ALL ABLAZE AT CENTER - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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Hockey's most conspicuous young stars in many a year have surfaced at center ice. Their talents are brilliant, their backgrounds varied, their futures bright

As hockey's biggest flesh merchant, Godfather Sam Pollock of the Montreal Canadiens likes to settle any nagging personnel problems by making his friends these staggering offers they cannot afford to refuse. For almost two years now Godfather Sam has been in semi-desperate need of a center to replace the retired Jean Beliveau. It's not that Sam isn't doing O.K. with Jacques Lemaire and Henri Richard at center ice. You can't fault first place. The thing is, Sam is a little greedy. He doesn't want just any center, mind you, but a classic center. So, as the new season warms up, Pollock looks around, sees that the NHL has more fine young centers—more potential Beliveaus—than any league this side of the Kremlin and signals for his telephone.

He calls Keith Allen, the head of the Philadelphia family, and says he will give the Flyers five warm bodies and the jukebox concession in Camden for Bobby Clarke, the best player in the West Division. Sure, Allen says, and I suppose you want Steve Carlton for the Expos, too. Next Sam dispatches an emissary to see Emile the Cat in New York and orders him to return with Walt Tkaczuk—or else. But Emile Francis won't jump, not even when Sam's trusty bagman hints he will sweeten the deal with a Times Square massage parlor or two. Then Sam wires Ned Harkness in Detroit and offers him four players as well as the e's off Grosse Pointe for Marcel Dionne. "No dice," Harkness says.

Thrice rebuffed, the Godfather realizes it would be senseless to phone his old friend Punch Imlach in Buffalo and inquire about the availability of Gilbert Perreault (see cover), the Sabres' dazzling 22-year-old center who grew up in Beliveau's hometown and already dominates his position the way Le Gros Bil once did. Pollock knows he cannot make Imlach any acceptable offer for Perreault.

"The kid is the best center in the game—bar none," Imlach says. "There's no way anyone can get Perreault out of Buffalo." Two years ago Perreault and the Sabres alike were rookies in the NHL, and the old clubs treated them with disdain. The haughty New York Rangers, for instance, permitted Buffalo not even one lonely victory in 12 games over two seasons. But the days of defeat have ended, and the only thing conceivably boring about hockey in Buffalo is that Perreault and the Sabres win too often.

Last Thursday night at the raucous Aud in Buffalo, Perreault scored the winning goal as the Sabres whipped the Rangers for the fifth time in six games this season and moved back into the fourth and final playoff position in the East Division, two points in front of the Detroit Red Wings. While humiliating the Rangers, the Sabres improved their home record to 24-4-3—the best in the NHL. Perreault's French Connection line, with Rene Robert and Richard Martin on the wings, accounted for two more goals to reach a league-high 87 in just 58 games.

Of all the bright young centers Montreal would like to attach, Perreault most nearly deserves close comparison with the majestic Beliveau, because only he skates with such stately grace and sangfroid. To get his decisive goal against New York, Perreault, his bowed legs working with deceptive speed and perfect balance, gave Defenseman Dale Rolfe a hip fake, two leg fakes, a couple of shoulder fakes, a hatful of head fakes and a few eye blinks, all the while controlling the puck with deft moves of his stick. As Rolfe reeled, Perreault fired the puck past Goaltender Ed Giacomin. "Perreault," says Boston's Bobby Orr, "is easily the most exciting player I've seen come into the league."

Who is this Perreault? And who are all these other young centers the Godfather romances so assiduously?

"It is all I ever wanted to do, to be a hockey player," Perreault says, spacing out the words. He has been speaking English for less than two years, so it does not come easily, and as Perreault talks he nervously taps his heels against the floor. Although Beliveau also lived in Victoriaville, Quebec, Perreault never met him until he moved to Montreal himself and joined the Junior Canadiens in 1967. "I try not to copy Beliveau," Perreault says. "He was too great for me. Certainly I wanted to play with him in Montreal, but now, as I look back, I see that it was best for me that I come to Buffalo. I like it here. There is not so much pressure on me and I can play my game." Perreault plans to spend much of the summer in Victoriaville playing tennis and golf. "There is a big tournament at the golf club," he says. "It used to be called the Jean Beliveau Golf Tournament. Now they call it the Jean Beliveau-Gilbert Perreault Golf Tournament." Gil Perreault smiles.

