At the moment it is a shadow no bigger than a goalie's mask, but the free-agent problem is starting to loom over the National Hockey League. Some 20 players, whose average annual salary is $75,361, will go out on their own this month, among them three of the league's top scorers—Boston's Phil Esposito, the New York Rangers' Rod Gilbert and Detroit's Marcel Dionne.
Although such things are supposedly top secret, the list of potential free agents sent to Montreal headquarters by each NHL club has been widely leaked. The free agent situation is something new for the NHL, but it was part of the 1972 agreement that forestalled antitrust action, and now owners on one side and player representatives on the other are braced for the worst.
Some of the contract action will revolve as much around infirmities as salary demands: fans will recall that the none-too-robust Gilbert, survivor of back fusion surgery some seasons ago, asked for a multiyear pact at $175,000 a year—and the Rangers told the 34-year-old winger goodby and good luck. Dionne, who balked at a reported $1 million, four-year offer from Detroit, got a similar response. Another problem involves the compensation clause, √† la the National Football League: if either Montreal or Los Angeles meets Dionne's contract demands they will have to send players of comparable ability to the Red Wings or face binding arbitration.
Among other free agents are Captain Eddie Westfall and Billy Harris of the New York Islanders; Dave Keon and Norm Ullman of Toronto; Henry Boucha, Murray Oliver and Fred Barrett of Minnesota; Rick Dudley, Buffalo; Ted Harris, Philadelphia; and a few lesser lights, including Goalie Ron Low of the lowly Washington Caps, who wants $130,000 a year.
Esposito, meanwhile, having led the NHL in scoring five of the past seven seasons, is 33 and looking for long-term security. As luck would have it, he was holding up a World Hockey Association offer from Vancouver as a bargaining club, but Vancouver moved to Calgary and the deal died. In any case, the NHL no longer seems scared by WHL offers since that organization also is experiencing financial pinches. It looks like a long, hotly negotiated summer.
BEAUTY AT BAT
For those baseball fans so overwhelmed by the action that they miss the esthetics of the game, there is this heady note: the San Francisco Giants may be third in their division, but they lead the league in permanent waves. Six players have perms, seven if one counts Trainer Al Wylder. (It would have been eight, but Dave Kingman was traded to the Mets.) Third Baseman Ed Goodson puts it this way: "Even on the windiest days in Candlestick Park our hair jumps right back into place."
UP THE MIDDLE
Spring training went this way in the San Antonio area: three football teams from local high schools bellied up to a banquet table to see, for charity, which could gain the most weight by eating pancakes. In less than 40 minutes they gobbled up 2,636 pancakes, an average of nearly 44 per man. For the record, the winning MacArthur High team—otherwise known as the Big Macs—gained an average of 5.5 pounds per man for a total of 110.25 pounds. The MVP of the entire event was 202-pound Eddie Lee, who plays tackle for Alamo Heights High. He ate more than 50 pancakes to become a 222-pounder. They say he'll be back on his feet in time for the first game next fall.
NEW OLD GAME
As every big city resident knows, the numbers racket is running slightly ahead of apple pie in terms of things American, and officials have long been of two minds about this oldtime gambling activity. Since 1) the racket apparently cannot be stamped out as police would like, then 2) why not tap the revenue, a solution officials would dearly prefer? Just such an attempt was made last week in New Jersey and, while it is too early to detect any dismay among mobsters, the experiment clearly shows signs of bringing in big bucks.
Under the state's legal numbers game directed by its lottery commission, a bettor may plunk down from 50¢ to $5 on several variations of the game: a straight bet, in which he must correctly pick the day's three numbers in exact order; a combination or box bet, where three digits are picked and any combination will win, and a front or back-pair bet, where the first two or last two digits pay off. The numbers are drawn daily, and the payoff is based on the total handle, as at pari-mutuel racetracks.
If first-day action is any indication of how the New Jersey game will go, one can see gangsters scowling and chomping down on their cigars. Despite the usual computer breakdown, demand was enormous; 150,000 tickets were sold for a gross of $75,900—double the usual daily lottery action, which is clearly not as much fun. The first winning number was 810, and it paid $190 for 50¢, nearly 400-to-1 odds.
Whether or not they approve of gambling, other revenue-hungry states are watching the experiment. And with reason. Experts are convinced that the mob-controlled numbers racket is raking in up to $1 billion a year in New Jersey alone, and Lord knows how much elsewhere.
Move over, youse guys.
OLYMPIC REPORT (CONT.)
A few weeks ago, having looked in on Montreal's construction site, International Olympic Committee President Lord Killanin allowed that, "Barring a world cataclysm, there is absolutely no doubt the 1976 Olympic Games will open in Montreal July 17, 1976, as scheduled." Last week, however, with all building at a standstill because of a two-week walkout, Killanin was less sanguine. A Canadian delegation led by Montreal's silver-tongued Mayor John Drapeau and Roger Rousseau, president of the Montreal organizing committee, trekked to IOC headquarters at Lausanne with its scheduled progress report and Killanin was looking for some cataclysmic reassurance.
In the event of future labor troubles, he inquired during a three-hour closed-door session, would an alternative plan in Montreal be possible?
