Phil Esposito sat on a table in the Boston Bruins' dressing room joking with Milt Schmidt, the general manager. Out on the ice the rest of the Bruins were going through a rugged practice, preparing for an important game with the Chicago Black Hawks—a game that ended Saturday night in a 4-4 tie, leaving the Bruins at the top of the National Hockey League standings. Esposito, the big, swarthy center who has been a strong factor in Boston's dramatic rise from the NHL cellar this year, had missed the workout with a slight knee injury. He looked cool and relaxed in a blue sport shirt and yellow cardigan sweater. Tommy Williams, the first player off the ice, stalked into the room in full uniform, his face streaked with sweat and dirt. He glared at Esposito. "What do you have to do to get a day off around here? Be Italian?"
Esposito turned calmly to Williams, the only American-born player among the Canadians on the team. "You can be anything," he said, "except American. You Americans need all the work you can get."
Bobby Orr (see cover), the Bruins' crew-cut 19-year-old superstar, called to Esposito (who played on Bobby Hull's line in Chicago last year), "Hey, Hull practiced every day, didn't he? Didn't he make you practice with him?"
"You're right," said Phil, "but there are no Hulls on this team."
The remark was not quite accurate. Defenseman Orr, in his second season, is already approaching the stature of a Hull or a Stan Mikita, a player who can pick up an entire team with a key goal or a big play. But right or wrong, Esposito's flip and frequent exchanges with his teammates typify the new attitude of this year's Bruins, a suddenly brash and exuberant club that has provided the biggest surprise of all in the expanded, highly unpredictable NHL.
In the East Division, made up of the established clubs, the six teams are separated by only 10 points in a frantic race. Montreal, a title contender for 20 straight years, is currently last; the Bruins, who have not made the Stanley Cup playoffs in eight years, are Red-Soxing along in first. In the new West Division the race is almost as close, and, more surprisingly, the expansion teams have shown that they can hold their own in games against the older clubs. In the first 55 meetings between the divisions, the first-year teams have won 16 and tied five—a far better record than even the most optimistic of the West's general managers had expected. The Philadelphia Flyers, best of the new teams, have an eye-opening 4-2-1 mark against older clubs.
The biggest winners in this expansion year may be the fans, both the old ones who have followed the game all along and the new ones who are just discovering hockey in the expansion cities. The doggedly loyal Boston rooters have finally been rewarded with a completely transformed team. Last year the club management was inept and the players were unhappy, tense and so ineffective that they finished 18 points out of the playoffs. Now the players are on a cordial, first-name basis with the new general manager, Milt Schmidt, the center of Boston's revered old Kraut Line, and their second-year coach, Harry Sinden. They enjoy an almost constant routine of comedy and needling led by Esposito, Winger Eddie Shack and Goalie Gerry Cheevers. And on the ice they have changed from a small, meek team that often appeared to be merely going through the motions into a brawling, powerful unit good enough to lead the league.
Except in Minnesota, a center of hockey activity, people have not rushed to fill the arenas of the expansion clubs. But attendance has increased gradually as fans have gotten to know the game and the players, and only the Oakland franchise remains a bit shaky at the gate, averaging about 5,350 customers, while Minnesota pulls 11,500, St. Louis 7,600, and both Los Angeles and Pittsburgh better than 6,000. The Philadelphia organization appeared to be faltering as the season began, but last week the Flyers were neck and neck with the Kings for the lead in the West and the club may become one of the most prosperous of all, simply because it offers victory to a town that loves a winner. Fans in the new Spectrum forget themselves and yell, "Come on, Ramblers, skate!" although the old Ramblers of the Eastern League folded three years ago. They also yell, "We're No. 1!" and as long as the Flyers are near the top the fans will keep shouting and buying tickets.
The crowds, in turn, may help the teams get even better. "Without people," says Flyer Goalie Bernie Parent, "you feel alone in the nets. A crowd like the one watching us against the Red Wings the other day picks you up. You play above yourself." The Flyers beat high-scoring Detroit 4-2 before their biggest crowd, 12,086. "The people can bring you to life," says Forward Bill Sutherland. "When nobody's there, you try to push yourself, and nothing happens."
Things have happened almost every time an expansion team has faced an older one. "Our guys are playing a closer checking game against the big boys," says Pittsburgh's Red Sullivan. "It may not be exciting, but it is effective." The established teams, on the other hand, have often been sloppy in their checking and their style of defense against the new clubs.