The upsets are the result of more than close checking or letdowns by older clubs. "This is the first time many of these players ever had a real crack at the NHL," says Larry Regan, general manager of the Los Angeles Kings. "They know this is their big chance, and they're trying like hell." Regan's Kings, generally picked for last place, have tried so hard for Coach Red Kelly that they are giving Philadelphia a good battle for the West Division lead, and they have won five of 11 games with East Division rivals.
No one, however, had more to prove this season than the Bruins. Last year—that of the coming of Bobby Orr—was a nightmare. Orr was as good as everyone had said he would be, but by midseason the rest of the players seemed to be coming to the rink just to stand around and watch him. The Bruins desperately needed changes in personnel, in morale and in the front office. They began to get all of these things when Schmidt replaced Leighton (Hap) Emms as general manager.
It would be hard to find two men with more divergent attitudes and approaches to hockey. Schmidt, a Hall of Fame player and former coach, is frank and forceful, respected and popular. He is an astute hockey man but, more importantly, he knows how to deal with men who make their living in the big leagues. Emms, on the other hand, had long been a junior hockey executive, and sometimes the Bruins felt that he was treating them like captive bush-leaguers.
"He was a minor league guy," said Goalie Ed Johnston. "He could probably handle kids, but he sure didn't know how to work with guys who earn $20,000 at this game." When Sid Abel picked Ted Green to play in the All-Star Game. Emms announced publicly that he did not think Green deserved the honor. Emms also bickered with several players through the newspapers, making it rough for Harry Sinden to salvage anything out of the season.
"As soon as I took over," said Schmidt, "I spoke to each guy about what I wanted from him. I think morale and spirit have to begin in the front office." Veteran Wing Johnny McKenzie said, "Eve been on a lot of teams, and I've never seen one with spirit like this."
Of course, the Bruins needed more than pep talks; they needed scorers, big, strong forwards who could shove their way in front of the goal and stay there. So Schmidt gave up his highly rated young defenseman, Gilles Marotte, and a clever center, Pit Martin, to get Esposito, Ken Hodge and Freddie Stanfield from Chicago. Then he sent Center Murray Oliver, no muscleman, to Toronto for Shack, the colorful, unpredictable wing, strong and snappish as a sled dog, whom Punch Imlach was anxious to unload. "I was gambling," said Schmidt. "I took a big chance letting Marotte go, but things have worked out just fine."
The trades worked partly because two young players, Don Awrey and Derek Sanderson, filled the holes at left defense and center. And all four of the new acquisitions fit beautifully into the Boston attack. Esposito, Shack and Hodge brought size and strength and Stanfield has been a superb playmaker for McKenzie and Johnny Bucyk.
With Stanfield's help, Bucyk, a notoriously slow starter, has been so hot that he is second only to Bobby Hull in scoring; on Saturday night against Chicago he broke Schmidt's own Boston goal-scoring record with his 230th, and later in the game he got No. 231. On Sunday he scored again amid the season's wildest stick-and fist-swinging as Boston beat Montreal 5-3 and pulled cleanly ahead of Toronto in the race. "There's much less pressure on me this season," says Bucyk. "This is the first year I don't pick up a paper once a week and read that I'm about to be traded."
While Stanfield sparked one line and Esposito and Hodge joined another, Sinden turned to Shack to lead a third one. "When he got here." says Sinden, "I told him we didn't need an entertainer. We needed a left wing. He said O.K. And he's turned out to be a big man for us."
And so, after his year of frustration. Sinden found himself with a team: three lines and two good goalies in Johnston and Cheevers—and a supporting cast that could complement Orr rather than lean on him. "For the first time," said Sinden last week, "Bobby can play a more sensible game. We don't have to keep looking for him to make the big play, to bring us back from behind. He can fit in on the team instead of trying to carry it by himself."