Paul Reinhart, an Atlanta defenseman, had just finished a short workout with his team one morning last week and was running off for a few games of racquetball. That night, after a midday steak and an afternoon nap, he would be playing for the Flames in a game against Winnipeg. "Playing in the NHL isn't really what I expected it to be," Reinhart said. "It's a lot different from junior hockey. The players are of more equal ability. It's much more organized. You've only got one job to do. And you work only two hours a day."
For sure, Reinhart was oversimplifying things a bit, but for a 19-year-old he showed an unexpectedly clear and mature appreciation of the benefits he's enjoying as a member of the NHL's hot new Teeny-Boppers' Club. Teenagers are a novelty in the league, because the official draft age since the 1967 expansion from six to 12 teams has usually been 20; in 1974 the NHL made a few exceptions, mainly to combat the rival WHA, which was loading up with teenagers. But last summer, influenced by the fact that its four "new" teams—the WHA refugees—already had teenagers such as Wayne Gretzky and Michel Goulet on their rosters, the NHL voted to go the teeny-bopper route again.
There is concern among the league's old-line managers that teenagers simply aren't mature enough—physically, psychologically or athletically—to play in the NHL, and these same managers worry that the teenage draft will kill junior hockey in Canada. But, says Defenseman Ray Bourque, 18, who was Boston's No. 1 draft pick, "If you're ready to move up, I don't see why you should have to stay with the juniors an extra year. You learn faster in this league." Atlanta Coach Al MacNeil agrees. "When a guy comes to the NHL, makes the team and plays a regular shift at 19, he must be pretty good," MacNeil says. "If he's able to do the job, why hold him back?"
So, for some NHL teams and their young stars, the future is right now. Pittsburgh's Paul Marshall, 19, didn't report to training camp until four days before the Penguins' opening game, but he so impressed Coach Johnny Wilson that Marshall now takes a regular shift at left wing and works the point on the power play. Minnesota's 19-year-old Tom McCarthy, also a left wing, has what North Stars Scout Harry Howell calls "the Golden Touch"; he has scored five goals in his last seven games and had the game-winner in Minnesota's 6-5 triumph at Colorado Friday night. Keith Brown, also 19, plays regularly on defense in Chicago, as do Bourque in Boston and Reinhart in Atlanta. Laurie Boschman, 19, centers a line for Toronto, and Brent Ashton, 19, plays all the forward positions for Vancouver.
In short, youth is making its presence felt, and doing it in a thoroughly professional way. The teenagers are an efficient, quiet lot; not one of them has displayed the cocky flamboyance of a Derek Sanderson. They are a self-assured group, serene and not starry-eyed. Well, maybe a bit starry-eyed. The Black Hawks' Brown spent the first few weeks of the season calling 39-year-old Stan Mikita "Mister."
"We asked ourselves about Reinhart during training camp," says MacNeil. "We wondered how he'd fit in, how a kid could handle coming into this league. But Paul is a bright guy, a smart hockey player, sure of himself on and off the ice." Boston General Manager Harry Sinden echoes those sentiments about Bourque, and adds, "He's destined to be a top player, no question about it."
Indeed, Bourque, the No. 8 pick overall in August's draft, so quickly convinced the Bruins that he is the real thing that the front office tried to un-retire the No. 3 worn by the late Lionel Hitchman, a Boston star of the 1920s and 1930s, and give it to Bourque. But the idea proved overwhelmingly unpopular and was quickly abandoned. Instead he wears No. 7, Phil Esposito's old Bruin number, which is fine with Bourque. The reserved Bourque has settled into his place on the Bruins with ease. He teams with Dick Redmond on defense, works the left point on the power play and kills penalties. His playing style is basic. He is not the next Bobby Orr by any means, but he is marvelously talented and certainly not out of place. Best of all, he is a player of the old school—a skillful passer and an advocate of the wrist shot rather than the uncontrollable slap shot.
