they have some new investors, including several of Bassett's old WFL cronies; a new arena, the 17,250-seat Civic Center Coliseum; and a new nickname, the Bulls. The new Bulls are O.K. on offense but woefully weak on defense, just like the old Toros. Vaclav Nedomansky, who probably never dreamed there was a Birmingham in his future when he defected from Czechoslovakia to Toronto in 1974, scored 56 goals last season. Frank Mahovlich scored 34 goals for the Toros, but he seems to have lost his zest for the game after 20 seasons in the big leagues. Birmingham's future, though, is 19-year-old Center Mark Napier, last season's Rookie of the Year with 43 goals. Napier is the fastest skater in the WHA, faster than even Anders Hedberg. He is so speedy, so shifty, that Bear Bryant may try to recruit him for the Bama football team.
The MINNESOTA Fighting Saints are back, but are not related to the Fighting Saints who went belly-up last midseason. The new Fighting Saints are actually the old Cleveland Crusaders, who surrendered that city to the NHL's California Seals, now the Cleveland Barons. While the name Fighting Saints still creates an image problem, particularly in the ticket-selling area, the new management has changed the uniform color from royal blue, white and gold to scarlet and gold. Victories will help the image more than scarlet uniforms, but unfortunately the Fighting Saints lost their two best players, Center Jim Harrison and Defenseman Paul Shmyr, during the move. Defenseman Tom Edur also abandoned the Saints, who, in a surprising move, traded Right Wing Gary MacGregor, a 44-and 21-goal scorer in his two WHA seasons, to Indianapolis for aging Center Dave Keon. Slick Center Ron Ward remains, however, and Minnesota has signed tough guy Gordie Gallant, who once had a dressing-room fight with former Fighting Saints Coach Harry Neale, and also onetime Fighting Saints Goaltender Mike Curran, who was the first player signed by the new WHA in 1972. This time Curran hopes his team will survive the complete season.