"C'mon, Walter, I'm not waiting for you again today." Brad Park was impatient as Walt Tkaczuk finished dressing, but he had no choice. Tkaczuk was driving them home. Hockey's strongest center and its best penalty-killer, the 6', 190-pound, 25-year-old Tkaczuk earns about $125,000 a year from the Rangers, but he has not forgotten the summers when he made as little as $1.67 an hour working 3,300 feet below ground in the gold mines around South Porcupine, Ontario. "I was a stoper's helper when I was 16," Tkaczuk says. "The stoper is the man who traces the gold veins. I helped him carry the dynamite. I wore a helmet with a searchlight attached to the front, and I had a battery gadget hooked to my side and a cord running from the battery to the light. Without the light I couldn't see a foot in front of me. If we knew one of our friends was passing by, we'd put out our lights and scare him. When the stoper located a vein of gold, he'd plant the dynamite and we'd both run off into these little caves and wait for the blasts to go off. You'd hear a BANG!, then a BOOM! The BANG was the cap shooting off; the BOOM was the dynamite. If you set six sticks, you waited for the six caps to go off. You never moved until the last one went off. Otherwise you might get killed. But the toughest part of the job was the shuttle trip to and from the surface. They'd pack 40 of us into a cage, like animals. We all had our work clothes on—and we all stank. Then the cage would go so fast that my stomach would end up in my mouth. The cage broke a couple of years before I went to work there, and I think 12 or 13 people were killed."

Tkaczuk stood up and walked away. "C'mon, Brad"—he motioned to Park—"I'm not waiting for you again today."

Gary Bergman calls Marcel Dionne Little Beaver, after a midget wrestler, because Dionne stands 5'7" "on the days when I stretch in the morning." But Dionne's lack of altitude has hardly handicapped him on the ice; last year as a 21-year-old rookie he scored 28 goals and 49 assists. And this season he already has 27 goals and 40 assists for the improving Red Wings.

"I can't be like Phil Esposito and just stand there in front of the net," Dionne says. "I've got to skate around and get lost in the crowd. A lot of people think I'm small, but I'm not. I weigh about 180 pounds—and that's not small. Guys bug me about my size, but I'm smarter than them and don't get into fights with them. When a big guy calls me Froggy or Pipsqueak, I just tell him where to go and skate away as fast as I can."

Little Beaver skated away from the Sabres a few hours later and scored two spectacular goals in a Detroit victory. Afterward he spoke volubly about his early years, his love life ("I think I'm getting married this summer") and his plans for April ("We'll be in the playoffs"). His teammates grimaced at his nonstop verbiage.

"Your tongue sweating yet?" asked Tim Ecclestone.

Marcel voyaged blithely on. "The puck," he was saying, "is no good until it is in the net." For Dionne the puck is very good indeed.

"Curt," said Emile Francis, "there's been a trade." And so Curt and Susan Bennett moved from the Rangers to the expansion Atlanta Flames last Nov. 28. At the time Bennett was a goal-less bench warmer for the Rangers; now he has scored 12 goals in 33 games as a regular center for the Flames. Bennett, 24, is one of hockey's new breed—Ivy League-educated with a degree in Russian studies from Brown.

Bennett and his wife practice yoga; in New York they sat before Swami Vishnudenanda and had $1 vegetarian meals of beans and corn bread afterward. Susan, Pembroke '71, played the role of Mary Magdalene in a Boston concert version of Jesus Christ Superstar, and now she sings five nights a week in a club in Atlanta. "She's gaining showmanship all the time," Bennett says. "She doesn't sing dopey songs. What I hear is that most people think she sings like Carly Simon."

Susan is needlepointing in their suburban Atlanta apartment on a night off, while Curt displays his paperback collection of more than 1,000 books. They range from the ordinary to the psychic. "As you see," Bennett says, "the books get freakier as you go along." On the floor in the living room is a compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, some 13 volumes that have been microfilmed into two.

