The constant challenge—the only challenge—in the West is to knock off the established Chicago Black Hawks. This season Bobby Clarke's Philadelphia Flyers could do it, with Goalie Bernie Parent the pivotal figure. Suddenly Parent is so popular, so much in demand, that he hardly has time to remember what nasty things he said about whom as he was bouncing from the Flyers to the Maple Leafs to the WHA Philadelphia Blazers and back to the Flyers again. Better Parent should forget; he left bruised feelings everywhere. Beginning this summer, Clarke and the other Flyers have worked to improve relationships with the moody Parent. They invited him to fishing expeditions off the Jersey shore, golf matches, backyard barbecues and Sunday night socials. "While Bernie was away we became a close team," Clarke says. "We wanted to make him feel like one of us before he rejoined us on the ice."
If that amateur psychology works, if Parent provides Philadelphia with the consistent goaltending it has lacked since he became a wanderer two years ago, the Flyers can end the lordly three-year reign of the Black Hawks as champions of the West. Says Clarke emphatically: "We think we have it together here right now."
But the Flyers will need considerably more than Parent's stylish goaltending to beat the Black Hawks. For one thing, Clarke must at least duplicate his 104-point MVP campaign of last season. "We've reached a point where Clarkie doesn't have to play 40 minutes a game anymore," says Coach Fred Shero, "and that should help him in the long run." For another, Center Rick MacLeish (50 goals), bearded Right Wing Cowboy Flett (43) and brash second-year Left Wing Bill Barber (30) must prove that last season's accomplishments were no fluke. Finally, Flyer defensemen must remember that they are not Orrs, curtail their awkward rushes and pass the puck up ice without delay. "We need more mobility and youth back there," Shero admits.
The Flyer bullies continue to be intimidating, although they have found it does not always pay. Responding to harshly worded official complaints last spring that the Flyers were going too far, referees cracked down at the end of the season and in the playoffs. For their transgressions Philadelphia's ruffians spent 1,754 minutes—an average of 22.5 per game—in the penalty box, 559 minutes more than any other team. "We have visual proof—I can show you the movies—that the referees began to call penalties on us even before we committed them, if in fact we did commit them," Shero says angrily. "We know they were told to do it, too. I don't think it was any coincidence that our problems with the referees started once we discovered how to beat Chicago." And how is that? "Simple," says Shero. "Stop their centers and you stop the Black Hawks."
Shero no longer needs to worry about stopping one Chicago center. The heady Ralph Backstrom has defected to the WHA, along with rushing Defenseman Pat Stapleton, and while Chicago management suggests that both men are over the hill, losing them must hurt the Hawks. But two superior centers have not been lost—Stan Mikita and Pit Martin. Stapleton's departure places extreme pressure on 21-year-old Phil Russell, last season's fine rookie who was the Hawks' best defenseman in the final Stanley Cup series. Russell is the only Chicago defenseman with any natural puck-carrying ability. His trouble is, he usually gets caught out of position up the ice after completing his rush. Fortunately for Russell, he teams with dependable Bill White, Stapleton's old partner, and White's defensive mistakes over a season can be counted on the fingers of Goal-tender Tony Esposito's left hand. In Chicago's other defense pairing, Keith Magnuson teams with Doug Jarrett. Esposito hasn't fingers and toes enough to count their errors.
The Pit Martin-Jim Pappin-Dennis Hull line scored 126 goals last year, but these three now seem disgruntled by front-office refusal to renegotiate the contracts they signed before the advent of the WHA. Rookie Wing Darcy Rota is in the enviable position of moving onto a line with Mikita, probably the slickest playmaker in the game, and Cliff Koroll, a solid wing. Rota scored 73 goals in junior hockey a year ago.
Chicago's only other major addition is Dale Tallon, who played all positions except goal for the Vancouver Canucks and now becomes the Hawks' first big center since they decided Phil Esposito was expendable. In an attempt to put down Bobby Hull for the zillionth time, the Hawks ceremoniously awarded Hull's No. 9 jersey to Tallon. After wearing No. 9 for a while, Tallon returned it and asked for No. 19. "As far as I'm concerned," he said, "that No. 9 is sacred. Hull is one of the three greatest ever to play the game. The pressure was unbearable, like a noose around my neck. I don't need that." So No. 9 has been retired again—at least until the next attempted putdown.
