My mother used to tell me, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," but I'm going to stray from that advice this once and talk about the Norris Division. For one thing, I know my mother would approve, because she was a Blackhawk fan back in the Bobby Hull era, before the team became imbedded in the Norris quagmire of mediocrity. For another thing, my motives are pure. I grew up with a grandson of the late James Norris, played grade school hockey and football with him, and once burned my lips with him while engaging in a candle-snuffing-out-in-the-mouth contest—another thing that my mother advised against. He deserves better, my friend's grandfather. The name Norris has been dragged around in the muck and yuchh of divisional doormatdom long enough. Something has to be done.
It has, after all, been 20 years since any of the five teams that make up the Norris Division—Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, Toronto Maple Leafs and Minnesota North Stars—last won the Stanley Cup. And the end of this miserable string is nowhere in sight. At the midway point of the 1986-87 season, no Norris team had won more games than it had lost, and only the Black-hawks (11-10-4) could claim a winning record in games played outside the division. Indeed, the Norris is made up of such a collection of patsies that the downtrodden from other divisions are clamoring to get in. At last winter's NHL Board of Governors meetings, the Pittsburgh Penguins petitioned to move from the powerhouse Patrick Division to the cozy den of Norris. "We could compete better in the Norris than in the Patrick," J. Paul Martha, the team's vice-president and general counsel, said candidly. Eventually, the motion was withdrawn.
"The Norris is like puppy love," Detroit G.M. Jimmy Devellano has said. "Nobody takes it seriously except the puppies." The Puppy Love Division. That's cute. Not so cute is the perception that all too often teams in the Norris appear to be playing in the Dogging It Division. "There really isn't that much difference in talent between the divisions," says Kelly Kisio, who was traded from the Red Wings to the New York Rangers last summer. "But in the Patrick, if you don't finish your check, they're going to score on you. In the Norris, if you don't finish your check, the feeling is, 'Ahhh, I'll get 'em next time.' "
Kisio called it right. There are some extremely talented players in the Norris Division—Chicago's Denis Savard and Doug Wilson; Minnesota's Dino Ciccarelli, Kent Nilsson and Neal Broten; St. Louis's Bernie Federko; Toronto's Rick Vaive; Detroit's John Ogrodnick—none of whom works as hard in a month as Wayne Gretzky does in a night. As a result, nobody takes them very seriously either: Since the basic divisional alignments were made in 1981, the Norris can boast only two first-team All-Stars (Chicago's Wilson in 1981-82 and Detroit's Ogrodnick in 1984-85).
If there is anything heartening about the division at all, it is that this season, for the first time in years, there are no teams that can be labeled just plain inept; i.e., Detroit and Toronto are no longer an automatic two points for any team skating against them. The Norris standings, in fact, are so close that in a 48-hour span at the end of December, the Blackhawks went from last place to first, then back to last. Every team in the division has held the lead at some point in the season. Any day we might find a 5-way tie for first, or last. "The NHL wanted parity," says Minnesota coach Lorne Henning. "And they got it."
They can keep it. True hockey fans yearn to see genuine excellence every once in a while, a team to tuck away in the memory bank and compare with the greats of all time. No one has seen that in the Norris Division since Hull bailed out of Chicago in 1972.
Why has the Norris Division been so bad for so long? Theories abound.
•The Mediocrity Begets Mediocrity Theory. At the top of the division the two teams with the most raw talent—Minnesota and Chicago—have not pulled away. Consequently, there is little incentive for the rank and file to improve. "If we were in a division with Philly or Edmonton, we'd have to pick it up," says North Stars goalie Don Beaupre, who calls for a return to the pre-1981 balanced schedule among all NHL teams. "The pressure of winning every night isn't there in the Norris. It doesn't matter where you end up overall in the NHL standings, and everybody knows it."
Compounding the problem was the fact that while no team was pulling away at the top, there was always one team so mired at the bottom—either the Red Wings or the Maple Leafs—that a playoff berth was an Impossible Dream for it by mid-November. The other four Norris teams merely had to show up for the last 60 games of the regular season to grab a piece of the playoff payoff. The 1985-86 season was a classic example. Thanks to what was an off-year even by Red Wing standards (17-57-6), the Leafs made the playoffs with the third-worst record in the NHL (25-48-7). "Imagine winning about one game a week," says Kisio, "and still being in the playoff race until close to the end of the season. Pretty ridiculous."
•The If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Wayne Maxner Theory. No division chews up and spits out coaches like the Norris. Over the past 10 years, these five teams have made 43 coaching changes, which constitutes more action in the front office than is usually seen on the ice. Just this season there are three new coaches—Jacques Demers, who leapt from St. Louis to Detroit; Jacques Martin, who replaced Demerson St. Louis; and Toronto's John Murphy. Brophy and Demers are already feuding. Rather, they are continuing a feud that began in the old World Hockey Association, when Demers coached the Cincinnati Stingers and Brophy was coaching those merry mayhem-makers, the Birmingham Bulls. When the Maple Leafs shut out the Red Wings earlier this season, Brophy bellowed at Demers, "Big, [bleeping] zero." And punctuated it with a classic rude gesture. This was not closed-captioned, to the delight of the spectators, who have learned to take their excitement any way they can get it.
A spot quiz: What do Billy Dea and Wayne Maxner (Detroit), Floyd Smith (Toronto) and Murray .Oliver (Minnesota) have in common? Answer: Since 1979, each has coached a Norris team for less than one season.
