The Hartford Whalers are not—repeat, not—going to wail about the inequity of the National Hockey League playoff system. Not a word. Not one. Nada. Zip.
Well, maybe just a couple. After all here we are, just past the halfway point of the regular season, and the Whalers have a record of 26-20-1, tying them with the Boston Bruins and Chicago Black Hawks for the sixth-best record overall in the NHL; are one of only six NHL teams with a winning road record; and have won five straight games, despite losing their All-Star center Ron Francis to a broken ankle and torn ligaments midway through the streak. It's beginning to dawn on the rest of the NHL that Hartford, which hasn't made the Stanley Cup playoffs since 1980, is for real.
Which is not to say that the Whalers are going to make the playoffs this season, either. That's because in the NHL the top four teams in each of the four divisions gain the playoffs—no wild cards, thank you. And the Whalers have the misfortune of being in the nip-and-tuck Adams Division, where a spread of only 10 points separates the five teams, with Montreal in first and Buffalo—at the moment—in last. If Hartford loses out in the battle for the division's fourth spot, a grave injustice would result. In the Smythe and Norris divisions, the six teams that make the playoffs after leaders Edmonton and Chicago all figure to have worse records than the Whalers. In fact, so might the Black Hawks.
All of which contributes to feelings of second-class citizenship among the Whalers, who came into the NHL when the WHA was absorbed six years ago and have pleaded unavailingly for a wild-card system. "When Hartford is kept out of the playoffs, nobody says anything," says Francis. "But if a Montreal or a Boston fails to make them, then watch how quick the league moves to make changes."
The best solution, of course, would be for the Whalers to win a playoff spot under the existing system, and their progress on the ice indicates that they intend to do just that. After going from a tie for the league's worst record in 1982-83 to 17th two years ago to 14th last season, the Whalers clearly have arrived. "This is something that's been building since the end of last year, when we finished so strong [9-3-2 in the last 14 games]," says defenseman Joel Quenneville. "We've carried that confidence and momentum into this season."
The architects of Hartford's rise are a most intriguing trio—chairman/managing general partner Howard Baldwin, president/general manager Emile (Cat) Francis (no relation to Ron) and coach Jack (Tex) Evans.
Baldwin is 43, rich, single, good-looking and dynamic, a man to envy. Unfortunately, for too many years Baldwin kept hiring the wrong people as general manager and the wrong people as coach, and the Whalers were a totally disorganized operation on the ice. Then, in May 1983, Baldwin gave the Cat a five-year contract and his troubles were over.
Now in his fourth of nine lives—he was an NHL goalie for parts of six years, spent 15 years in the New York Rangers front office and then seven with the St. Louis Blues—Francis has become the cat's meow. Did someone say Executive of the Year? At first, things weren't so purr-feet. With the Rangers and Blues, Francis had been accused of mortgaging the future for the present, and his critics nodded their heads knowingly when, in 1984, he traded the rights to young defenseman Ville Siren to Pittsburgh for veteran winger Pat Boutette.
Funny how quickly he has become a genius. Check the record:
•Acquired goalie Mike Liut and a future consideration who turned out to be left wing Jorgen Pettersson from St. Louis for goalie Greg Millen and Mark Johnson last February. Liut hasn't regained his form of 1980-81, when he was the last player to win the NHL players' MVP award before it became the Wayne Gretzky Trophy, but he's a leader who doesn't mince words. When the Whalers blew a lead to Vancouver late last season in Liut's third start after the trade, he went bonkers. The message to his new teammates was clear: This guy hates to lose. A week later the Whalers began their 9-3-2 streak.
•Acquired defenseman Tim Bothwell from St. Louis for future considerations last October. The move received little notice, but Bothwell has blossomed and his plus-12 is tied for tops on the team.
•Acquired forward Stewart Gavin from Toronto for defenseman Chris Kotsopoulos, also in October. As far as Francis was concerned, Kotsopoulos-for-nothing would have been a steal. The two didn't get on well. Getting Gavin was an afterthought. Now the afterthought has 15 goals, 20 assists and is also plus-12.
•Acquired defenseman Dave Babych from Winnipeg for Ray Neufeld in November. The Cat swallowed the canary. Nobody could figure out why the Jets gave up Babych (SI, Dec. 9, 1985), who is the heart of Hartford's improved defense—he plays about 35 minutes a game—and is acting captain in Francis's absence.
•Acquired center Doug Jarvis from Washington for Pettersson in December. With Jarvis, look no further than the fingers; they are adorned with four Stanley Cup rings. He's a winner, an iron man (he has played in 849 consecutive games, second to Garry Unger's NHL record 914) and the best face-off man in the league. "He's going to mean so much to us, particularly down the stretch," says assistant coach Claude Larose.
All told, only two regulars—defenseman Risto Siltanen and Ron Francis—remain from the roster that the Cat inherited. "Let's just say I had to do a lot of deleting," says Francis.
At least the revolving door for coaches has stopped. The Whalers have gone through 12 coaching changes in their 13-year history, but they appear to have found stability in Evans, whose 2½-year tenure is longer than that of any of his predecessors.
Next to the dashing Baldwin and the frenetic Francis, Evans may seem dull. "We can't even get a word out of him," says Quenneville. The oldest coach in the NHL at 57, he is not given to such nouveau hockey terms as "synergy" and "puck-pursuit player." After 22 years playing and 10 coaching at all levels, he abides by time-honored precepts: Keep the game simple and demand honest effort.
But there is a lighter side to Evans. In the '40s, players couldn't afford much nightlife, so they entertained themselves at house parties. Evans's act featured a country and western ditty that included, yes, yodeling. The day after that information went public, the Whalers sounded like so many goatherders.
For Hartford, February will be the true test: Francis, the leading scorer, will miss eight weeks with his broken ankle, and right wing Kevin Dineen is out for another week or two with a broken finger. But the Whalers left no doubt last week about their determination to make the playoff, come inequity or injury: They followed a weekend sweep of Adams Division—leader Quebec with wins over the Rangers, Toronto and Winnipeg. Best of all, the Whalers gave up only three goals in those last three games. "That's the way we're going to have to play," said a satisfied Evans. "Tight-checking hockey."
If the Whalers are otherwise tight, they aren't showing it. During practice last Wednesday, equipment was being tested to monitor skating speed for a fastest-skater competition that will be part of next week's festivities at the NHL All-Star Game in Hartford. Bothwell noticed Torrie Robertson and Jarvis, not the fastest of skaters, preparing to race the clock, so he quickly grabbed a calendar and skated over to the finish line. "All yours, guys. We'll time you with this."
Clearly, the time has come for all the Whalers.