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Depending on where you sit, or skate, Bryan Watson, the scrappy young forward of the Detroit Red Wings, is either a living doll or a dirty dog. To the fans who flock to Olympia Stadium each week to see him play, Bryan can do no wrong. As far as his fellow Red Wings are concerned, the wrong Bryan does is strictly all right. But the players and fans in the five other NHL cities take a somewhat different view.
"He irritates me," is the way good-natured Bobby Hull of the Chicago Black Hawks puts it. "If you can't say something nice about a guy, keep your mouth shut," says Bobby's teammate Stan Mikita, doing just that. "No comment," says Chicago Coach Billy Reay.
The Black Hawks are extra touchy about Watson, because it was at their expense that this tempestuous young Red Wing first achieved his reputation as the No. 1 nuisance of the NHL. All through the season of 1965-1966 Bobby Hull, the toughest fighter, the highest scorer and the most spectacular all-round player in hockey today, had made pigeons of the Red Wings as he slammed the puck into net after net for a record 54 goals in a single season. Ten of those goals were scored against Detroit. By the time the two teams wound up matched against each other in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Detroit Coach Sid Abel had had enough of Hull. He called Watson over and gave him a terse order: get on Hull and stay there.
Bryan did. The result was that Hull scored only twice in six games, Detroit won four of them and Chicago took its customary postseason nose dive into obscurity. The mismatch triumph of 160-pound Watson over 195-pound Hull, coupled with the fact that Bryan somehow managed to score two goals himself while policing Bobby, gave the young Detroiter a season-end popularity rating exceeded only by that of Governor George Romney.
When, therefore, the current season started a few weeks ago at Olympia, with Chicago once again matched against the Wings, an opening-game-record 14,214 fans were there to see Bryan Watson climb on top of that famous No. 9 on Hull's back for another session of needling, prodding, cursing and provoking.
On that particular night Hull managed to pull up short at one crucial point when Watson was bearing down on him at top speed. To avoid crashing head first into the boards, Watson careened sharply, wrenched his left knee and was lost to the Wings for two weeks. The fortnight of comparative peace that followed gave all those concerned a chance to consider the phenomenon of Bryan Watson in an atmosphere of calm.
Watson's own point of view, expressed between mouthfuls of macaroni and cheese at the Detroit Press Club, is simple: "When I'm told to watch a guy, I watch him." That of the rest of the league is more complicated. The Red Wing management insists that Bryan is just doing his job and is no dirtier about it than any other hard-checking forward. The Black Hawks just as firmly insist that Watson's watchdog tactics, particularly toward Hull, are often besmirched by such fouls as tripping, hooking, slashing, spearing, boarding and cross-checking. As evidence they point to the fact that Watson was third in the league in penalties last year, amassing a total of 133 minutes in the box. Despite his two weeks' absence from the ice, Bryan already has managed to accumulate 29 minutes this season. Whatever his ethics, it is certain that Watson has made a deep impression and one that has some of the finest players in the NHL glancing nervously over their shoulders when they should be skating or shooting in confident security. As far as sheer skill is concerned, the consensus is that Bryan Watson is no more than a fringe player. Everyone agrees that his determination far outweighs his natural ability. But it is that determination—to hit and scrap, with no fear whatever of the consequences—that brought this youngster to the big league and makes him a valuable part of it.
"Watson has that will to win," says Montreal Coach Toe Blake, "and that goes a long way in hockey. He spruces up the players on his own team."
"Look," says Ken Hodge, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Hawk forward whose job it is to pry Watson off Hull's back whenever he gets on it, "you can't blame Watson for what he does. If a guy scores 54 goals, you've got to do something to try and stop him. You've got to give Watson credit. That's a pretty good chuck to chew, you know."