Bennett worries about the effect his education has on his teammates. "I never want to become condescending," he says, the hint of a drawl on his Canadian lips. "What's encouraging about Atlanta is that most of the guys on the club read books when we travel. People who read tend to be less critical and tend to enjoy life more. Everyone needs an escape from hockey.

"Geez, listen to me, I'm beginning to talk like a Southerner."

Susan drops her needlework and gives a little shriek.

Sylvanus Apps Sr. is in the Hockey Hall of Fame after a distinguished career as a centerman for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sylvanus Apps Jr., 25, belongs to the Pittsburgh Penguins, heretofore innocent of Hall of Fame material. Last week he set a club scoring record with his 60th point of the season. "He was not a dominant father by any means," Syl Apps Jr. says. "He used to come to the rink and watch me play when I was a kid, but then the other kids would bother him and he'd just leave." Apps Sr. is a minister of correctional services for the Ontario government now, and he sees his son play only when the Penguins appear in Toronto. "He never bothers me," Syl says. "Besides, you have to live on your own name these days. It would be a vain attitude on my part if I tried to outdo my father. If I start to compare myself with him, I'll probably go crazy."

He thinks for a minute.

"You know," he says, "I never saw my father play a game in the NHL."

No correctional service needed, thank you very much.

Bobby Clarke appeared at a Team Canada practice one day wearing a T shirt, cut-off Levi's and a pair of battered sneakers. "That's his Flin Flon summer suit," laughed a city slicker from Montreal. Maybe so, but the 23-year-old Clarke, who was born and raised in that Manitoba town, was one of Canada's few stars in the series against the Russians. Now he and Rick MacLeish, also 23, have combined to lift the Philadelphia Flyers, also known as the Broad St. Bullies and the Mad Squad, into second place in the West.

Clarke started the season by winning a Philly hockey-dollar showdown with Derek Sanderson and the Philadelphia Blazers of the WHA. Sanderson bailed out of a half-empty arena and drove back to Boston in his Rolls-Royce. Clarke plays on to packed Spectrum houses. "Derek and I have different lifestyles," Clarke says. "I'm very ordinary. I was raised that way, and I'm happy that way. I have a wife, a baby and a mortgage. My house has a small swimming pool, and I drive a Corvette. I don't enjoy making commercials and going to banquets, probably because I don't have enough self-confidence. Besides, I don't need any extra money. I'm making quite a bit [$100,000 a year] more than I ever thought I'd make, and it's enough. I used to figure that if I was making $18,000 or $20,000 when I was 23, I'd be doing great. And now this."

Last week Clarke was the No. 3 scorer in the NHL with 26 goals and 49 assists, while MacLeish, a former left wing and defenseman who was converted to center last season and is playing his first full year in the NHL, ranked No. 7 with 34 goals and 36 assists.

One night last week MacLeish scored four goals against the New York Islanders, all on wrist shots from about 20 feet away. It was a costly performance, however; in the game's closing minutes a deflected shot crashed against MacLeish's mouth, jarred several teeth loose, opened a gash in his face that needed 32 stitches to close and left him rather more bereft of speech than he usually is.

"Your teeth all right?" asked Goal-tender Doug Favell.

"Two are broken, but not all the way," MacLeish mumbled.

"Let me see the mess," said Defenseman Jean Potvin. "Hell, you won't be able to eat for days."

"That's O.K.," said Bill Flett. "You just get good and drunk tonight."

MacLeish laughed and grimaced simultaneously. "It's been a tough year," he said. "I'm going to have my knee operated on at the end of the season, and I'm also going to have my tonsils removed. I feel like I've been hit by a train."

Which is the way the goalies on other teams around the league are beginning to feel as Perreault and the rest emerge front and center.



There is more gold in the rink than in mines for Walt Tkazcuk (foreground), Ranger strong boy.



Scion of a famous father, Pitt's Syl Apps Jr. spars with a prodigal Bruin, Derek Sanderson.



Atlanta intellectual Curt Bennett encounters Sabre Gil Perreault, who lets his stick speak.



The Flyers' Rick MacLeish rips into Boston.