The garbage man cometh - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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The garbage man cometh

Deflections, rebounds and other close-in pickings are the repertoire of the WHA's surprise scoring ace, Ron Ward—up from NHL oblivion

If you add up the total footage and the total velocity of the 26 goals Ron Ward has scored for the New York Raiders this season, you might—just might—get one of Bobby Hull's 50-foot, 110-miles-an-hour slap shots. A Ward goal is a deflection or a converted rebound or a soft backhander that trickles through the goaltender's pads and comes to rest 1/1,000th of an inch across the goal line. "I am," Ward candidly admits, "a true garbage collector."

There was Ward last Wednesday night, hanging around the crease as his line-mates, Wayne Rivers and Brian Bradley, battled furiously for the puck behind the New England Whalers' net. Ward casually skated around the perimeter of the crease, not bothering a soul, and then he stopped in a spot about three feet in front of Goaltender Bruce Landon, who was hugging the right post as the skirmish for the loose puck continued behind him. Suddenly the puck rolled out toward Ward's stick. Ping! With almost casual disdain, Ward flicked a backhand shot that floated past Landon's glove, hit the goalpost and caromed in.

"I don't understand it," Bradley complained afterward. "I can shoot the puck through the boards and you can't break a pane of glass, but I've got only two goals and you've got 26. It's ridiculous." Ward tried to console his frustrated line-mate. "Brian," he said in an avuncular tone, "you've just got to learn how to talk to the puck."

Ward obviously spent the summer picking up the lingo. Playing for the Vancouver Canucks of the National Hockey League last season, he had only two goals and four assists for a grand total of six points in 71 games. Right now though, he leads the World Hockey Association with 26 goals and 20 assists for 46 points—in just 28 games. "The puck has taken some funny bounces for me so far, and they've all been good," Ward says, sounding almost apologetic. "But it's about time I got some breaks."

Thanks primarily to Ward's consistent goal scoring, the Raiders have managed to remain artistically and financially afloat in the struggling WHA. On the ice, they are within striking distance of the Whalers and the Cleveland Crusaders in the East Division, and if Kent Douglas and Bill Speer, experienced defense-men who have been masquerading as blimps, ever get into shape, the Raiders could bring a hockey championship to Madison Square Garden before the rival Rangers of the NHL. Off the ice, though, the WHA has had to assume active control of the club's operations and presently is searching for a well-heeled investor—Lamar Hunt, where are you?—willing to sustain losses up to $1 million a year until the Raiders and the WHA turn the dollar corner.

The original New York owners sent an S O S to the WHA after a succession of small crowds—the Raiders have averaged only 4,455 fans for their 18 games in the 17,500-seat Garden—created a serious revenue gap between projected receipts and actual dollars. "We also greatly underestimated what the start-up cost of a franchise would be," explains Lawyer Dick Wood, the original president of the Raiders, "and eventually we had to revise our budget upward three times."

What killed Wood's hopes in New York, and, indeed, may kill the WHA's, is the club's three-year lease agreement with Madison Square Garden. The Garden reportedly charges the Raiders $22,500 rent for each playing date. The Raiders' game receipts, meanwhile, have been averaging about $27,500 per date. By contrast, the Houston Aeros of the WHA have leased the Sam Houston Coliseum for the entire season for only $37,500—less than $1,000 a game.

"The worst part of the lease is the dates we've had," says Jim Browitt, the WHA official who is administering the club's affairs. "So far the Raiders have played six Saturday afternoon games and six Sunday afternoon games in the Garden—all back to back, mind you—and, well, how do you compete with football? This week we play a Monday night game in the Garden head on against the New York Jets on television from Oakland. The crowd will be awful, I'm sure. Our six Wednesday and Thursday night crowds have been encouraging, however. We have averaged about 7,000 for them, and that helps pay the bills."

Browitt has been able to extract a few concessions from the Garden management. The Raiders" equipment men now may use the Garden's washer and dryer to clean the team's equipment between those back-to-back games, and the Zamboni ice resurfacing machine has not broken down in 10 days. "They tell me the Zamboni is pretty reliable," Browitt says, "but the Garden's machine failed to work twice in two weeks."

Despite the difficulties the Raiders have encountered, both Browitt and Wood are optimistic about the club's future under new ownership in New York. "I've set up a workable budget of about $2.2 million," Browitt says, "and the break-even attendance point is only 8,000 people a game. The most impressive selling point is the team itself. It's not a sick club on the ice. It's a legitimate contender. If the Raiders were sick, it would be different."