That funny-looking bowling ball wearing a mask in Minnesota is 44-year-old Goaltender Gump Worsley. After exposing his phiz to NHL shooters for 20 years, Worsley decided to protect what was left as he returned from retirement to back up Cesare Maniago. Except for Worsley, the North Stars finally have terminated their senior-citizen program and switched to youth in an attempt to prevent still another late-season collapse. Gone are Charlie Burns, Bob Nevin and Doug Mohns. In come Fred Stanfield (from Boston), Tony Featherstone (Montreal) and Bill Plager (Atlanta). "We'll have youth in there for the first time," says Coach Jack Gordon.
Stanfield, the former Bruin, should help Minnesota the most. A crafty center, he excels as a point man on the power play, which until now has been misnamed in Minnie. "Our power play has been a disaster," Gordon says. "The other clubs never worried about taking penalties against us because they knew we probably wouldn't score. But Stanfield will have the patience to make it work."
The surprise team of hockey most of last season, the Atlanta Flames, will amaze practically no one by finishing fourth and making the playoffs. "I think we have improved 25%," says Coach Boom Boom Geoffrion. "If we score just 50 more goals than last year, we will make the playoffs easy." Top draft choice Tom Lysiak, a center with verve, and 22-year-old Chuck Arnason, a right wing obtained from Montreal, should account for more than 50 goals themselves. Lysiak skates with Larry Romanchych (18 goals) and John Stewart (17) on Geoffrion's first line. For a second line, Geoffrion has created his own French Connection, with Rey Comeau centering for Leon Rochefort and Jacques Richard. The 21-year-old Richard flopped as a heralded rookie last year, but Geoffrion expects him to develop some confidence and confirm his real potential. "The early season is critical for Richard," Geoffrion says. "If he scores some in the first 10 or 12 games, he will have a big year."
On defense Randy Manery comes off a brilliant rookie year, and Arnie Brown seems to have overcome last season's apathy. In goal the Flames have the best young tandem in hockey with Danny Bouchard and Phil Myre. General Manager Cliff Fletcher could get four or five NHL regulars in a trade for either Bouchard or Myre anytime he wants to start dealing.
Pittsburgh certainly could use one of Atlanta's goalies to relieve overworked Jimmy Rutherford. Elsewhere the Penguins are solid but unspectacular, with the emphasis on close-checking hockey. Dave Burrows ranks with Bill White and Jacques Laperriere as one of the best purely defensive defensemen, and Boston probably regrets letting another good backliner, Ron Jones, escape to the Penguins in the intraleague draft. The line of Center Syl Apps Jr. and Wings Al McDonough and Lowell McDonald has demonstrated that it can score close to 100 goals. Wings Greg Polis (26 goals) and Jean Pronovost (21) should improve on those figures if rookie Center Bob McManama, out of Harvard, can survive his initial round of body checks.
St. Louis thinks it has solved its goaltending problems for the next decade with 6'3", 210-pound rookie John Davidson, who comes from junior hockey with a reputation of being "another Dryden." Let's wait and see. At present Davidson lets too many rebounds loose. On defense, former Bruin Don Awrey, the Plager bothers—Barclay and Bob—and Steve Durbano knock down everything that moves, while Ab DeMarco moves the puck for them. The best move is to Garry Unger, the only St. Louis forward with a feel for scoring.
The California teams will miss the playoffs again. Under a defense-minded new coach, Bob Pulford, the Los Angeles Kings were 11 victories and 24 points better last year than in 1971-72, but they collapsed inexplicably in the last week (losing twice to California) and were out of postseason play by just three points. It was their fourth straight failure. Two former Canadiens, Defenseman Terry Harper and Goaltender Rogatien Vachon, had helped Los Angeles lower its goals-against average more than half a goal a game, from 3.05 to 2.45, and now the Kings have added another former Montreal defenseman, steady Bob Murdoch. But they lack an adequate backup man for the diminutive Vachon, who had a winning 22-20-10 record and a 2.85 goals-against average. The team was 9-16-1 when he rested. The Kings' forwards can score, but despite Pulford's tutelage most of them check their opposite numbers poorly. Dan Maloney, acquired late last year from Chicago, is one King wing who has shown he can be a two-way player.
The WHA continues its depredations in Oakland. Last year the Seals lost nine regulars to the rival league. This time the WHA has grabbed Rick Smith, the Seals' one good defenseman, and utility man Darryl Maggs. The net result is that Goaltender Gilles Meloche, brilliant though he can be, must resign himself to getting the least protection afforded by any NHL defense. The attack is anything but awesome, and there is a residue of sourness after bitter contract fights last year. Help may be on the way, though. Owner Charlie Finley has avowed that he will solve all the team's problems once his Oakland Athletics finish their baseball business.
PHILLY'S BERNIE PARENT
CHICAGO'S PHIL RUSSELL
MINNESOTA'S FRED STANFIELD
ATLANTA'S TOM LYSIAK