Gump Worsley would be watching this Chicago game from the bench but, as always, the Minnesota goaltender had an opinion. "To be honest," Worsley said, " Bobby Hull was the one player who upset the balance in the West. The Black Hawks don't have him anymore, so they're back with the rest of us. Or maybe we're up with them. Whichever it is, they're not running away from us this year like they always used to." When Hull was jetting around the ice, Chicago typically locked up the NHL's West Division championship by Thanksgiving. When he bolted to the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association during the summer, along with the best wishes of the North Stars he also took the nine goals that won games for the Black Hawks last season, four that gave them ties, 14 that gave them 1-0 leads, eight power-play goals and three shorthanded goals. Hull never seemed to waste his efforts on trivial scoring plays for the Black Hawks; last year, in fact, 38 of his 50 goals were so-called "important" scores. "The Black Hawks may miss Hull," Worsley said, "but we don't, that's for sure."
As the Hawks struggled into Minnesota for Saturday night's game they held a shaky four-point lead over the second-place North Stars. Chicago had lost three of its previous four games, including home-ice embarrassments inflicted by Pittsburgh and St. Louis and an 8-2 whipping in Buffalo, while Minnesota had dropped only one of its last 14 games in the raucous Met. So this figured to be a fair test of Chicago's pride and character. If the Hawks lost, they would be but two points ahead of the North Stars—and in a continuing slugging match. A win would put them six points up and pulling away.
"Our trouble," explained Chicago's Stan Mikita, "has been that we no longer have the guy who always got the big goal for us when we needed it." Not having Hull has presented serious defensive problems for the Hawks, too. "Never, never have I had to stop—or try to stop—so many good scoring chances," said Goalie Tony Esposito. "When Bobby was on the ice for 30 minutes a game the other teams had to worry about him all that time. They couldn't get very ambitious themselves because Bobby would burn them at the other end. Without Bobby to worry about, they're not afraid to take liberties." Esposito shook his head. "We lost only 17 games all last year," he said, "but we've lost 14 games already—and we're not even halfway through the schedule."
Not surprisingly the Black Hawks were pretty uptight all week, particularly Mikita, although on the ice he resembled the spry young center who won four scoring championships in five seasons during the mid-'60s. "It's my skating," Mikita said. "For the first time in five or six years I've been able to skate effortlessly. My back hasn't caused me one bit of trouble, thank goodness. As a result I don't have to pump myself—you know, force myself—to get places. I'm not even conscious of the fact that I'm skating. I just do it naturally."
With Hull in Winnipeg, Mikita has tried valiantly to become Chicago's leader. "I put the onus on myself," he said. "I've been here 12 years, longer than anyone else, and I feel I should try to do some of the things Bobby always did. But I don't know if today's kids buy that stuff anymore, particularly in professional sports."
Early in the week Mikita criticized the Chicago management. "I think we might be winning more if Pat Stapleton was still playing regularly," he said. "Here we are, still fighting for our lives. I think we could be doing better. Pat and Bill White were the best defense team in hockey last year. Now they're not together anymore and Pat's sitting on the bench. Can an All-Star change that much in one season? I'm sure if he played more often Pat could help us. We're having a few problems moving the puck in our own end, and Pat's great at moving it out, you know."
Stapleton, one of Team Canada's best defensemen in the series against the Soviet Union, broke a bone in his foot at the start of the season, and during his recovery lost his regular job to a promising 20-year-old rookie, Phil Russell. Now Stapleton takes an occasional shift on defense, a spot assignment or two at center and an occasional turn on the power play.
"I don't know what's going on, and I don't think Pat does," Mikita said. "Maybe they're slapping him on the wrist for talking about retiring earlier this year, just like they took his captaincy away three years ago when he held out for awhile. It makes me wonder about myself. Suppose I decide to sign a contract here for next year, but it doesn't go smoothly. Will they put me on the bench?"
Mikita's pronouncements prompted the Hawks to call him into the front office and politely gag him. For three days Stan refused to say anything, walking around with the index finger of his right hand pressed against his mouth. "I said it," he confirmed, "and I meant it, but I don't want to discuss the matter again."
The Hawks had some other problems. Defenseman Keith Magnuson seems to have forgotten how to hit people. The chief enforcer up front, Jerry (King Kong) Korab, 6'3", 220 pounds, has also turned tame. And both Esposito and Gary Smith, who combined to allow the fewest goals-against in the NHL last season, have been consistently inconsistent in goal. "Team Canada drained me," said Esposito. "It's been a long year already."