On the surface it appears that Chicago stands out as a bastion of stability in the division. After all, Bob Pulford is the coach this year just as he was 10 years ago. Oh, how looks can deceive. Over that span, Pulford—who is also the G.M.—has held the coaching job three different times; in between his stints, three head coaches and a co-coach have taken hold of the Blackhawks' reins. The best of the lot, Orval Tessier, accurately recommended a "heart transplant" for the entire team after a playoff loss. Pulford's style is different. This season, despite Chicago's staggering start (they did not win two games in a row until January), Pulford has been so laconic he has been dubbed "Mute" Rockne.
•The Let 'Em Eat Cake Theory. Four of the five Norris teams are located in hockey hotbeds—Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit and Toronto. Maple Leaf Gardens, for example, was claimed to be sold out for every game since 1946 before the string was finally broken in 1985. In Detroit, where the Red Wings have had 13 losing seasons in a row, attendance remains among the highest in the league. Same with Chicago. Why bother paying good money to sign top-notch talent when every seat is already filled?
Only the St. Louis Blues, and to a lesser extent, the Minnesota North Stars, whose fans are fairly discriminating about their hockey, need to win to fill the building. But St. Louis is so chronically strapped for money—the team has changed hands three times since the summer of '83—that it trades its talent every time it needs to balance the books. Money was the motivating factor in both the Mike Liut (to Hartford) and Joey Mullen (to Calgary) trades of recent years, and Demers, who is proving his magic again in Detroit, might still be coaching St. Louis if departed owner Harry Ornest had delivered a contract for Demers to sign after verbally negotiating a three-year deal.
To be fair, new Blues owner Michael Shanahan shows signs of easing the purse strings. And for the past few years, the same has been true in Detroit, where owner Mike Ilitch has dug deep to land free agents and acquire Demers, whom he signed to a five-year, million-dollar deal. But the Wirtz family in Chicago, the clan that let Hull jump to the WHA, is still doing things in 1987 like they were in 1957. And Harold Ballard, Toronto's 83-year-old owner, is such a dinosaur that when it was rumored that he was in failing health this past October, stock in the Maple Leafs and Maple Leaf Gardens soared from $140 to $169 a share. To the speculators' chagrin, Ballard proved resilient and late this fall could be found petting a tiger at center ice of Maple Leaf Gardens, promoting the Grey Cup game that his Hamilton Tiger-Cats later won. Hey, does Gorge Steinbrenner promote Tampa Bay Downs at Yankee Stadium?
•The Why Not Fire The G.M. Theory. The general managers in this division include some of the true dunderheads of sport. One of them, Toronto's Gerry McNamara, even went to court to prove that a 1980 car accident had left him brain-damaged. He accepted an out-of-court settlement for more than $100,000.
Check it out. Detroit's Devellano has made several questionable deals since taking over in 1982, trading away good young talent for the likes of Darryl Sittler and Ron Duguay. True, Devellano has kept his promises to keep all his draft choices and to sign available free agents—except that his top pick from last season, Joe Murphy, is playing for Adirondack in the AHL, and his bonus-baby free agent, Ray Staszak, was headed in the same direction just before being injured. Furthermore, his No. 1 pick in the supplementary draft of college players, Ian Kidd of North Dakota, was ineligible. Adios, No. 1 pick.
In Chicago, Pulford has been reluctant to do any player-swapping since he was burned three years ago by Philadelphia, who bequeathed the Hawks slow-reacting defenseman Behn Wilson in exchange for heady Doug Crossman and a second-round pick. The Hawks need a shaking up, but Pulford's not the man to do it.
The opposite is true up in Minnesota, where Lou Nanne, the Monty Hall of the NHL, seemed to be on the threshold of building an NHL powerhouse before trading himself out of contention in the space of three years. Nanne can't seem to get it into his head that a hockey puck occasionally slips into a corner. He has loaded the North Stars with nifty shifties like Ciccarelli, Nilsson, Broten, Denis Maruk, Brian Bellows, Brian Lawton and Ron Wilson, but the last time one of those slick-skaters dug something out of a corner, it was probably a lint ball.
Then there is McNamara, who was so giddy with success when the Maple Leafs started out 7-2-3 this season that he struck out venomously at the Toronto press during a between-periods interview. "A lot of people are eating crow these days," he gloated. "One in particular has a claw stuck in his throat. I don't think anyone can be as nasty as I can."
Since that charming bit of chitchat, the Leafs have gone 10-16-2, reverting to form. Until McNamara became G.M. in 1981, the most losses the Leafs had ever suffered in a season was 41 (1972-73). Since his arrival the Leafs have lost 44, 40, 45, 52 and 48 games.
As for Ron Caron of the Blues, it's too soon to tell. He has had to build a team with limited funds, and it's a team that missed the entire 1983 draft because the club was in ownership limbo. On top of all that, the Blues have developed a jinx at the left wing this season. No fewer than five wingers have been lost to injury, two of them right out of the Irving Fryar Guide to Injured Reserve. To wit: Mark Reeds suffered second-and third-degree burns...while making popcorn; and Jocelyn Lemieux, the Blues' first-round pick in 1986, tripped at the team's on-ice Christmas party and a security guard skated over his finger. Lemieux has been out of the lineup since Dec. 17. The security guard lost no time.
So it goes in the Norris Division, where a .500 record brings forth hallelujahs and visitors never fear to tread. Still, four of these five teams will make the playoffs. We have a theory on that, too, but as Mom used to tell me, "If you can't say something nice...."