Hey, Bob," Johnny Bucyk said to Bobby Orr, "do you want any tickets for the game?"
"Are you serious?" said Orr. "Who's stupid enough to watch us play hockey?"
Good question, one that players and spectators alike were asking last week not only in Boston but in Montreal, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia as the NHL's five best teams either stumbled from the starting blocks or, in Philadelphia's case, neglected to take up the chase. At one point teams named the Canucks, the Kings and the Islanders all led their divisions; players named Boudrias and Dionne led the scorers even though they had not scored any goals; and goal-tenders named Parent, Dry den and Giacomin needed Solarcaine for the burn on the back of their necks from flashing goal lights.
If Clarence Campbell had Pete Rozelle's writers he could have said, "What the early season proves, gentlemen, is that on any given Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday any team can beat any other team in the NHL." Or find a way to beat itself.
The Canadiens are rapidly becoming the Oakland Athletics of the hockey world, with one major difference: the Canadiens don't win the way the A's do. What they do is squabble. Captain Henri Richard, their last link to the glorious past, refused to show up for the opener at the Forum when he learned secondhand that Coach Scotty Bowman would not be dressing him for the game.
Bowman had other troubles with his players. At General Manager Sam Pollock's insistence, the Canadiens are carrying 25 skaters, six more than they can dress for any game. "Make one mistake and you find yourself sitting in the stands," says one Montrealer. "Everyone's scared stiff." Bowman, already famous for playing musical chairs with his lineup, angered the Canadiens last week when one of his impulsive player changes led to their defeat in a game against the New York Islanders. Seconds after Bowman replaced Guy Lafleur with Jacques Lemaire at center, the Islanders scored to break a 3-3 tie. Meanwhile, Goaltender Ken Dryden had the yips on long shots. In one game he fanned on a slow dribbler from center ice. The Canadiens are so confused these days that they went to the wrong airport in New York for a flight to St. Louis.
For their part, the Rangers are playing defense rather like the football Giants, permitting almost a touchdown a game, and one night they tied the California Seals 5-5 only because Goaltender Eddie Giacomin braved whiplash and snatched a puck out of the net before the goal judge could locate it. Defenseman Ron Harris retired and then unretired within the space of 10 hours, before anyone really missed him.
Flying into Chicago last week, Boston's Bruins were winless—and slightly befuddled, having been shelled 9-5 by the Buffalo Sabres and tied 2-2 by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Remember the big bad Bruins? For 50 minutes the Black Hawks bounced these Bruins around Chicago Stadium the way Bruno Sammartino dropkicks Mr. Moto every night. "The only thing we hit," grumbled Boston Coach Don Cherry, "was the ice."
With slightly more than five minutes to play in the game, and with the Black Hawks on their way to a 4-0 rout, Stan Mikita and Bobby Orr locked together in the corner to the left of the Boston goal. Sticks flew up. Elbows shot in and out. Expletives were exchanged. ("Stan's starting to use his stick on people again," Orr said later. "He's using it this year more than I've ever seen.") They broke away from each other, and there was Mikita's helmet on the ice. As play continued in the Boston zone, Orr and Mikita happened to be skating on a collision course, head-on, without seat belts. Suddenly Orr's gloved right hand shot out—and down went Mikita.
"It was a cheap shot," Orr admitted. Mikita, of course, agreed. "Orr's like a kid at times," said Stan. "When you take his top away, he has a fit. He says I speared him. What else do you expect him to say?"
Mikita and Orr met one more time in the final seconds of the game. Orr had the puck and was skating out of the Boston end. He faked Mikita to one side, but as Mikita skated away he slashed at Orr's legs five-iron style with his stick. Orr, incensed, stopped, turned, glared at Mikita and shot the puck at his legs. Said Pit Martin, Mikita's teammate, "Orr gets away with things like that because he's Orr."
Cherry was irate over the performance of the Bruins. "Imagine that," he said. "One guy—and only one—fought back all night. I'll tell you something, that will never happen again around here."
For the Black Hawks it was the first victory after upset losses to Detroit and Atlanta, and as they flew off to Washington, Coach Billy Reay was enthusiastic. "We've got the bad games out of our system now," he said. Not quite. Unbelievably, the Hawks lost to the Capitals 4-3—Washington's first victory in the NHL. "Maybe these guys will listen to me now when I tell them you can't take anything for granted these days," Reay said.
At the same time, in another reversal of form, the Bruins were beating the Stanley Cup champion Flyers in Philadelphia, 4-1. This was the first meeting of the cup finalists, but the game resembled an intrasquad scrimmage of some Squirt League club. Last season the Flyers had attacked Orr from both sides, tied Phil Esposito in knots and stick-whipped the Bruins in the corners, but this time they forgot their game plan. "What happened was that we stole Philadelphia's films of the Russians," said Boston's managing director, Harry Sinden, smirking. Philadelphia Coach Fred Shero had said the Flyers won the cup partly because they adopted the Soviet checking patterns for their treatment of Orr and friends. Whatever they did last week was for immature audiences only.
Bobby Clarke slumped on a bench in Philly's dressing room and wondered what was wrong. The Flyers had lost their opening game at home to Los Angeles and they had been "damn lucky," he said, to beat the Kansas City Scouts in their third game. "Complacency?" said Clarke. "That's got to be one thing wrong with us, sure. We've always worked for what we wanted; now we don't seem to be working." Another new problem is that the Flyers now are Numero Uno. "We are finding out that other clubs point to beat the best," Clarke said. "It used to be that we wanted to beat some club to prove something. Now it's the other way around."
He studied the statistics of the game. Esposito had taken nine shots at Bernie Parent, scoring on two of them. "Nine shots!" Clarke said, shaking his head and sniffing. "Nine shots!" What Clarke did not say was that he had played head-to-head against Esposito most of the game and, while Clarke owned the face-off circle, Esposito owned the slot. Despite the victory, the Bruins were hardly cocky. "Something still is missing," Esposito said. "We're not right mentally or physically. Not yet." But the NHL's schedule may cure that. The Bruins do not play Chicago or Philadelphia again for almost three months. Maybe by then Orr will want a few tickets.
MOTORING AT LAST, Boston's Phil Esposito fights through traffic in two-goal game at Philly.