When it was finally over—after Peter Mahovlich had lost a few dozen face-offs to Stan Mikita, after Valeri Kharlamov had watched Ken Dryden and Tony Esposito masquerade as a couple of scared rookie goaltenders from Minsk, after captain Henri Richard of the Montreal Canadiens had skated around Chicago Stadium carrying the Stanley Cup over his shoulder like a gun-nysack—it was impossible to forget reports of the verbal exchange between Yvan Cournoyer and Jerry Korab just seconds before Cournoyer scored the goal that beat the Black Hawks and won the cup for the Canadiens. As they lined up alongside one another for a face-off early in the third period last Thursday night, the 6'3", 205-pound Korab, who answers to the name of King Kong, loomed over the 5'7", 172-pound Cournoyer.
"Hey, you little frog," Korab snarled, "what are you going to be when you grow up?"
"Something you'll never be," Cournoyer answered. "A goal scorer."
While Korab was thinking that over, Jacques Lemaire stole the puck from him and broke away with Cournoyer. "Yvan was right beside me at the Chicago blue line," Lemaire said, "but I took the lead and...."
"You what?" said Cournoyer, who has never lost a race to anyone. "Jacques, my friend, you went one way to the net and I went another. Korab was in front of me and I had to go around him."
Cournoyer eluded Korab without any great difficulty and there he was backhanding Lemaire's rebound past Esposito for the decisive score, his record-setting 15th goal of the playoffs. Next, before the bewildered Black Hawks could recover, Cournoyer neatly set up Marc Tardif for an insurance goal as the Canadiens won the game 6-4 and clinched the cup four games to two. Then the silver-haired, 37-year-old Richard, playing for his 11th cup champion in 18 years, proudly led his mates to a nightlong group therapy session with his old friend Piper-Heidsieck.
"All those years," Richard said, "all I ever wanted to do was skate around the ice with the cup. I watched Butch Bouchard skate with it, I watched Maurice, my brother, and I watched Jean Beliveau, too. They told me it was the greatest feeling in the world. Now I know what they meant. But I always thought the cup was very heavy. When I picked it up I couldn't believe it. The thing is lighter than a feather."
Maybe so, but at one point last week Richard and the Canadiens must have thought the cup was heavier than Korab. There they were in the friendly Montreal Forum, leading the Black Hawks three games to one and obviously anxious to win it all in front of the adoring Québecois. Also in the audience was Kharlamov, the Russian who had made Team Canada's defensemen look so inept last September. "I am here to watch the two best goaltenders in the world," he said, trusting that word would not get back to Vladislav Tretiak, the outstanding Russian goalie, in Moscow.
What Kharlamov watched instead was basketball-on-ice as both Dryden and Esposito played as though their face masks were upside down, with the eye slits at their chins. In a normal game Dryden and Esposito will allow roughly one goal for every 17 shots fired at them; in this slam-dunk exhibition they fanned on one of every four shots and permitted the gaudy total of 15 goals, leaving Kharlamov in shock and prompting 44-year-old Gump Worsley to announce his un-retirement from the Minnesota North Stars. The score was tied five times, while the lead changed three times. Montreal scored first but never led after 7:09 of the second period. Happily for the Hawks, they happened to be hanging on to an 8-7 advantage when the shooting gallery mercifully closed for the night.
"We ran around like chickens with our heads cut off," Richard mumbled. "Did you ever see so many mistakes in one game? Ever? We played stupid." About the only player who did not contribute to the shoddiness was Center Stan Mikita, who scored two goals himself and directly set up two others for the Black Hawks although he was playing with a painful bruise on the middle finger of his right hand.
"If Mikita played baseball," said Peter Mahovlich of the Canadiens, "he'd be on the disabled list for a month." Mikita's two goals came on artful deflections in front of Dryden, his two assists while he was giving Mahovlich personalized instruction in the art of winning important face-offs. Both times Mikita was sent out by Coach Billy Reay expressly to take a face-off from Mahovlich, younger brother of Frank, the Canadien whose scoring record Cournoyer was to break.
Mikita, who is six years wiser, eight inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than the gangling Mahovlich, won the first face-off cleanly, slid the puck back to Defenseman Len Frig and—zap—the rookie fired it past Dryden into the net. A few minutes later Mikita beat Mahovlich again, skated up-ice and set up Jim Pappin for another Chicago goal. When Mahovlich and Mikita squared off the next time, the Montreal player shook his head and began talking to Mikita.
"Stan," he said, "If you don't let me win one of these things pretty soon, Scotty [Montreal Coach Bowman] won't put me on the ice again. Be a nice guy, will you, and give me a break. Cripes, I'm cheating every way I can but I still can't even touch the puck."
As it ultimately turned out, Mikita's brilliant performance only earned a 48-hour stay of execution for the Black Hawks. "We skated with them for two periods in the final game," said a weary Mikita, "but we didn't have anything left to give after that." For their efforts Mikita and his teammates were consoled with $14,000 apiece, while each of the Canadiens collected $19,000. "It's just caddie fees," said Mahovlich with a grin.
Having disposed of Chicago and the NHL by losing only 15 of 95 games all year, Montreal in theory now would have to defeat the New England Whalers and the Russians before staking claim to the title of world's best hockey team. Sadly, there are no plans for such contests, although the Whalers have offered a challenge. While the Canadiens no doubt would be hard-pressed to beat the Russians, Richard, Cournoyer & Co. probably would win a series with the World Hockey Association champions by four to one. Even Whaler Coach Jack Kelley admits that.