"I told them it was impossible," Drapeau said later. "If workers were to strike again and cause a breakdown at the main stadium site, do you think they'd stand around and let work continue on an alternative site?"
But the workers were not going to strike again, Drapeau assured the IOC. Furthermore, he said, the projects were so far ahead of schedule that the last stoppages merely ate into the schedule's lead time and that all construction would be completed by the promised deadlines.
There is little in Quebec's recent labor history that would seem to warrant Drapeau's optimism. Construction is a principal industry of the province these days, employing some 150,000 people and involving $4 billion annually. The labor organizations within the industry have grown powerful and obstreperous, and violent conflict between and within unions has surfaced more than once. Now that exposure of extensive corruption in the industry has forced the provincial government to begin legislating reform, it is reasonable to assume that there will be more disruption to come.
Nevertheless, the IOC—confronted by the confident and determined Canadians—did the only thing it could do for the moment. It hoped for the best. "The IOC has unanimously given its approval to the latest Montreal report and has declared its full support for the work of the organizing committee," the official statement noted.
The buoyant Drapeau, off to Paris, delivered himself of one last inspirational message. "Pessimism," he said, "is the product of lazy minds. I'm not lazy, so I'm not a pessimist."
In another Olympic development last week the question of whether there would be a stadium in which to play became moot for the Rhodesians. At the same meeting in which it backed Canada, the IOC bounced the African nation from the 1976 Games.
The ruling climaxed a fervent campaign by 45 nations against Rhodesia's apartheid policies. It was not unexpected; in fact, the IOC taking a stand this far in advance of the Olympics is perversely welcome. Whatever the merits of the decision, it will forestall a repetition of the 1972 Munich crisis when Rhodesia was ousted at the last minute for the same reason.
CAP AND CLOWN
As the playoff seasons sink slowly into the summer, it should be noted that the World Stickball Association's year is over at last. The WSA, as everyone knows, is centered on the campus of Harvard Law School, a two-division, 12-team league with franchises selling for $2.50 each. As usual, several spirited promotions highlighted the season, including a senior citizens' day in which oldsters got in for half price while everyone else paid nothing.
At the championship Stick Bowl, the Los Angeles Tax Dodgers overwhelmed the Conshohocken-Manayunk All-Stars 1-0 when Pitcher Bobby Hinkle tripled home the winning run by lining the ball off the upper facade of Oliver Wendell Holmes Hall. Thus ended the year, though league publicist Jon Tillem noted, "We've also developed a golf game where you kick a tennis ball into a phone booth, and we're well into wall squash." It was a good thing, one innocent onlooker said, that all this nonsense wasn't going on during exam period.
PLAY NOW, DIE LATER
This week's statistical report of absolutely no consequence comes from the doodlers at Metropolitan Life Insurance, who have figured out that major league baseball players live longer than just plain folks. The study that produced this bombshell covered 10,079 players active at any time before the end of the 1973 season. Metropolitan's experts would have gone even deeper into history, but birth and death records were unavailable.
According to the study, big leaguers had a 28% lower mortality rate than white males in the general population. Four hundred and thirty-one baseball managers were also profiled. While they don't seem to live as long as players, their mortality rate is still 8% lower than that of the general population. The statisticians let that one go by like a slider, noting merely that the variance between managers' lifespans and those of the players "may reflect the pressure-to-win to which managers are subjected." Fair enough.
Feel free to toss these vital figures into the next cocktail party small talk. But when you get to the part about the managers, you might add that Cornelius McGillicuddy (Connie Mack) remained active to age 88 and died at 93, having won nine pennants and five World Series in his 65-year career as player and manager. So much for pressure to win.
TWO IF BY LAND
In any ordinary year the Ledyard Three-Day Event in Wenham, Mass. June 26-29 might go unnoticed outside the horsiest of circles. This year, however, one can bet one's jodhpurs things are going to be different. The British are coming, and riding for that visiting team will be Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips. May as well stop the presses right now.
ICING THE BUCK
Here is the long-range plan: a new, 1,200-seat hockey facility will be ready next December at Holy Cross. A 27-game season is lined up. Old Grad Mike Addesa has been hired as a football-and-hockey aide for now and one day expects to coach hockey full time. He hopes to recruit 12 top prospects, seven from the Boston area, a hockey hotbed. And here is the short-range plan: Holy Cross has provided one hockey scholarship.
THEY SAID IT
•Shirley (Cha Cha) Muldowney, the only woman licensed by the National Hot Rod Association, explaining what motivates her to drive a top fuel dragster: "I want to be the fastest woman in the world—in a manner of speaking."
•Eubie Blake, 92-year-old ragtime pianist, upon having a race named after him at Pimlico: "I wouldn't bet on a horse unless he came up to my house and told me to himself."
•Steve Wright, wandering offensive tackle, who most recently played for the Chicago Fire, on the wave of big-money offers being made by the World Football League: "I just got a million-dollar offer from the WFL. One dollar a year for a million years."
•Bill Veeck, on the role of baseball in life: "Baseball is the only orderly thing in a very unorderly world. If you get three strikes, even Edward Bennett Williams can't get you off."