Stan Mikita eases himself into the window seat beside Sockeye, and Doug Jarrett leans over from the aisle of the bus that is carrying the Chicago Black Hawks into town from the Toronto airport. Both players talk quickly, loudly, a little too intently, about how funny it had been to see Ed Van Impe's newspaper burst into flames in his hands, a victim of Whitey's high-powered butane lighter. Suddenly Sockeye, whose proper name is Don Uren and who has been the Hawks' equipment manager and court jester long enough to be suspicious of everybody, lets out a yell. "Hey, what's Whitey doing now?"
Too late. Whitey—otherwise Patrick James Stapleton, 26-year-old gentleman farmer, father of five and an outstanding Hawk defenseman—is already poised behind Sockeye with a shiny steel chain. One end is padlocked to the base of the bus seat. Whitey deftly loops the other end around Sockeye's neck. Mikita and Jarrett hold their pigeon as Whitey clamps a second padlock shut, sentencing Sockeye to an undetermined stretch aboard the bus. "Please, Whitey," moans Sockeye. "Please, will you give me the key?"
From the seat in front of him, Billy Reay turns around. Reay is the businesslike and sometimes grim Black Hawk coach, and he has not had a good week. The night before, in Boston, he found that both the hotel and plane reservations for the Hawks were fouled up. After much arguing and maneuvering, he has finally gotten his club to Toronto, but now he faces two straight games with the red-hot Maple Leafs. As he turns, it is hard to know how he will take the stunt.
But Reay breaks into laughter, and his laugh told something about the mood of the Black Hawks as they coasted toward the first regular-season championship in their 40-year history. A year ago, as they dropped out of the fight with Montreal for first place, Reay and his players seemed to be suffering from the jitters. Now they were loose and relaxed—and were performing better than ever. Last year everyone was preoccupied with Bobby Hull's drive toward a record 54 goals. Now the team was playing as a unit—and Hull was a fair bet to break his own record anyway. The gloomy warriors of other seasons were laughing and joking their way toward the title, and comedians like Stapleton and Phil Esposito had become as representative of the club as the superstars, Hull and Mikita. "Sure, we're happy," said Stapleton. "We know we're going to win it, and we know we have the best team."
To many observers, of course, the Hawks have had the best team in the NHL for the last five years. After all, they had the top goal-scorer in Hull, the top defenseman in Pierre Pilote, the all-star goalie in Glenn Hall and the best forward line in the Scooters (see cover), a line consisting of Mikita, Kenny Wharram and, during the last three years, Doug Mohns. Yet every March, with the long-awaited championship in sight, the Hawks would collapse. Explanations for this phenomenon have ranged from the mythical Muldoon Jinx—a curse allegedly pronounced by the team's first coach, Pete Muldoon, when he was fired in 1927—to accusations of "choking," but the Hawks tend to explain their past failures in more basic, physical terms.
"There was a simple reason for those late slumps," says Pilote, the 35-year-old team captain. "We always depended too much on a few stars. We had to use them a lot and they got worn out. And when the stars got tired the team faded. This season the load is more evenly distributed, so the stars have stayed strong all year long."
Last year the focus on stars was sharpest as Bobby Hull sought his record-breaking 51st goal. "I don't think we concentrated on passing the puck to Bobby as much as some people said we did," says Mikita. "But I guess his try for the record did have some effect, subconsciously at least." Chicago suffered three straight shutouts before Bobby finally got No. 51. "It was exciting," recalls Pilote. "We all wanted to see Bobby make it. But maybe it did keep us from pulling together to win games."
"You should really have only one purpose in mind at a time," adds Mohns. "Last year we were thinking about Bobby as well as winning. This year we have only one thing to worry about—first place. We'll get that, and the records will come by themselves."
The title became reality last Sunday as the Hawks smothered Toronto 5-0, and the records will come in unprecedented numbers. Mikita, the best all-round player in the game, is a cinch to break Hull's record of 97 points (goals plus assists) in a season; he is odds-on to be the league's Most Valuable Player and, what is more, he will win the Lady Byng Trophy for outstanding play with few fouls. The Scooter Line—so named by Reay for its mercurial swiftness—may well break the record of 226 points set by Detroit's legendary Production Line of Gordie Howe, Norm Ullman and Ted Lindsay in 1956-57. And Hull, who started slowly because of a bursitis condition that caused extreme pain in his back every time he climbed over the boards, has scored an amazing 38 goals in his last 38 games.
"But don't go giving all the credit to our line," says Mikita. "Or to Bobby, or to any one individual. This has been a team effort." Hull had said the same thing months earlier when his back was hurting and he wasn't scoring, and the Hawks were somehow staying in a fight for the league lead: "There's a new spirit on this team, a new togetherness. You could feel it right from the start." Bobby himself contributes to that spirit by the mere fact of his presence. He is not a speechmaker and he watches the team's clowning from the sidelines, but his teammates know that with him around their own work is much more likely to be rewarded. He is also a one-man public-relations firm for the Hawks. He doggedly insists on signing every autograph, posing for every picture with everybody's smiling kid and shaking every hand that is shoved in front of him whenever he leaves the rink. Recently reminded of his early-season statement about the club's spirit, Bobby broke into the broad and handsome grin that has helped make him Chicago's leading folk hero. "I was right, wasn't I?" he said. "The whole team has won this thing together. You can pick out any one of the guys and give him credit."
