From the days when he sneaked into the Boston Garden under his father's coat to the days when he filled that building as a 16-year-old high school player, from the Sapporo Olympics to the Detroit Red Wings and now, finally, to the Phoenix Roadrunners, he has always been known as Little Robbie Ftorek. They call him the "Bobby Clarke of the World Hockey Association," and he has scored more points (113) in a major league season than any other American-born player, but his biography starts with 5'9" and 160 pounds. Depending on what he ate last, Ftorek (pronounced Fatorek) claims he weighs somewhere between 148 and 152 pounds. Even at his heaviest, Ftorek still is the lightest player in big-league hockey.
"The first time I was on the ice as a pro, this 6'4", 225-pound guy named Rick Foley came charging at me from halfway across the rink, and I thought I was going to have a one-shift career," Ftorek says. "But I surprised myself. I got out of the way at the last second, and he ended up hurting himself. So here I am today." Here he is today, age 24, leader of the financially crippled Roadrunners, the MVP of Team USA in the recent Canada Cup series and a WHA All-Star. What seems to please Ftorek most, though, is the fact that he is one of only six players—Canadian, American, whatever—to amass 100 points and 100 penalty minutes in the same season.
Ftorek (the name is Czechoslovakia grew up in the Boston suburb of Needham and ranks with the late Harry Agganis as the area's most celebrated high school athlete of the post-World War II era. He led Needham to two state hockey championships and regularly lured capacity crowds to the Boston Garden. Nonetheless, the pros told Ftorek he was too little to make any money in the game.
So he went to Halifax, Nova Scotia and played junior hockey and later made the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. Detroit signed him after Sapporo, but with the exception of 15 games with the Red Wings, he spent the next two seasons playing for their Virginia farm club. Seeing Detroit as a dead end, Ftorek jumped to Phoenix and the WHA. "What no one ever measured in Ftorek," says the Phoenix coach, Al Rollins, "was what he does with quickness. And he probably has the most intense dedication of anybody in hockey today."
Ftorek has had 72 goals and 109 assists in his two Phoenix seasons, and now Rollins fully appreciates this kid who could qualify for a Boys' Life centerfold. "I'd better," says Rollins, "because he's my meal ticket." So, worried that Ftorek's 150 pounds will burn out by April, Rollins regularly bars him from off-day practices. "He's the first one on the ice every day—and the last to leave," says Rollins. "He thinks a practice should be approached like a playoff game."
Ftorek is an ascetic; he drinks nothing stronger than Coke—not even coffee—and he will not allow his wife to come to training camp. Last year John Gray, Ftorek's roommate, woke up at 3:30 a.m. and found Ftorek studiously working on a list of things he wanted to accomplish during that day's practice. Gray screamed that he had had enough, and when Ftorek returned from breakfast, his bags were in the hotel hallway.
Like Philadelphia's Clarke, Ftorek is a tireless forechecker at one end and back-checker at the other, one of those players who always appear to be chasing—or being chased by—the puck. A deft play-maker, he centers the "Lightning Line" for Gray and Del Hall, and last season they combined for 123 goals.
Ftorek is among the WHA's top 10 scorers this season, with 11 goals and five assists for 16 points, and he has the Roadrunners in second place in the Western Division. In a recent game against Bobby Hull's Winnipeg Jets, the defending WHA champion, he scored the winning goal in Phoenix' 4-3 victory as he beat Joe Daley with less than five minutes to play. Then Ftorek helped preserve the lead in the final minute with some superior penalty killing.
The little guy is the unquestioned leader of the Roadrunners. One time last season he was so upset by the home crowd's booing of a teammate that he invited himself onto the postgame radio show and defended his teammate. He also is the prosecuting attorney/judge of the club's kangaroo court. "See this?" Ftorek says, pulling out a little notebook. "All the fines. For anything—missing a bus, leaving stuff in the locker room for the trainer to pick up. We raise a lot of money." Instead of squandering the money for team parties, Ftorek sends flowers to fans' weddings or funerals. On one occasion he paid the team's laundry bill during a preseason tour of Finland. At Ftorek's prodding, the Phoenix players also have chipped in to buy season tickets that they donate to local charities. All this has helped keep the struggling Phoenix franchise financially afloat, but the club may soon wind up at Household Finance.
If that happens, Little Robbie Ftorek will send the flowers.