The temperature reached 100� on both days of that mid-October weekend in southern California—not exactly the kind of weather that sends people out looking for ice hockey games to watch. The local sports scene was dominated by three winning football teams, USC, UCLA and the Rams. The Los Angeles Kings could hardly have found a less propitious time for their entrance into the National Hockey League; and the site of their debut—a temporary home rink down in Long Beach—seemed just as unfavorable. The team that was a near-unanimous choice for last place in the expansion division of the NHL appeared likely to begin its long season in solitude.
Yet the Kings drew a surprising crowd of 7,035 to their Saturday night opener, and managed to get 4,289 the next night even though two of the main freeways to Long Beach were accident-clogged. The Kings' play was even more startling. They beat both Philadelphia and Minnesota, and they did it without using the only legitimate major league veteran on the squad, injured Goalie Terry Sawchuk. Just six weeks after he took over a training camp squad made up of 72 largely unknown minor leaguers plus Sawchuk, rookie Coach Red Kelly had produced a club about as good—and certainly as enthusiastic—as any of the new entries in the league.
The Kings have set the tone for what undoubtedly will be the most exciting year in the history of big-league hockey. The NHL's dramatic expansion from six teams to 12—an effort to make Canada's national sport a coast-to-coast American enterprise as well—has changed the entire character of the game. Although it will take several years before the new clubs can match the old ones in talent, and it could take even longer before some of them draw the kind of crowds the established teams get, at this early stage one thing is clear: expansion has brought a welcome unpredictability to the NHL.
In the past big-league hockey was a tight little business controlled by a few powerful men. Elaborate farm systems and archaic draft regulations made it possible for strong organizations to lock up most of the talented players in Canada when they were about 16 and keep them as long as necessary. A team like the Montreal Canadiens could control so many young players that it always had ample replacements for anyone who retired or got hurt. So the good teams would remain good and the bad teams would remain bad for years at a time, and only a painstaking renovation of an entire network of scouts and farm teams could slowly breathe life into a weak club.
Now, with the possible, and temporary, exception of the Canadiens themselves, all that has changed. The available talent must be spread 12 ways instead of six, and the rules for drafting young players have been written to give every team a better chance. The result is that no club can establish the kind of depth that guarantees year after year of unchallenged success. A weak club can improve very fast by adding a few important men, and even a very good team can fall apart by losing some key men, because players will be harder to replace.
This fall's most striking example of the new look in the NHL is the sudden disaster that has befallen the Chicago Black Hawks. Last year the Hawks ran away with the league title; this season they lost their first six games. The Hawks, a balanced club last season, simply found that the depth was gone, and the balance with it. They lost Goalie Glenn Hall and the good Defenseman Ed Van Impe in the expansion draft. To bolster the defense they traded several competent forwards to Boston for Gilles Marotte—and found themselves left with only one first-rate center and a very weak third line. Crippling injuries, illnesses and a salary holdout by the remaining goalie, Denis DeJordy, compounded their troubles. Bobby Hull, scoring nine goals in nine games, strove mightily to carry the club alone, but no one can do that in the NHL. In their sixth game the Hawks suffered the major humiliation of the early season by losing to Los Angeles on their own Chicago Stadium ice. They had already lost to Pittsburgh on the road.
Of course, the Hawks will get much better when stars like Stan Mikita and Doug Mohns are healthy, and they will undoubtedly be contenders. But the point is that they will not dominate the league again. Nobody will. A few purists in Canada complain bitterly that expansion has hurt the overall quality of NHL play—and it has to some degree. But, more important, it has given the league, which too often has lacked even one close race involving several teams, the prospect of two such races this season.
The Western Division, made up of the six new clubs, obviously will be weaker than the Eastern—but not nearly as inferior as it appeared to be after the June draft meetings. The new teams were able to get good goalies and a number of solid defenders, but few top scorers. The ones they have only recently have been thrown together on new lines; it will take months before these lines can possibly function as smoothly as the best ones in the NHL. As a result, many games between the expansion teams will have low scores, and there may be an unusual number of ties.
But the new clubs have already shown that they can partly compensate for lack of finesse with enthusiasm and hustle. The players are minor leaguers who have never quite made it, NHL players cast off by their teams or kids eager to become stars. All are fighting to prove something, and many are fighting for their jobs. They make few accurate passes or classic plays but, even when far ahead or hopelessly behind, they never stop skating and checking. They are not going to lose a lot of 8-1 games to the older teams, and they should win a fair number of the 24 games each new club will play against the East.
"There's still a big difference between the divisions," says Red Sullivan, coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who narrowly missed tying Montreal in the opening game. "I'd say we're still four or five top players short of the old teams, and it may take a long time to get those players. But we'll certainly beat any team in the old division that takes us too lightly."