But you have to start somewhere, and the Scooter Line is as good a place as any. In a Boston hotel room on the night after an easy 5-2 victory Mikita was sitting at the head of his bed, shirt and shoes off and legs stretched out in front of him. Wharram, his roommate, sat down in a wooden rocking chair—a mistake that immediately inspired Mikita, who is 26, to call his 33-year-old right wing "the old man." There was a tub full of beer on a room-service tray near the bed, and every once in a while one of them would get up to open another round. With the next day off, they were unwinding from the evening's efforts.
"You know," said Mikita, "the funny thing is, everybody thinks we're magicians or something, when all we really do is make the obvious plays. We don't do anything unorthodox or surprising. We just keep skating, and each of us knows where the other guys will be."
It began to sound very simple. Just skate—it helps if you can skate as fast as Mikita, Wharram and Mohns—and pass to predetermined spots and then score. Oh, yes, you had better throw in a few thousand hours of practicing and talking about strategy and analyzing mistakes.
To locate one another in the right spots, the Scooters do a lot of yelling on the ice. This probably offers a dim form of comfort to their opponents, since it at least indicates that, for all their machinelike efficiency, they are human. But it also helps them score. As soon as one man gets free for a shot, he shouts the nickname of the man with the puck. Wharram is "Whip," Mikita is "Kita," Mohns is "Mohnsie." "If you shout once," says Wharram, "it means you think you have a little time. But if you're in a scramble you yell twice: 'Kita! Kita!' Then he knows he has to rush."
Their studied teamwork had been evident throughout that evening's game, and especially on one power play. Mohns had gone into the corner and slapped the puck out to Wharram. Wharram faked a pass to Mikita near the net, then slid it back to Hull at the point. Bobby gave it to Pilote, and Pilote finally got it to Mikita in front. End of overture. Mikita took over. He made one fake, then paused as Bruin Goalie Ed Johnston lunged forward. Another fake and Johnston was off balance. Then Mikita fired a shot under the goalie's legs into the net. "I think," Mikita admitted, "it was as good a goal as I've scored all year." It had been his 30th, and the 77th for members of his line.
The Scooters like to describe their success in terms of group effort—and that is certainly the main factor. But it also happens that these are three brilliant individual players. Mikita can do everything very well, and some things—stickhandling and playmaking—better than anyone else. He is also a fierce competitor and a leader. Now in his eighth full season with Chicago, he says, "I'm a better hockey player than I've ever been."
Wharram is not as smooth a stick-handler, but he is very fast and has a hard, accurate shot. Mohns, the most recent addition to the line, is the heaviest of the three—175 pounds compared to 163 for Wharram and 161 for Mikita—and adds checking power. Because he was a defenseman during most of the 11 years he played with Boston, people tend to think of him as a weak scorer. Weak scorer Mohns has already put in 23 goals and ranks among the league's top 10.
When he was traded to Chicago in 1964, Mohns was supposed to play defense. But he suffered several injuries, and when he was ready to play Reay was undecided where to use him. Mikita and Wharram suggested that Mohns join them. He began playing left wing, but he was still thinking defensively. "Sometimes we would rush up and make a pass to Mohnsie's side," says Wharram, "and he would be moving back. I'd ask why, and he'd say that we had left an opposing forward free and he wanted to back us up. He would be right, of course—but that's cautious hockey, the kind you see in Stanley Cup playoffs. It's not really our regular style."
Soon Mohns adjusted. "Playing with strange linemates," he says, "you tend to hesitate. You don't want to get caught out of position, and sometimes you have to forfeit scoring chances. But the more I get to know Stan and Whip, the more I sense their moves and go with them. Now my contribution to the line is less defensive, and I'm scoring more goals."
Mikita, although he is an exceptional forechecker, too, says, "We're not a checking line, we're a forcing line. We make the plays and let the other guys worry about checking us."
Recently the Hawks faced the last series of games that could possibly be considered a challenge to their right to first place. They played four in five nights, one with the second-place New York Rangers, one with lowly Boston and then two with the Maple Leafs, who were undefeated in nine straight and at that time the most dangerous opponent in the league. Chicago led the league by 11 points going into the week and could have lost a few without worrying much. But losses would have stirred up the annual suspicions. Were they tiring? Choking? Or—patently ridiculous but often whispered—were Mikita and Hull resentful of one another? Was the team jealous of Hull? Could the best team in hockey manage to collapse once more?
The questions never came up. The Black Hawks beat New York 6-1 as Hull scored three goals. They routed the Bruins. They played badly in Toronto and lost 3-0, but they came back the following night to defeat the Leafs 5-2 in one of their best games of the year.
