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Stan Mikita eases himself into the window seat beside Sockeye, and Doug Jarrett leans over from the aisle of the bus that is carrying the Chicago Black Hawks into town from the Toronto airport. Both players talk quickly, loudly, a little too intently, about how funny it had been to see Ed Van Impe's newspaper burst into flames in his hands, a victim of Whitey's high-powered butane lighter. Suddenly Sockeye, whose proper name is Don Uren and who has been the Hawks' equipment manager and court jester long enough to be suspicious of everybody, lets out a yell. "Hey, what's Whitey doing now?"
Too late. Whitey—otherwise Patrick James Stapleton, 26-year-old gentleman farmer, father of five and an outstanding Hawk defenseman—is already poised behind Sockeye with a shiny steel chain. One end is padlocked to the base of the bus seat. Whitey deftly loops the other end around Sockeye's neck. Mikita and Jarrett hold their pigeon as Whitey clamps a second padlock shut, sentencing Sockeye to an undetermined stretch aboard the bus. "Please, Whitey," moans Sockeye. "Please, will you give me the key?"
From the seat in front of him, Billy Reay turns around. Reay is the businesslike and sometimes grim Black Hawk coach, and he has not had a good week. The night before, in Boston, he found that both the hotel and plane reservations for the Hawks were fouled up. After much arguing and maneuvering, he has finally gotten his club to Toronto, but now he faces two straight games with the red-hot Maple Leafs. As he turns, it is hard to know how he will take the stunt.
But Reay breaks into laughter, and his laugh told something about the mood of the Black Hawks as they coasted toward the first regular-season championship in their 40-year history. A year ago, as they dropped out of the fight with Montreal for first place, Reay and his players seemed to be suffering from the jitters. Now they were loose and relaxed—and were performing better than ever. Last year everyone was preoccupied with Bobby Hull's drive toward a record 54 goals. Now the team was playing as a unit—and Hull was a fair bet to break his own record anyway. The gloomy warriors of other seasons were laughing and joking their way toward the title, and comedians like Stapleton and Phil Esposito had become as representative of the club as the superstars, Hull and Mikita. "Sure, we're happy," said Stapleton. "We know we're going to win it, and we know we have the best team."
To many observers, of course, the Hawks have had the best team in the NHL for the last five years. After all, they had the top goal-scorer in Hull, the top defenseman in Pierre Pilote, the all-star goalie in Glenn Hall and the best forward line in the Scooters (see cover), a line consisting of Mikita, Kenny Wharram and, during the last three years, Doug Mohns. Yet every March, with the long-awaited championship in sight, the Hawks would collapse. Explanations for this phenomenon have ranged from the mythical Muldoon Jinx—a curse allegedly pronounced by the team's first coach, Pete Muldoon, when he was fired in 1927—to accusations of "choking," but the Hawks tend to explain their past failures in more basic, physical terms.
"There was a simple reason for those late slumps," says Pilote, the 35-year-old team captain. "We always depended too much on a few stars. We had to use them a lot and they got worn out. And when the stars got tired the team faded. This season the load is more evenly distributed, so the stars have stayed strong all year long."
Last year the focus on stars was sharpest as Bobby Hull sought his record-breaking 51st goal. "I don't think we concentrated on passing the puck to Bobby as much as some people said we did," says Mikita. "But I guess his try for the record did have some effect, subconsciously at least." Chicago suffered three straight shutouts before Bobby finally got No. 51. "It was exciting," recalls Pilote. "We all wanted to see Bobby make it. But maybe it did keep us from pulling together to win games."
"You should really have only one purpose in mind at a time," adds Mohns. "Last year we were thinking about Bobby as well as winning. This year we have only one thing to worry about—first place. We'll get that, and the records will come by themselves."
The title became reality last Sunday as the Hawks smothered Toronto 5-0, and the records will come in unprecedented numbers. Mikita, the best all-round player in the game, is a cinch to break Hull's record of 97 points (goals plus assists) in a season; he is odds-on to be the league's Most Valuable Player and, what is more, he will win the Lady Byng Trophy for outstanding play with few fouls. The Scooter Line—so named by Reay for its mercurial swiftness—may well break the record of 226 points set by Detroit's legendary Production Line of Gordie Howe, Norm Ullman and Ted Lindsay in 1956-57. And Hull, who started slowly because of a bursitis condition that caused extreme pain in his back every time he climbed over the boards, has scored an amazing 38 goals in his last 38 games.
"But don't go giving all the credit to our line," says Mikita. "Or to Bobby, or to any one individual. This has been a team effort." Hull had said the same thing months earlier when his back was hurting and he wasn't scoring, and the Hawks were somehow staying in a fight for the league lead: "There's a new spirit on this team, a new togetherness. You could feel it right from the start." Bobby himself contributes to that spirit by the mere fact of his presence. He is not a speechmaker and he watches the team's clowning from the sidelines, but his teammates know that with him around their own work is much more likely to be rewarded. He is also a one-man public-relations firm for the Hawks. He doggedly insists on signing every autograph, posing for every picture with everybody's smiling kid and shaking every hand that is shoved in front of him whenever he leaves the rink. Recently reminded of his early-season statement about the club's spirit, Bobby broke into the broad and handsome grin that has helped make him Chicago's leading folk hero. "I was right, wasn't I?" he said. "The whole team has won this thing together. You can pick out any one of the guys and give him credit."