Like most 19-year-olds, Gordie Roberts wears Levi's everywhere, drives a van, drinks beer and catches a Fleetwood Mac concert whenever he can. Unlike most 19-year-olds, though, Roberts can easily afford such a life-style because he earns $100,000 a year as an all-star defenseman for the WHA's New England Whalers. Roberts is one of half a dozen precocious players around whom the struggling WHA has tried to construct its survival plan, but next season he may be the only one still skating in the league.
For four years now the young WHA has beaten the old NHL to hockey's teenage idols simply by signing them to lucrative pro contracts long before they were eligible for the NHL's amateur draft. The Hartford-based Whalers, for instance, signed Roberts when he was just 17 years old and preparing to play his second junior season with the amateur Victoria, B.C. Cougars. The Houston Aeros grabbed off Marty and Mark Howe when they were 19 and 18, respectively. Houston also signed John Tonelli, Quebec Real Cloutier and Toronto-Birmingham Mark Napier when they were all 18.
Predictably, the teenagers quickly developed into stars in the WHA, and now the NHL is casting covetous glances at them. Boston has drafted Mark Howe; Detroit recently acquired Marty Howe's NHL rights from Montreal; and Chicago owns Cloutier's NHL services. Roberts, Tonelli and Napier all will be eligible for the NHL's "amateur" draft this June, and should be top selections. Of the six, only Roberts seems to have a contractual obligation to the WHA next season; he now is in the second year of a five-year contract with the Whalers. "If we can sign three or four of those kids," says one NHL general manager, "we may write an obituary for the WHA."
The Howe brothers, Tonelli and Napier appear certain to be playing in the NHL next season—not the WHA. Ideally, the Howes would prefer to remain in Houston, but the Aeros have been plagued by frequent ownership changes, cash-flow problems and poor attendance. The Howes—Marty, Mark and father Gordie—were the only Houston players to get checks one recent payday when the Aeros were short of dollars. And they claim the Aeros owe them bonus money from previous seasons.
Colleen Howe—Gordie's wife, Marty's and Mark's mother—does the negotiating for the family, and she has said that her sons must play for the same NHL team, or else there is no deal. Gordie, she says—and he confirms—will retire at the end of this season, one year before his 50th birthday. In keeping with Colleen's wishes, Boston and Detroit agreed last week on a plan whereby either team can sign both Marty and Mark, then compensate the other for the lost player's rights. "Mark is a left-wing Guy Lafleur," says Boston General Manager Harry Sinden, "and Marty can play defense for the Bruins right now."
Birmingham's Napier, a 20-year-old right wing who scored 43 goals last season and has 49 already this year, hardly conceals his plans. "The WHA and Mark Napier have outgrown each other," he says. Quebec's Cloutier, a 21-year-old forward who leads the WHA with 50 goals and 58 assists this season, wants to play in the NHL, but not for the Chicago Black Hawks. Cloutier dreams of playing alongside Guy Lafleur and the other Frenchmen in Montreal. "If Sammy Pollock [Canadiens General Manager] isn't thinking of me, tell him I'm thinking of him," Cloutier says.
One reason Pollock is not thinking of Cloutier is Cloutier's contract demands: $200,000 a season for five years. If Cloutier lowers his demands, though, Pollock no doubt would be willing to provide Chicago with numerous warm bodies in return for the NHL rights to him.
New England's Roberts has been watching all these developments with great interest. "It's silly for me to talk about the NHL right now," he says. "The Whalers are solid, and they have been good to me. But years from now it may be different. Let's face it. I grew up in Detroit and always watched the NHL, and everyone wants to be measured by how he does against the top players. Publicity is a big thing, too, and the WHA isn't too good for the ego. You know, there are hockey fans who haven't even heard of Cloutier, and he's one of the great players in the game. In some places, it's like we've all disappeared. The only time I've been mentioned in the Detroit papers was when I signed with the Whalers. The item was on the fifth page of the sports section. It just said that Doug and Gordie Roberts of Detroit had signed with New England."
Gordie Roberts was supposed to be named Clifford Roberts, but his father, Sandy, a Detroit fireman, changed the Clifford to Gordon at the insistence of his older sons Doug and Dave. Not that Sandy needed much convincing. The Roberts family was hockey-minded, and the star of the Detroit Red Wings in those days was a 12-year veteran named Gordie Howe. Doug Roberts played hockey and football at Michigan State, one time serving as Bubba Smith's backup at defensive end, and later broke into the NHL as Howe's teammate with the Red Wings. Doug shuffled around the NHL for 10 seasons and now, at age 34, plays with kid-brother Gordie on the Whalers. Dave, 27, spent four seasons traveling hockey's minor league circuit and is recovering from knee surgery that probably has ended his career.
When the Howe brothers left Detroit to play amateur hockey in Toronto, Gordie Roberts gradually advanced to the point where he became the best young amateur in Michigan. Realizing that future amateur competition around Detroit would hamper his development, Gordie left home before the start of his senior year in high school and moved to Victoria to play junior hockey in the rough Western League. He fit in well in Victoria, holding his own in the brawls and more than holding his own when the games became pure hockey. When the Whalers began to negotiate with brother Doug before the 1975-76 season, Gordie's name entered the conversation, and suddenly 17-year-old Gordie had a five-year, $500,000 contract to play pro hockey in Hartford.
"My first few months with the Whalers I really wondered if I had done the right thing," Roberts says. "I hardly played during the first half of the season, and I didn't think I was fitting in. It was a whole new thing for me, traveling with a bunch of guys who were older than me, some of them even 15 years older. No one said anything, but I figured a lot of them were asking themselves how I ever got all that money. They got all over me for wearing jeans and listening to my music all the time, but it all worked out. Half of them wear jeans now, too."
Once Roberts moved into the Whalers' lineup as a regular defenseman, he provided dependability and leadership that belied his youth and inexperience. "We asked Gordie to hold our defense together, a job that should have been over his head," says Whaler Coach Harry Neale. "We really put a lot of pressure on him. But he has more than done everything we've asked of him. He has so much natural ability, he can make a mistake and still react quickly enough to correct it before any damage is done."
Roberts' basic skills are obvious. Carrying 190 pounds on a 6'1" frame, he is a powerful skater. He is also no shrinking violet (141 penalty minutes this year). His major asset, though, is superior puck-handling skill, which keeps Neale thinking he should switch Roberts from defense to center. So far this year Roberts has scored 12 goals and assisted on 27 others. "He could be an exceptional center right now," Neale says. "I used him at center during the playoffs last year, and he was outstanding. The great rushing defensemen and the great centers all have a nose for the puck. Trouble is, centers play every third shift while defense-men play every other shift. So if I move Roberts to center, he'll spend less time on the ice. And who will I get to replace him at defense?"
Naturally, Roberts is experiencing the growing pains that affect all rushing defensemen of the Bobby Orr mold. "He doesn't use his teammates often enough," Neale says. "He tries to do things himself instead of passing some of the responsibility off to another player. And too often he reacts to trouble by reverting to his animal instincts and trying to do the things that worked when he was 15 years old but haven't worked since. That's when I start screaming at him."
Roberts admits to these and other sins of youth. "I get mad and take stupid penalties," he says, "and I wander out of position too often. I'm two or three years away from being a good defenseman. It's a long learning process. But I'm getting paid good money, and if I were still playing in Victoria, I sure wouldn't have all my nice stereo equipment."