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If you add up the total footage and the total velocity of the 26 goals Ron Ward has scored for the New York Raiders this season, you might—just might—get one of Bobby Hull's 50-foot, 110-miles-an-hour slap shots. A Ward goal is a deflection or a converted rebound or a soft backhander that trickles through the goaltender's pads and comes to rest 1/1,000th of an inch across the goal line. "I am," Ward candidly admits, "a true garbage collector."
There was Ward last Wednesday night, hanging around the crease as his line-mates, Wayne Rivers and Brian Bradley, battled furiously for the puck behind the New England Whalers' net. Ward casually skated around the perimeter of the crease, not bothering a soul, and then he stopped in a spot about three feet in front of Goaltender Bruce Landon, who was hugging the right post as the skirmish for the loose puck continued behind him. Suddenly the puck rolled out toward Ward's stick. Ping! With almost casual disdain, Ward flicked a backhand shot that floated past Landon's glove, hit the goalpost and caromed in.
"I don't understand it," Bradley complained afterward. "I can shoot the puck through the boards and you can't break a pane of glass, but I've got only two goals and you've got 26. It's ridiculous." Ward tried to console his frustrated line-mate. "Brian," he said in an avuncular tone, "you've just got to learn how to talk to the puck."
Ward obviously spent the summer picking up the lingo. Playing for the Vancouver Canucks of the National Hockey League last season, he had only two goals and four assists for a grand total of six points in 71 games. Right now though, he leads the World Hockey Association with 26 goals and 20 assists for 46 points—in just 28 games. "The puck has taken some funny bounces for me so far, and they've all been good," Ward says, sounding almost apologetic. "But it's about time I got some breaks."
Thanks primarily to Ward's consistent goal scoring, the Raiders have managed to remain artistically and financially afloat in the struggling WHA. On the ice, they are within striking distance of the Whalers and the Cleveland Crusaders in the East Division, and if Kent Douglas and Bill Speer, experienced defense-men who have been masquerading as blimps, ever get into shape, the Raiders could bring a hockey championship to Madison Square Garden before the rival Rangers of the NHL. Off the ice, though, the WHA has had to assume active control of the club's operations and presently is searching for a well-heeled investor—Lamar Hunt, where are you?—willing to sustain losses up to $1 million a year until the Raiders and the WHA turn the dollar corner.
The original New York owners sent an S O S to the WHA after a succession of small crowds—the Raiders have averaged only 4,455 fans for their 18 games in the 17,500-seat Garden—created a serious revenue gap between projected receipts and actual dollars. "We also greatly underestimated what the start-up cost of a franchise would be," explains Lawyer Dick Wood, the original president of the Raiders, "and eventually we had to revise our budget upward three times."
What killed Wood's hopes in New York, and, indeed, may kill the WHA's, is the club's three-year lease agreement with Madison Square Garden. The Garden reportedly charges the Raiders $22,500 rent for each playing date. The Raiders' game receipts, meanwhile, have been averaging about $27,500 per date. By contrast, the Houston Aeros of the WHA have leased the Sam Houston Coliseum for the entire season for only $37,500—less than $1,000 a game.
"The worst part of the lease is the dates we've had," says Jim Browitt, the WHA official who is administering the club's affairs. "So far the Raiders have played six Saturday afternoon games and six Sunday afternoon games in the Garden—all back to back, mind you—and, well, how do you compete with football? This week we play a Monday night game in the Garden head on against the New York Jets on television from Oakland. The crowd will be awful, I'm sure. Our six Wednesday and Thursday night crowds have been encouraging, however. We have averaged about 7,000 for them, and that helps pay the bills."
Browitt has been able to extract a few concessions from the Garden management. The Raiders" equipment men now may use the Garden's washer and dryer to clean the team's equipment between those back-to-back games, and the Zamboni ice resurfacing machine has not broken down in 10 days. "They tell me the Zamboni is pretty reliable," Browitt says, "but the Garden's machine failed to work twice in two weeks."
Despite the difficulties the Raiders have encountered, both Browitt and Wood are optimistic about the club's future under new ownership in New York. "I've set up a workable budget of about $2.2 million," Browitt says, "and the break-even attendance point is only 8,000 people a game. The most impressive selling point is the team itself. It's not a sick club on the ice. It's a legitimate contender. If the Raiders were sick, it would be different."