"I know where the talent is," Kelley says. "I think it will take four or five years before we're able to go out there against the best in the NHL. But don't forget, they laughed at the New York Jets before they won the Super Bowl."
How good are the Whalers? Before Chicago's 8-7 victory in Montreal, every NHL official worth his blazer was chortling over the loosely played final game of the WHA's championship series two days earlier in which the Whalers outgunned Bobby Hull's Winnipeg Jets 9-6. "That game set hockey back to the 1930s," laughed one NHL traditionalist. "Those teams could not spell the word defense." Neither, then, could the Black Hawks and the Canadiens. "At least we only set the sport back to the 1940s," the same man said later.
If the Whalers had played in the NHL, all season, they would have pressed Buffalo for the final playoff spot in the East Division or battled Philadelphia and Minnesota for second place in the West. Without question, the Whalers were a better team than the St. Louis Blues, who finished in fourth place in the NHL West. Among other assets, the Whalers have the best goaltender in Boston, Al Smith, who might solve the Bruins' problems for the next decade if they could get him; four defensemen who are tougher, younger and better than the groups in Philadelphia and Minnesota; and some fast young forwards, particularly Tom Webster, Terry Caffery, Larry Pleau and Tim Sheehy, who could play anywhere in North America or Russia. "Our best years are ahead of us," Kelley says firmly.
Comparisons aside, both the NHL and the WHA face a crisis-filled summer. Suits, countersuits and counter-counter-suits will reach the courts. There will be more player defections from the NHL to the WHA and perhaps some reverse defections back to the NHL, √† la Derek Sanderson. Goaltender Bernie Parent, who walked out on the WHA's Philadelphia Blazers during the playoffs, probably will return to the NHL Flyers next season. Last summer the WHA's aggressive raiders signed nearly 70 NHL players; this summer they expect to get at least 20 more. They are particularly interested in Center Ralph Backstrom and Defenseman Pat Stapleton of the Black Hawks and Defenseman Don Awrey of the Bruins. "But on the whole," says WHA President Gary Davidson, "we'd rather sign a large number of the best young amateurs."
The WHA's main target will be a 20-year-old center, Tom Lysiak of the Medicine Hat Tigers. Barring a last-minute trade before this week's draft, either the talent-rich Canadiens or the woefully weak Vancouver Canucks will select Lysiak, who rates just behind Defenseman Denis Potvin as the best amateur in Canada. Potvin will sign with the New York Islanders, but Lysiak claims he will join the WHA if Montreal or Vancouver drafts him.
Losing Lysiak to the WHA would be another in a continuing series of damaging blows to the NHL's prestige and image. At present one NHL owner, Harold Ballard of the Maple Leafs, is in prison for theft of funds, while another owner, Tom Scallen of the Canucks, is free on $25,000 bail after being convicted of the theft of $3 million in club funds and of issuing a false stock prospectus. Also, Scallen reportedly borrrowed $1 million from Arthur M. Wirtz, the owner of the Black Hawks, to satisfy creditors, and now the NHL is confronted with the kind of conflict-of-interest question that used to arise when the Norris and Wirtz families controlled three of the six teams in the old NHL.
On top of that, some other NHL owners recently embarrassed President Clarence Campbell by scheduling secret merger talks with some WHA owners. "I don't like to use scurrilous terms," Campbell says bitterly, "but what they did was a form of internal...well, you could almost say conspiracy. Fortunately for the NHL, though, some owners sat those talks out and acted rationally." Once word of the discussions leaked, the word merger was dropped from the NHL's vocabulary, mostly because the league's players' association threatened strong legal action.
Finally, the NHL faces a serious television problem. Indeed, NBC officials say that for all the grief the NHL gives them they would rather run a soap opera than a hockey schedule. "They demand blackouts in Chicago, rigid scheduling made up 10 months in advance and, believe it or not, a free feed to the theaters owned by the Black Hawks when their games are blacked out," says Chet Simmons, general manager of NBC Sports. Several weeks ago NBC officials and an NHL publicist argued bitterly in a control truck when the NHL man objected too loudly to NBC's mention on the air of the fact that Chicago Coach Billy Reay had invented a designated-speaker rule to keep the media away from his star players.
"All these are interim difficulties that will pass," Campbell says hopefully. "Unless the game is completely loused up by misdirection, it always will be a major sport because of its intrinsic nature." Maybe so, but as Simmons says and as Campbell admits, the NHL at present suffers from the lack of a centralized authority. "Who runs it, anyway?" Simmons asks. "We never know whether the NHL official we are talking with has any power." Campbell blames this on the fact that too many corporations that do not know much about hockey have become actively involved in franchise ownership. "If we could," he says, "we would go back to individual ownership, believe me. To get the type of control that Pete Rozelle has, you must have a final and definite source of authority in each club. Right now, I'm sorry to say, we don't have that."
Over in the WHA, meanwhile, Davidson is presiding over a number of franchise shifts and grants that will provide the league with greater financial stability. Last week the Philadelphia Blazers were sold to a Vancouver millionaire named Jim Pattison and he will move the team to his hometown. The WHA's most troubled franchise, the Ottawa Nationals, has gone to Toronto. The New York Raiders will become the New York Golden Blades, with new management and money. "There also is a chance that Denver and Phoenix will be leaving the Western Hockey League and joining us this summer, and Cincinnati is set for 1974," Davidson says. "Believe me, right now the WHA is in 100% better shape than the American Basketball Association was after one season."