41, goalkeeper of the St. Louis Blues, lay in St. Louis' Jewish Hospital last
week as his teammates finished out their gloomy Stanley Cup series with the
brassy, bellicose Boston Bruins. Plante has had his nose shattered four times,
his cheekbone cracked twice, his jaw fractured once during an outstanding
career. Now he was recovering from his most damaging mishap—a deflected shot
that struck his mask between the eyes in the first game of the finals. Plante
had a red welt over his left eye. Flecks of blue and yellow discolored the
area. "I'm convinced," he said, "that the mask saved my life. I
always told myself that if necessary I would put my face in front of a shot.
But now, after this one—the pain every time I move my head—I don't think that
way any more."
What happened to
Plante was merely a harbinger of what was to befall the Blues all week. In his
despair, Plante believed he was finished in St. Louis. He was beginning to
think about seeking employment elsewhere—and probably will find it with another
expansion team, perhaps Vancouver or Buffalo. "I'm through here," he
said. "I'm convinced of it. There's no room for Jacques. I'll go anywhere
else." Despite Plante's age and outlook somebody will find room for him,
and this is but one of many signs of the expansion clubs' woeful weakness.
When the NHL
expanded in 1967 to twice its size, equality between East and West was
confidently expected to come about within five years. Now, with two new entries
to dilute a store of talent already depleted for the West through the wholesale
trading of first-choice amateur (junior) draft picks, parity is not even on the
horizon. Furthermore, Chicago's Black Hawks move into the West next season,
with all that that implies for the divisional race.
The Blues are the
best of the West, but that is not saying much. In three straight cup finals
they have failed to win a single game. If they can't compete on fairly even
terms with the powers of the East, how can Los Angeles, Oakland and the others
compete with Chicago? (At least the NHL governors have decided on a
"crossover" in the 1971 playoffs. East and West will play an
interlocking schedule in the semifinals, thus assuring the two strongest teams
in the final.)
contemplated his future last week, NHL President Clarence S. Campbell gave some
anxious thought to the league's. He talked of the pursuit of parity.
"Before expansion," he said, "I tried to persuade the original
owners to be more generous. I thought I had them convinced, but the next
morning I was as dead as a maggot. The cabals took over. Originally, we had a
rule against the trading of amateur draft choices. When the West Division came
into being, some West owners said I was interfering with their business."
He shrugged. "Any knowing man realized what would happen. You can't put a
mortgage on yourself for life."
What happened was
that the new teams, distraught at the flotsam and jetsam acquired in the
original stocking, traded future amateur picks for immediate help. Now most of
them are paying the price. Los Angeles, for instance, docs not have a No. 1
choice until 1975. Minnesota is not much better off. In 1971 only two teams—St.
Louis and Philadelphia—have No. 1 picks.
"We have two
No. 1 choices next year," said Sid Salomon III, executive vice-president of
the Blues. "Those and future picks are the lifeblood of our franchise. We
won't trade draft choices. It's the only way to come up with a potential
superstar—an Orr or a Hull." As Salomon spoke, he stood in the lobby of
Boston's Sheraton Plaza Hotel awaiting game No. 4 and the coup de gr�ce from
Boston. "We're the best of a very poor lot," he admitted, "but at
least we're the best in the West. I think our organization did a fine job
putting together the team it did. Our guys tried hard, as hard as they could.
They wouldn't quit. It's not their fault that they weren't good enough.
"If the owners
really want parity, or competition, to put it another way, they can get it by
cutting their protected lists to 12 and giving the weaker teams a crack at some
talent. They could even sell us a few players. They say we got in for $2
million, a bargain, while the new clubs paid $6 million. But remember this: we
spent another $8 million for our building and improvements. That's a big
investment. We don't know if we'll be able to compete well enough in the future
to make it pay off."
Salomon is aware
that age is a problem with his team. Glenn Hall, the Blues' other elder in
goal, is 38. Ernie Wakeley, a "rookie" at 29, is coming in. The Blues
average 30 years of age; 10 regulars are 30 or older. Only two Blues are under
25. In contrast, the Bruins average four years younger, and only three of
them—John Bucyk, John McKenzie and Eddie Johnston—are over 30. Nine—half the
squad—are 25 or younger. Still Boston, not St. Louis, will get three of the top
14 young players in Canada in June's amateur draft.
Vancouver will toss a coin for the first pick, and the winner undoubtedly will
choose the Montreal Junior Canadiens' center, Gilbert Perreault, who has been
called "the best since Orr." The loser probably will pick one of these
talented youngsters: Ray Martynk, a colorful goalie from Flin Flon, Manitoba;
Dale Tallon, a center-defenseman with the Toronto Marlboros; or Reg Leach, a
rugged wing, also of Flin Flon. Los Angeles should pick next, but it has traded
away its choice—for Skip Krake, a journeyman center. Boston takes that one,
thank you. Next comes Philadelphia. Aha, Boston has that one, too, in exchange
for a minor league forward, Rosaire Paiement. Next comes Oakland. Oops. The
Seals have traded their choice to Montreal, for Carol Vadnais. And so it will
go next month in the draft. Sid III had a very good point.