The owners of the new teams are gambling that the fans will not take them lightly. The six clubs have spent an estimated $65 million on franchise fees, stadiums and major and minor league players. The players' salary demands were not modest. Fringe players from the old clubs suddenly wanted to be paid like stars. Holdouts were common in both divisions—veterans on the older clubs were not about to be left out of the bonanza—and hockey players are perhaps paid more now in relation to their accomplishments than any other team athletes. "I didn't think we drafted any superstars until I got to the bargaining table," said Bill Putnam, president of the Philadelphia Flyers. "Some of the guys were asking 140% raises. We'll be paying over $300,000 to our players. The same men earned less than $150,000 last year."
All the new clubs will play in bright arenas that make places like the Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium seem more antiquated than ever. Minnesota and Philadelphia have opened in new stadiums, and Jack Kent Cooke's dazzling Forum in Los Angeles will be ready by January 1st. The rinks in Oakland, Pittsburgh and St. Louis are also modern, pleasant ones that should help the NHL sell its desired "image" as the "in" sport for wealthy businessmen who demand comfort and luxury. So far the only eyesores in these stadiums have been large, glistening blocks of empty seats. The biggest disappointment came when Los Angeles played the California Seals in Oakland in what was hailed as the start of a rivalry to match the Dodgers-Giants and Rams- 49ers games. It drew 3,419 people.
Right now only Minnesota, which is in a real hockey area, and Los Angeles, which has the flamboyant Cooke and his Forum, look absolutely certain to succeed financially. St. Louis also seems a good bet, and Pittsburgh may be all right despite some disquieting rumors. The Philadelphia franchise appears to be a little shaky, and the Seals clearly will have to recruit some hockey fans in Oakland, since smug San Franciscans have always refused to cross the bridge and venture as far into the provinces as the nearby Coliseum. But all the owners are optimistic, claiming they need only a few seasons to "educate" new fans.
The Flyers could overcome many problems simply by winning, and they are the team most likely to do so in the evenly matched West. Van Impe would have been Rookie of the Year with Chicago if he had not arrived in the same season as Bobby Orr. In Boston, Joe Watson looked better than the flashier Marotte at times. He will join Van Impe in leading what may be the second-best defense in the division. The goalie is 22-year-old Doug Favell, who beat out the highly regarded Bernie Parent for the job and may become a big star.
The Flyers' attack is sporadic, but it is also young and capable of improving sharply. The key to it is Brit Selby, 22, who was the NHL's top rookie two years ago with Toronto. Last fall he came to camp overweight, was sent to the minors and then broke a leg. Punch Imlach hated to lose him in the draft, and Selby could become the kind of high scorer who can pick up a whole team. The average age of the Flyers is 26. Over the grueling 74-game season they are a good bet to persevere and win.
Pittsburgh has the best new offensive team, led by the experienced and much-traveled big-leaguers Ab McDonald and Andy Bathgate. Bathgate, one of the alltime NHL scoring leaders, is playing like a kid again and should lead all division scorers if he avoids injury. "Andy had announced his retirement, but I knew he still loved the game," said Sullivan. "I knew he'd come back. And I told him, 'Look, I don't want you coming to practice with the
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or the Racing Form, or I'll fire you. You play hockey now, and that's all.' " Among the Penguins Bathgate is a hero, and he is rising to the role.
The Pittsburgh defense is weak, but the goaltending looks surprisingly good. While neither Hank Bassen nor Les Binkley is too durable, they could complement one another well over the season.
California has the best defense in the division, headed by Kent Douglas and Bobby Baun, both tough and both overjoyed at their escape from the Maple Leafs. Douglas didn't like the hard practices in Toronto; Baun didn't like his salary, or Punch Imlach. The Seals work even harder under Bert Olmstead—"He makes Punch's practices look like nursery school," says Baun—but Douglas is accepting it and Baun loves it. "I feel like a young guy again," says Bobby, who is 31. "It's like starting all over—with the advantage of experience. I'm even learning new things, and I've regained the enthusiasm that I lost in Toronto." The Seals will also get good goaltending from Charlie Hodge, but they have very little offense. Bill Hicke, a failure at Montreal and New York, is finally scoring, but almost nobody else is. Olmstead, a fine checking wing himself, is emphasizing defense. He will have to find more scoring to finish higher than third.
Los Angeles will make the playoffs if Kelly can sustain the enthusiasm he generated in training camp. "They had to get in shape fast and work hard," says Red, "and I guess that shows in our fast start. They move, they don't give up. They want to show all those people who said they'd be so bad."
The Kings may also enjoy a unique form of home-ice advantage. Visiting hockey players who arrive in sunny southern California in midwinter and find swimming pools and girls in bathing suits have been known to forget what night the game is, or even how to play.