Three weeks ago Wayne Gretzky, the Edmonton Oilers' 18-year-old center, walked into Chicago Stadium and mumbled to himself, "Hoo boy, I can't believe this is happening!" On another night, given the location of the Black Hawks' arena, Gretzky might have been referring to, say, the vandalizing of the Oilers' bus. But this night he was talking about Edmonton's first game as a member of the National Hockey League.
Gretzky was not the only one who couldn't believe it. WHA fans had been waiting for the rival leagues to merge for seven years, and owners in every corner of the continent had been bankrupting themselves while hoping for this day. On the other hand, the players had prayed the merger would never happen so that the salary wars could last forever.
Ah, but all things must pass, and with the end of the WHA era, one question still remained: Could the league's four survivors (Winnipeg, Edmonton, Hartford and Quebec) be competitive with the established teams after meeting the merger provisions? Each incoming team was allowed to protect two skaters and two goalies from its WHA roster, with the rights to most of the remaining players reverting to the NHL clubs that had owned or drafted them.
Judging from the results of the first three weeks of the NHL season, the answer seems to be a definite maybe. On Sunday night in Quebec the Nordiques struck a mighty blow for the late WHA when they stunned the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens 5-4. So far the old WHA clubs have an 8-18-8 record against NHL clubs and an 8-17-10 record overall. On the whole, the WHA teams seem to be well ahead of such expansion gems as the 1974-75 Washington Caps, who went 8-67-5 that season. Indeed, the Caps now are at the point where the WHA clubs appear to be.
Edmonton lost that first game in Chicago 4-2, but Black Hawk Goalie Tony Esposito was the only significant difference between the teams. Mark Messier, Edmonton's other 18-year-old, was so thrilled that he said, "I sat in my hotel room afterward, and all I could think about was 'Hey, we're in the NHL!' "
Edmonton then played its next five games without a loss (albeit with only one win, that a 6-3 decision over fellow WHAer Quebec), tying NHL regulars Detroit, Vancouver, Minnesota and the New York Islanders. And these were not dump-it-in-and-pray-time-runs-out ties, the kind that make kissing your sister seem like heaven on earth. These were good, wide-open games. The Oilers tied both Vancouver and Detroit by scoring in the last minute, and against Minnesota they came from three goals down.
Gretzky made the step to the NHL as easily as he has made every other step during his brief but well-chronicled hockey career, scoring seven points in his first five games against established clubs. And linemate Blair MacDonald scored eight goals in his first five games. But it was MacDonald's defensive play that made Minnesota Coach Glen Sonmor somewhat effusively call him "the best checker in the NHL," forgetting that one Bob Gainey still plays for Montreal.
The Oilers did some gushing of their own. Goalie Dave Dryden, the Most Valuable Player in the WHA last season, said, "We won't be an expansion team like other expansion teams of the past. The fans should expect this team in the playoffs." Defenseman Pat Price, late of the Islanders, expects a lot more than that. Calling his club "a carbon copy of the Islanders when they were young," Price flatly predicts, "We are going to win our division." Even given the fact that the division in question is the hapless Smythe—the leaching field of professional hockey—such optimism seems excessive, but enthusiasm can take a club a long way. Says Coach Glen Sather, "Most of these guys have been playing first-rate pro hockey for a few years. They want to show the NHL they're good hockey players."
One believer is new Colorado Coach Don Cherry. In their first two meetings with the new teams, the Rockies were whipped by Winnipeg 4-2 and Quebec 5-2. "The four WHA teams have had a lot better start in the NHL than teams like Kansas City and Washington did," says Cherry. "As far as I'm concerned, they all got to keep four super players. They're going to surprise some people. I should know, they surprised us twice."
After beating the Canadiens, Quebec had a 3-2 record against established clubs, including a 3-0 shutout win at Chicago. With Robbie Ftorek, Marc Tardif, Real Cloutier and Serge Bernier, the Nordiques have an impressive nucleus. Cloutier, who scored 75 goals last year and had 283 in five WHA seasons, was given a backhanded compliment, Canadien-style, when Montreal Coach Bernie Geoffrion assigned Gainey, who really is the best checker in the league, to cover him. Cloutier was shut out by Gainey in the Canadiens' 3-1 win at the Forum, but he had a goal in the Nordiques' win at La Colisèe.
Elsewhere, Cloutier showed the established NHL clubs that his WHA goal totals (Cloutier scored 60 when he was 19 years old) were not merely inflated by dilution—of talent, that is. He had a hat trick against Atlanta in his first NHL game and scored six goals in his first six games. "But I would have had 10 or 12 in the WHA," Cloutier said, dissatisfied. "The NHL goaltenders are a lot better, and it's going to take me a certain time before I know them all."
The Winnipeg Jets were hit hardest by the terms of the merger: only nine of the players on their '79 WHA championship team have returned. Still, General Manager John Ferguson, the man mainly responsible for the successful reconstruction of the New York Rangers, has patched together a team that is 3-5 against the established clubs. On Friday in Winnipeg, the Jets beat Boston 3-2 in a game that featured a bench-clearing brawl in the first minute of play.
One has to wonder how good Ferguson's Jets might be had they been allowed to enter the league intact. Chicago's two best forwards, Terry Ruskowski and Rich Preston, both played for the Jets in 1978-79. So did Kent Nilsson of Atlanta (39 goals), Kim Clackson of Pittsburgh, and Glenn Hicks and Barry Long of Detroit. Thus depleted, the Jets could score only 16 goals in their first nine games. So Ferguson last week lured 40-year-old Bobby Hull out of retirement. Hull will help Winnipeg's offense, but he'll miss old Jet line mates Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson—both of whom Ferguson enticed to New York when he was the Rangers' general manager—something fierce.
Even the Hartford Whalers, whose first two-goal scorer was the Methuselah of hockey, 51-year-old Gordie Howe, have showed strength at times. They tied Pittsburgh, Chicago and the Rangers, all on the road, and the Islanders needed two goals in the third period to beat them 2-1 Friday night. The Whalers' biggest problem has been an inoffensive offense; they scored only 20 goals in their first nine games. Mark Howe, 22, was moved from wing to defense in training camp, but now is back at wing. The younger Howe is Hartford's one truly exceptional under-50 player, but he has not achieved the consistency that graced—and graces—his father's career.
Old Gordie, meanwhile, just plants himself outside the crease and gets more than his share of chances, especially during the power play. Pittsburgh Coach Johnny Wilson, a teammate of Howe's in Detroit, watched Howe tally his 787th NHL goal—his first since 1971—and said, "He just skates around and makes things happen. He doesn't waste any motion. He lets his wingers be his legs, and he's the brains."
To many WHA diehards, the sad thing about the merger agreement was the NHL's insistence that the WHA clubs return many quality players to the teams that owned their NHL rights. "It bugs me that we came into the NHL without all of our defense and half the team we built the last couple of years in the WHA," says Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington. The Oilers' losses on defense include Paul Shmyr, now captain of Minnesota, Dave (Barn-Bam) Langevin of the Islanders, Joe Micheletti of St. Louis and John Hughes of Vancouver. "It might take us quite a while just to get the team back together where we were. But the important thing is we kept the kids. We've got Gretzky for the next 21 years!"
Happily, the NHL fans do, too, although empty seats have been the rule in most NHL cities when the old WHA clubs have come to town. For their part, the Gretzkys and Cloutiers relish being in the NHL.
"This may sound dumb," says Gretzky, "but every time you score a goal, it's more exciting in this league."