"This first-place business has been like a monkey on our back," sighed Pilote. "Every year people accuse us of being the best team and losing. Well, maybe we weren't the best team then. Maybe we didn't have the balance or all-round ability to finish first. But now we are the best, and we're finally proving to everybody that we can win a championship. It feels good to get it over with."
It feels especially good to Tommy Ivan, the general manager who came to Chicago in 1954, when the Hawks were buried in last place, and began building the farm system that has produced Hull, Mikita and most of the other members of the present club. It took four years before the results were visible and the Black Hawks finally made the playoffs. But since then the Hawks, who finished as high as fourth only once in the previous 12 years, have been in the playoffs eight straight times, winning one Stanley Cup. "There is nothing like bringing up your players through your own system so they know what you expect of them," Ivan says. The few times Ivan has ventured outside his organization, he has traded for men like Hall and Mohns. And this year as the Hawks finally achieved the one goal that had always eluded them, Ivan has made smart moves.
As the season opened, Chicago appeared to have two weaknesses. One was the third line, where Dennis Hull, Bobby's strong but inexperienced younger brother, and the venerable Eric Nesterenko needed a top center to play between them. The other was in goal, where the master, Glenn Hall, had retired, and the newcomer, Denis DeJordy, was rated as very good, but perhaps not quite good enough for a championship club.
Ivan solved the center problem by luring Bill Hay out of retirement. Hay, an educated young man with a good job in Calgary, had quit hockey last spring at age 30. But after 12 weeks of this season he was back in Chicago. What made him change his mind? "First place," he said, and broke into a grin. "No, actually, the club was just very persistent, and I was able to get a leave from my job. Now that I am back I really do enjoy finishing first." Hay, a good skater and stickhandler, has rounded out the solid third line that the Black Hawks lacked in the past, and Dennis Hull has scored 18 goals with the powerful shot that is modeled after Bobby's.
It was probably more difficult—and certainly more expensive—to induce Hall to make a comeback. But Ivan did it, and now he has the best and the most unusual goaltending combination of all. Hall, 35, has the perpetually sour expression of a menial office worker who hates his job; actually he is a brilliant hockey player who hates his job. "Enjoy this?" he says. "Are you kidding? I'm around here for one reason and that's the money." He gets sick before each game and occasionally wakes up from naps to find himself kicking out at imaginary flying pucks. But now that he plays only half as much, he is even better than before.
DeJordy, who takes care of the other half, is a smiling, witty 28-year-old with a round face and crew cut in the Gump Worsley style. Last year he and Reay had a disagreement about his future. "I was sitting on the bench here, and my value was standing still," he says. "Nobody saw me. So I asked to be sent down to St. Louis. The bosses thought it was a mistake, but I insisted. I don't know how much I improved at St. Louis last year, but at least I was sure that NHL people wouldn't forget what I can do." DeJordy can do almost everything Hall does, and since he is younger and more enthusiastic, he will undoubtedly be the goalie the Hawks protect this year in the expansion draft.
From the goal out to Mikita and Hull, from Ivan down to Sockeye Uren, the Hawks have it all. And when they put it all together—as they did in the win over Toronto that virtually wrapped up the title—it is hard to imagine them finishing anywhere but first for the next few years. On one play in the third period Mikita carried the puck into Toronto's zone. The Leafs, as is their custom, held and jostled every Hawk that came near them. Ron Ellis clutched Mikita; Stan slipped away. Wharram took the puck and was cross-checked by Brian Conacher. ' "Whip, Whip," yelled Mikita, and Wharram fed him the puck. Allan Stanley creamed Stan, and a penalty finally was called. But the whistle wouldn't stop the action until the Leafs broke up the play—and the Scooter Line wasn't about to let the play end. For 45 seconds they controlled the puck, slapping it tantalizingly along the boards. Finally, Mikita fired the puck to Bobby Hull, who had come on the ice when the penalty was signaled. From directly in front, Hull drilled in a low shot for one of the finest goals a team could produce.
After the victory Reay chortled,' 'We're in now." Outside his office the locker-room scene was typically boisterous. Stapleton and Pilote needled Van Impe, who had hurt his knee in the game but did not want to be carried out on any stretcher. Jarrett and Dennis Hull exchanged Tarzan yells. A few players declined Esposito's invitation to join him in a pheasant hunt. "I don't know why," Esposito said. "I'm a very good hunter. As soon as something moves I shoot."
Through the knots of carefree and laughing players moved Sockeye Uren, wiping skate blades and then hanging the skates on hooks above each locker, forming a neat symmetrical row around the room. Everything was in order around the Black Hawks—the NHL champions-to-be. "You know," Stan Mikita was saying as he left the room, "I don't think I've ever enjoyed this game as much as I have this year." Said General Manager Ivan: "I've been with losing teams and winning ones, and I'll say this, winning is an awful lot more fun."