The Chicago Black Hawks finished up 1976—a year in which they signed Bobby Orr, the best hockey player who ever lived—by firing Billy Reay, their coach of 13½ seasons, who had more career wins (542) than any other active NHL coach. The Hawks skated into the new year led by a coaching cooperative, a troika of players that began operation with Bill White behind the bench, Stan Mikita at center ice and Orr keeping notes up in the press box. "In the 1960s the Black Hawks were the first to have a 'Million-Dollar Line,' " said one NHL general manager. "Now they're the first to have a million-dollar coaching staff."
Last Wednesday night Orr shucked his pencil and note pad and, after being sidelined for 42 days and 19 games to rest his mangled left knee, returned to the ice to give the Chicago Stadium crowd its most dramatic moment in years. Six minutes into a game with the New York Islanders, Orr made his entrance on a Hawks power play—a play on which he had been drilling his teammates in his role as coach. Some 33 seconds later, Bobby took his patented short backswing and sent a slap shot whistling over the shoulder of Islander Goalie Billy Smith, and Chicago was on its way to a 2-1 victory. It was stirring evidence that there is life left in a team that had been written off, and in Orr as a player.
The firing of Reay three days before Christmas was met with mixed emotions. It had been called for, both by his players, who second-guessed him, and by the fans, who had watched the Black Hawks grow stale over the past few seasons. But management had something to do with the latter, and when they swung the ax it was with all the sensitivity of an executioner. A month earlier, Black Hawk President Bill Wirtz had publicly outlined a reorganization plan that would have made General Manager Tommy Ivan a vice-president and Reay the GM. Then....
Reay was returning to Chicago from a Dec. 21 tie in Minnesota, due home around 4 a.m. His wife got up about one and found a note under the door of their North Side apartment, informing the 58-year-old Reay that he was not only fired as coach, but also was no longer a part of the Black Hawk organization. "If I'd known Billy was going to be out of a job completely. I might not have agreed to become head coach," said White. Goalie Tony Esposito said he would have to think about his future after the season.
The only explanation of the firing ever made by management was a press release that failed to mention Reay's 13-plus seasons and 516 victories with the Black Hawks. In fact, in all its 10 paragraphs it failed to mention Reay.
Injuries to three centers plus Defensemen Orr and Keith Magnuson had made Reay's job exceedingly difficult this season, but it also seemed that in the last four years Reay had lost some interest in coaching. In the five seasons preceding 1973-74, the Hawks had been 223-100 with four first-place finishes, but in the past two seasons they had barely played at a .500 level, and the night the note was slipped under Reay's door the team was 10-19-5 for the year. Not only were the Hawks weak, they were as exciting as a buttermilk-tasting contest, and crowds at the Chicago Stadium (capacity 17,100) were averaging less than 10,000.
"You just wouldn't believe how awful we'd become," says veteran Forward Pit Martin. "The team needed some kind of a shakeup." "We just have too much talent to be struggling..." Center Jim Harrison started to say, then trailed off. What he was going to say was "to be struggling in the lackluster Smythe Division." "The older players loved Reay and played for him." says one young player, "but we younger ones were tied up in knots. Billy hated young players, and none of us played to half our potential. If this team's going anywhere, the kids better be playing."
After losing the first game under White, the Hawks are now 6-3-1, including victories over Toronto, Buffalo and the Islanders. And they have become interesting: WHA refugee Harrison and John Marks are skating around hitting people and the offense has opened up for end-to-end rushes. Ivan Boldirev, a talented center who had been a disappointment after coming from California in 1974, summed it up after scoring both goals in a 2-1 win over Buffalo three weeks ago. "I used to dread coming to the rink some nights." he said. "I just worried about not making mistakes instead of trying to play."
That Jan. 5 victory over Buffalo evidently established White as coach. The next morning when he came to the Stadium he found his office had been painted and his name was on the door. Previously, a couple of strips of adhesive tape covered Reay's name and White's had been scrawled on the door with a Magic Marker.
White would prefer to be playing, and at 37 would probably still be one of the game's best defensive defensemen were it not for a back injury. "I guess the back's shot," he says. "They say I might be able to play next year, but a year layoff at my age would make it really difficult. So I don't know what the future holds. If we win the Stanley Cup, maybe they'd have me back as coach, but right now I'm just filling in. I don't plan to be back."
White walked into the job cold. "I'd been called assistant coach this year waiting to see if I could play," he says, "but I didn't do anything in practice or, after the first couple of weeks, even go on the road. I've gotten ideas from Stan and Bobby and other veterans. I've tried to get the team working a little harder; having practices the days of games, things like that. Billy didn't believe in practicing a power play, and Bobby's helped organize one and we work on it every day. But I still feel awkward."
One day former teammate Gene Ubriaco, now coaching in Chicago area amateur programs, came into the office and White asked him for some advice. Ubriaco looked around and said, "Move your chair closer to the wall."
Mikita, who had been hurt and missed 23 games, makes light of his coaching duties. "There are a few things I might say to guys now that I wouldn't have before," he says, "but I'm having enough trouble trying to play. Bill White's the coach. That's the way it's got to be."
And Coach Orr? "If they think I'm ever going to occupy this office of yours they're barking up the wrong tree," he said to White the other day. "I'm a player, not a coach. If I can't play, then I'll retire. I'm just doing what they ask me. Which is really nothing." But White and the players, one of whom called Orr an "encyclopedia," say he has helped immensely. Orr is a rarity among athletes, a man who refuses to dwell in the first person singular. And when Orr's attorney, Alan Eagleson, announced in Toronto that Bobby hadn't cashed a paycheck—he gets $600,000 a year—while he was sidelined, an embarrassed Orr immediately and angrily phoned him.
That the Black Hawks need Orr, one way or another, is obvious. With Reay coaching, the club was 6-5-1 with Orr and the 18 points he scored; without Bobby the Hawks were 4-14-4. "He leads by his mere presence," says White.
Orr's reappearance on ice against the Islanders is an illustration of how White plans to use him. "There's no question he tried to come back too soon after his latest operation [his fifth] and do too much in the Canada Cup series and early in our season," White says. Indeed, Orr was the MVP in three of the seven Canada Cup games and was playing more than 30 minutes a night for the Hawks at the start of the season. "I'll use him on the power play and the odd shift," says White. "That's enough to make a considerable difference. The problem is getting him to take it easy."
Orr took a dozen shifts totaling 13:57 against the Islanders, and afterward dodged reporters with a brief "I feel fine."
Despite Orr's dramatic return, bone chips are still floating around in his knee and Bobby cannot push off with his old acceleration. He rushed the puck cautiously and took only one check in the Islanders game. "Nobody wants to be the one to injure him," said Bryan Trottier of the Islanders. "He looks pretty bad right now," said teammate Lorne Henning. "He couldn't make the sharp cuts or quick stops. It's too bad."
But even a hobbled Orr might be enough. After all, the Smythe Division is so feeble that it can be won by any team that just ties all its games. In fact, with the All-Star break coming up, not one of the division's five teams is at .500, and neither Minnesota, Vancouver nor Colorado has won a third of its games. Yet one of them will be rewarded with a playoff berth. Chicago, closing in on division-leading St. Louis, has a good shot at the championship. Which goes to show that a million-dollar line can give way to a million-dollar coaching staff without much being lost—so long as one of the coaches is also a part-time player named Orr.