The last time the United States invaded Canada, during the ludicrous War of 1812, some of the soldiers mutinied, others fired on each other in the dark and the Canadians referred to their week of service as a "party of pleasure." Oh, what a lousy war. Now there is another U.S. invasion, and it is no laughing matter. The Yanks have established a beachhead in one of Canada's most prized sanctuaries, professional hockey, and aren't about to let go. They are even working from the inside, infiltrating Canadian minds. "We can see the talent developing," says the Montreal Canadiens' general manager, Sam Pollock. "There will be quite an American nest."
There already is. There are 10 U.S. players in the National Hockey League—one used to be considered freakish—and the new World Hockey Association has no fewer than 20.
What personifies and to a great extent explains the U.S. thrust is the presence of such players as Mike Antonovich, a 5'8", 160-pound left wing for the WHA's Minnesota Fighting Saints. Antonovich is on the team with the largest number of U.S. players (10) in pro hockey. He hails from Minnesota, where hockey is strong, and has played at three levels of the game there in the last four years.
First he made all-state three times and led Greenway of Coleraine, a regional high school embracing a dozen northern mining towns, to two state titles. Then he brought the University of Minnesota its first Western Collegiate title in 16 years, followed the next season by a trip to the NCAA finals. Finally he left school to turn pro after his junior year.
Considered too small to play in the NHL, he was a last-round publicity draft choice of the Minnesota North Stars. The Saints' coach, Glen Sonmor, who had also recruited Antonovich for college hockey, had more faith in small men than most, and Mike signed with him. A lifetime center, Antonovich at first seemed lost at a new position on a line with a rookie center and a variety of right wings, but he had scored a dozen goals by midseason and went on to get his first hat trick on Jan. 20. "If you're little, sometimes you have some extra quickness," Antonovich says. "I think it's an advantage." He scores most often on rebounds and deflections, and after each goal he does a dance.
It is easy to attribute the success of Antonovich and others to the sneering catchword, "expansion." But expansion doesn't account for so many good U.S. players, such men as the Saints' goalie, Mike Curran, who was an Olympic star, or New York's Bobby Sheehan and New England's Larry Pleau, who are among the WHA's leading scorers.
The first big break for U.S. players came in 1967, when the NHL raised the minimum draft age from 18 to 20. Many Canadians decided to use the extra years to begin college in the U.S. When Canadian scouts crossed over to watch their native products waste time before becoming eligible for the pro draft, they discovered that south-of-the-border hockey was better than they had expected. And so, in the last two drafts 43 players were picked from U.S. colleges, including many of the once-scorned natives.
All but two members of the U.S. World Cup team are Minnesota born or bred. The feeder programs in Massachusetts and Michigan are comparable, but Minnesota has 55,000 players in organized programs, more than one-fourth the U.S. total, and an unmatched 80 indoor rinks.
Minnesota hockey, many feel, is equivalent to Canadian until the high school level. This is where Canada moves ahead. A top Canadian teen-ager has what might generously he described as an abbreviated high school education. He will play some 300 games between the ages of 16 and 19 in September-April leagues reserved for the best players. But, at least in Minnesota, U.S. high school hockey is improving apace.
The backlash from all this activity is that more U.S. players are bound to turn pro before finishing college or playing on the national team. "You want to play for God and country—or a $50,000 bonus?" asks National Coach Bob Johnson. More fearful is the prospect of junior leagues raiding the high schools and creating the classic dilemma of the Canadian who is almost but not quite good enough to play pro. "What could be worse than being a mediocre 21-year-old hockey player with a ninth-grade education?" asks the Saints' western Canada scout, Roy Kelly.