Wood claims the Raiders and the WHA offer the paying spectators a more exciting game than the NHL right now. "I've talked to the ushers and the fans at the Garden," Wood says, "and they all tell me it is nice to see close games once again. Now I'm not saying that our brand of hockey is comparable to the NHL's at this time, but at least all our teams are pretty evenly matched."

Actually, there has been very little difference in the closeness of competition in both leagues this year. In the WHA 65% of the games have been decided by two goals or fewer, 80% by three goals or fewer and the average winning margin has been 2.3 goals. On the whole, WHA teams have produced an average of 6.89 goals a game. In the NHL, 55% of the games have been decided by two goals or fewer and the average winning margin has been 2.6 goals, with an average production of 6.63 goals a game.

The major difference in relative excitement concerns tie games, and here the WHA gets five stars. There have been 33 tie games in the NHL this year but only six in the WHA, thanks to the new league's decision to play a 10-minute, sudden-death overtime period in an attempt to eliminate deadlocks. Of the 24 regulation-game ties played so far in the WHA, 18 have been decided in overtime. In the old days the NHL argued that overtime periods would prevent teams from making train connections; now, in the age of the jet, that argument is no longer valid.

While the WHA's on-ice statistics rival the NHL's, the attendance figures do not. Last year the 14 NHL teams played to 90.8% of capacity. That percentage probably will drop a point or two this season because of the unhealthy franchise situation in Oakland and a surprising lack of response to the New York Islanders, who have been drawing some 4,000 fewer fans a game than had been expected.

The WHA's 12 teams have been playing to 48.7% of capacity, with an average crowd of 5,092. The New England Whalers (7,768) and the Quebec Nordiques (7,099) are easily the soundest and most successful operations, while the Raiders, with an average crowd of only 28.3% of capacity, and the Ottawa Nationals, only 24.8%, have not made enough money to cover their bills. (In Winnipeg, Hull, the WHA's No. 1 attraction, is playing to 50% of capacity in an 11,300-seat building.)

The dollar problems, however, have been of relatively small concern to the WHA players. "Our paychecks have not bounced," Ron Ward says, "and we still travel by jet and stay in the best hotels. Everything will work out."

For Ward, the WHA admittedly represents his last chance to play in any league with a major-league label. The WHA's rosters are a conglomerate of college graduates, minor-league retreads, NHL bench warmers and NHL stars, and Ward fits two categories: retread and bench warmer. "My problem," he says, "is that I've never been a good skater." Indeed, Ward sort of steers himself around the ice, using his stick as a balance wheel. "I'm not very graceful," he says, "but I get there."

Ward was the property of the Toronto Maple Leafs when he turned professional in 1965, but he played only 18 games for them in the next four years, spending most of his time in road stops such as Phoenix, Tulsa and Rochester. "I always thought I could help the Leafs in certain areas if they ever gave me the chance," he says. "I need a couple of good wingers—one to back-check, one to dig the puck from the corners—then I'm all set. In Toronto I never got them." The Vancouver Canucks drafted Ward in the NHL's 1970 expansion, but they soon dispatched him to Rochester. "That was the low point," he says. "They didn't think I could help them." After a strong finish at Rochester, though, Ward was brought back to Vancouver last season. "I figured they were going to give me my shot at last, but all I did was kill penalties and take the odd shift when a game was hopelessly lost."

When the WHA phoned Ward last January, he indicated immediately that he was willing to jump leagues. "The Raiders made me a generous offer," he says. "As a matter of courtesy, I told the Vancouver people what it was. Now you would think the Canucks would try to persuade you to stay. Hah! Bud Poile, the general manager, told me I probably would not even make the club. So I was gone. You know, if Poile had said I had a chance to be their third center this year, I most likely would have stayed. But he told me I was no good."

The day after Ward's meeting with Poile, Vancouver Coach Hal Laycoe did try to persuade him to stay in the NHL. "What did they offer you?" he asked Ward. "Maybe we can match it." Ward looked at Laycoe. "No, Hal, you can't. The Raiders offered me a chance to play hockey."

At the start of the season Raider Coach Camille Henry planned to play Ward on defense where his poor skating would be less hindrance. Then the NHL filed suit against Garry Peters, another of the New York NHL defectors, and managed to keep him out of the lineup for several weeks, so Henry was forced to play Ward at center. "Now he'll stay there," Henry says.

Ward hopes so. "I figured that I'd score 20 or 25 goals this year," he says, "but now I'm thinking about getting 27. Seriously, for the first time in the major leagues I have the type of wings I need to be an effective player. Brian and Wayne will get the puck for me. I think I know what to do with it once I get it."