"Ray's a natural," says Bruin Terry O'Reilly. "I don't think he's playing now with as much confidence as he will have in the future; at times he seems afraid to rush the puck, and that's what he's so good at. But his confidence is building with every game. Ray is feeling his way, but he's definitely in the right line of work."
Reinhart feels that he, too, is in the right business. "Without sounding like I'm bragging, I always knew I'd wind up in the NHL," he says. Maybe so, but Reinhart still had to learn a basic fact about life in the NHL. "The very first day of practice, within 30 seconds, I had my head down and I got decked," he says. "Phil Russell, my teammate, taught me that very important lesson: keep your head up." Like Bourque, Reinhart is a thinking defenseman, able to take the body and complete a pass. "He's clean, always within the bounds of the rules," says MacNeil. "In three or four years he will truly be a fine player."
None of the rookies seems troubled by the rigors of life in the NHL. Travel is still new enough to be an event, not a chore. Despite blasè claims to the contrary, there is a thrill in playing at the Forum or Madison Square Garden for the first time. And homesickness, if it exists at all, is a twinge, not an epidemic. The typical teenager lives with teammates or his club's trainer, but McCarthy shares an apartment with his brother Bill, 22, a student at the University of Minnesota. "I feel like I'm a baby-sitter," Bill says.
On the ice, the teeny-boppers have lived up to their press clippings. "I had hoped to bring him on slowly, but already I'm confident of him in every situation," says Chicago Coach Eddie Johnston of Brown. "By Christmas he should be one of the better guys in the league." Minnesota's Howell says of McCarthy, who had 69 goals and 75 assists last year for Oshawa, "Some players are born with the gift of scoring, and Tom is one of them." Two weeks ago Howell might not have waxed so eloquent. McCarthy was scoreless in his first seven games and had gotten off only two shots. But he wasn't worried. "At first I was looking for someone to pass to, wasting too much time with the puck," McCarthy says. "Maybe that's how it is for a rookie until he knows he's part of the team. There's nothing like a few goals and assists to make you feel that you're participating." Bourque had a goal and two assists in Boston's 6-1 victory over Pittsburgh Saturday night, and Bosch-man had two goals in Toronto's 8-4 win at Winnipeg.
Of course, the NHL is the big league financially as well as athletically. Last season, in junior hockey, all the teenagers earned about $60 a week, but now each has pocketed a signing bonus in the $50,000 range and earns an annual salary of more than $60,000. "Money was not even a factor in my decision to turn pro a year early," says Reinhart. "I don't really live that differently now." He pauses. "Of course, I did buy a car. A Corvette. Yellow. With everything on it."
Reinhart is the only one of the teenagers who so far has splurged that way, buying a $12,000 car as casually as he would order a pizza with extra cheese. True, Bourque bought a car last summer, but his was a considerably cheaper Camaro. Mostly the spending has been conservative. After two months in a Boston hotel, Bourque is now setting up an apartment in suburban North Andover. "I have to buy a lot of things," he says. "Like dishes." But not furniture. He's renting that. Boschman did celebrate his first goal for the Maple Leafs by purchasing a box of expensive cigars and handing them out to his coaches and teammates, but his other "extravagances" have been strictly for survival. "I share a town house with Joel Quenneville and we eat out a lot," Boschman says. "We have to, because neither of us knows how to cook anything but TV dinners."
On the whole, the new kids are neither a band of—here comes that worn-out phrase again—the next Bobby Orrs, nor a bumbling cast of Andy Hardys who are in over their heads. Individually, they are inching or, in a few cases, gently leaping along; collectively, they're startling a few purists who thought the NHL was for adults only. "I've always played above my age," says Reinhart. "And when you play above your age, you can't use that as a crutch. You can't say, 'Oh, I'm young, I've got time to learn.' If you're treated like a pro, if you are a pro, then you've got to go out and do it like a pro. Being young can't be an excuse."
Maybe not. But in the NHL, it can still be a bit of a high.