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Original Issue

The Yanks are coming

Mike Antonovich & Co. lead a U.S. invasion of Canada's hockey fief

The last time the United States invaded Canada, during the ludicrous War of 1812, some of the soldiers mutinied, others fired on each other in the dark and the Canadians referred to their week of service as a "party of pleasure." Oh, what a lousy war. Now there is another U.S. invasion, and it is no laughing matter. The Yanks have established a beachhead in one of Canada's most prized sanctuaries, professional hockey, and aren't about to let go. They are even working from the inside, infiltrating Canadian minds. "We can see the talent developing," says the Montreal Canadiens' general manager, Sam Pollock. "There will be quite an American nest."

There already is. There are 10 U.S. players in the National Hockey League—one used to be considered freakish—and the new World Hockey Association has no fewer than 20.

What personifies and to a great extent explains the U.S. thrust is the presence of such players as Mike Antonovich, a 5'8", 160-pound left wing for the WHA's Minnesota Fighting Saints. Antonovich is on the team with the largest number of U.S. players (10) in pro hockey. He hails from Minnesota, where hockey is strong, and has played at three levels of the game there in the last four years.

First he made all-state three times and led Greenway of Coleraine, a regional high school embracing a dozen northern mining towns, to two state titles. Then he brought the University of Minnesota its first Western Collegiate title in 16 years, followed the next season by a trip to the NCAA finals. Finally he left school to turn pro after his junior year.

Considered too small to play in the NHL, he was a last-round publicity draft choice of the Minnesota North Stars. The Saints' coach, Glen Sonmor, who had also recruited Antonovich for college hockey, had more faith in small men than most, and Mike signed with him. A lifetime center, Antonovich at first seemed lost at a new position on a line with a rookie center and a variety of right wings, but he had scored a dozen goals by midseason and went on to get his first hat trick on Jan. 20. "If you're little, sometimes you have some extra quickness," Antonovich says. "I think it's an advantage." He scores most often on rebounds and deflections, and after each goal he does a dance.

It is easy to attribute the success of Antonovich and others to the sneering catchword, "expansion." But expansion doesn't account for so many good U.S. players, such men as the Saints' goalie, Mike Curran, who was an Olympic star, or New York's Bobby Sheehan and New England's Larry Pleau, who are among the WHA's leading scorers.

The first big break for U.S. players came in 1967, when the NHL raised the minimum draft age from 18 to 20. Many Canadians decided to use the extra years to begin college in the U.S. When Canadian scouts crossed over to watch their native products waste time before becoming eligible for the pro draft, they discovered that south-of-the-border hockey was better than they had expected. And so, in the last two drafts 43 players were picked from U.S. colleges, including many of the once-scorned natives.

All but two members of the U.S. World Cup team are Minnesota born or bred. The feeder programs in Massachusetts and Michigan are comparable, but Minnesota has 55,000 players in organized programs, more than one-fourth the U.S. total, and an unmatched 80 indoor rinks.

Minnesota hockey, many feel, is equivalent to Canadian until the high school level. This is where Canada moves ahead. A top Canadian teen-ager has what might generously he described as an abbreviated high school education. He will play some 300 games between the ages of 16 and 19 in September-April leagues reserved for the best players. But, at least in Minnesota, U.S. high school hockey is improving apace.

The backlash from all this activity is that more U.S. players are bound to turn pro before finishing college or playing on the national team. "You want to play for God and country—or a $50,000 bonus?" asks National Coach Bob Johnson. More fearful is the prospect of junior leagues raiding the high schools and creating the classic dilemma of the Canadian who is almost but not quite good enough to play pro. "What could be worse than being a mediocre 21-year-old hockey player with a ninth-grade education?" asks the Saints' western Canada scout, Roy Kelly.

For the Mike Antonoviches, such risks undoubtedly seem worthwhile. In northern Minnesota, hockey has traditionally been a means of upward social mobility comparable to basketball in the ghetto. (With a little luck and a little puck, anyone can make it.) The difference until recently had been that a top hockey player had virtually no chance of playing professionally; instead he might hope to begin a career through his reputation and a college scholarship.

"I think I would have worked in the mines and played baseball if I hadn't got a hockey scholarship," says Antonovich, who was an All-State third baseman in high school. He grew up in Calumet, a town on Minnesota's iron range that once had close to 1,000 inhabitants, but now counts fewer than its listed 460; most of its ore has given out. The Antonovich family still lives in the small frame house where Mike's mother Eleanor gave birth to him without benefit of physician 21 years ago.

Small-town legends grew up around Antonovich, legends of how he was better than bigger and older boys and how he skated every day until dark. There were tales of his cockiness. "Mike was really a modest kid," says his high school coach, Bob Gernander, "but he had an arrogant way about him." From the time he led Greenway to its first state title as a 5'4", 122-pound third-line sophomore, Mike no doubt felt it was necessary to throw what weight he had around.

Perhaps because of his reputation for roughness, Mike never made All-America, though he led Minnesota from third-period ties and deficits to 13 wins his freshman year and from a three-goal third-period disadvantage to an overtime win in the NCAA semifinals in his second year. The magic ran out in his junior year, when he injured his knee. With a pregnant wife and no chance of remaining academically eligible, he did not have to vacillate about turning pro. "I could have gone back to school," he says, "but you want to get in at the ground floor. I just went to school to play hockey." Antonovich is anything but cocky now, being understandably preoccupied with learning his position and surviving against bigger men.

"I think Mike could have played in the NHL," Sonmor maintains. "But he would have had to score 40 goals in Saginaw—and he would have. Then he would have had to score 40 goals in the high minors somewhere—and he would have—and then someone would have given him the chance."

"Every time a Mike Antonovich takes the ice for the Saints, it helps hockey all through Minnesota," says Roy Kelly. "The kids on the high school teams look at him and realize that if they work hard enough, there's a place for them in pro hockey, too."

"In a few years there's going to be an explosion," says former Minnesota and Olympic Coach John Mariucci. "Why? Because we have numbers. Coaching's getting better, we have a 12-month program and rules are getting better, too." He paused. "And when we cross the color line, it's gonna be great."