The news from CHICAGO is all up, though in its division there is hardly any up to go. Bobby Hull says he feels terrific. "Better than in several years." Stan Mikita says his back pains have practically disappeared, so he will not spend the season wrapped like a mummy or score the ridiculous total of only 24 goals. Pat Stapleton says his knees are just perfect, no problem. Defenseman Keith Magnuson says he has taken judo and karate lessons. Dennis Hull says he feels O.K. if his brother does. And Tony Esposito says the summer's pizza and ravioli and lasagna and fettucini did not get to him. He is ready to spread out in front of the goal wider than ever.
So that settles first place in the West. Even an All-Star squad assembled from the six other teams in the division could not beat the Black Hawks over 78 games. Coach Billy Reay's toughest job, aside from keeping Magnuson out of the penalty box at least some of the time, may be convincing the Hawks that they can take the Stanley Cup away from the Canadiens.
There will be only two significant changes in the lineup that carried the Hawks to the seventh game of the cup finals last May. Gary Smith has been brought in from California to replace injury-prone Gerry Desjardins as Tony Esposito's substitute. And the Golden Jet returns to the Black Hawk lineup after an absence of some five years.
Bobby Hull hasn't really been away—just his hair. For the sum of $900 he has had 91 plugs of golden locks transplanted into his balding scalp by the same man who gave Frank Sinatra his hair. "It will take a month or so to grow in," says Bobby. "When it does I'll look like the old me again."
If somehow the Black Hawks fail to parlay Hull, hair, etc., into a divisional championship, the fault will lie with MINNESOTA. For once the North Stars seem solid enough to justify the hopes of their boisterous fans. Ted Harris has become the anchor of what used to be an erratic defense. "We tried 28 different defensemen in our first four years," says Wren Blair, the general manager. "Now we think we have the ones we want." When circumstances suggest aggression, the Stars always call on Dennis O'Brien. He is not a graceful skater, but he throws a mean check. And Cesare Maniago probably is the most underrated goaltender in the NHL.
Minnesota's problem will be getting goals. When Jackie Gordon took over as coach last year, he preached defensive hockey so long and so loud that most of his forwards forgot how to score. The North Stars were the league's lowest-scoring team. Only the line of rookie Center Jude Drouin and Wings Danny Grant and Bill Goldsworthy was any kind of threat.
In an attempt to get more punch, Gordon has dropped Grant to the second line and traded for Bob Nevin and Dennis Hextall, both of whom scored more than 20 goals last season.
Now that Scotty Bowman has moved to Montreal as coach of the Canadiens, ST. LOUIS may discover how the have-nots live in the West. Bowman was removed last spring after a row with the controlling Salomons, Sid Jr. and Sid III. The latter had demanded a louder voice in picking players. When Bowman, a master recruiter, trader and coach, insisted that he call things his own way, the Salomons fired him. Enter as coach Sid Abel, who was dismissed by the Red Wings last January. Abel is known in St. Louis as Sid V. (There is a Sid IV. He is Sid III's son, age 10, and so far he has had no voice in player movements.)
The Blues' on-the-ice problems begin in goal, a position where they were always strong in Bowman's days. Glenn Hall has retired—definitely, this time—and Ernie Wakely has succeeded him, with rookie Peter McDuffe and Jim McLeod in reserve.
If Carl Brewer plays all season and Jimmy Roberts does not exhaust himself skating 35 minutes a game, the defense at least will be respectable. But it may have to be more than that.