As hockey's biggest flesh merchant, Godfather Sam Pollock of the Montreal Canadiens likes to settle any nagging personnel problems by making his friends these staggering offers they cannot afford to refuse. For almost two years now Godfather Sam has been in semi-desperate need of a center to replace the retired Jean Beliveau. It's not that Sam isn't doing O.K. with Jacques Lemaire and Henri Richard at center ice. You can't fault first place. The thing is, Sam is a little greedy. He doesn't want just any center, mind you, but a classic center. So, as the new season warms up, Pollock looks around, sees that the NHL has more fine young centers—more potential Beliveaus—than any league this side of the Kremlin and signals for his telephone.
He calls Keith Allen, the head of the Philadelphia family, and says he will give the Flyers five warm bodies and the jukebox concession in Camden for Bobby Clarke, the best player in the West Division. Sure, Allen says, and I suppose you want Steve Carlton for the Expos, too. Next Sam dispatches an emissary to see Emile the Cat in New York and orders him to return with Walt Tkaczuk—or else. But Emile Francis won't jump, not even when Sam's trusty bagman hints he will sweeten the deal with a Times Square massage parlor or two. Then Sam wires Ned Harkness in Detroit and offers him four players as well as the e's off Grosse Pointe for Marcel Dionne. "No dice," Harkness says.
Thrice rebuffed, the Godfather realizes it would be senseless to phone his old friend Punch Imlach in Buffalo and inquire about the availability of Gilbert Perreault (see cover), the Sabres' dazzling 22-year-old center who grew up in Beliveau's hometown and already dominates his position the way Le Gros Bil once did. Pollock knows he cannot make Imlach any acceptable offer for Perreault.
"The kid is the best center in the game—bar none," Imlach says. "There's no way anyone can get Perreault out of Buffalo." Two years ago Perreault and the Sabres alike were rookies in the NHL, and the old clubs treated them with disdain. The haughty New York Rangers, for instance, permitted Buffalo not even one lonely victory in 12 games over two seasons. But the days of defeat have ended, and the only thing conceivably boring about hockey in Buffalo is that Perreault and the Sabres win too often.
Last Thursday night at the raucous Aud in Buffalo, Perreault scored the winning goal as the Sabres whipped the Rangers for the fifth time in six games this season and moved back into the fourth and final playoff position in the East Division, two points in front of the Detroit Red Wings. While humiliating the Rangers, the Sabres improved their home record to 24-4-3—the best in the NHL. Perreault's French Connection line, with Rene Robert and Richard Martin on the wings, accounted for two more goals to reach a league-high 87 in just 58 games.
Of all the bright young centers Montreal would like to attach, Perreault most nearly deserves close comparison with the majestic Beliveau, because only he skates with such stately grace and sangfroid. To get his decisive goal against New York, Perreault, his bowed legs working with deceptive speed and perfect balance, gave Defenseman Dale Rolfe a hip fake, two leg fakes, a couple of shoulder fakes, a hatful of head fakes and a few eye blinks, all the while controlling the puck with deft moves of his stick. As Rolfe reeled, Perreault fired the puck past Goaltender Ed Giacomin. "Perreault," says Boston's Bobby Orr, "is easily the most exciting player I've seen come into the league."
Who is this Perreault? And who are all these other young centers the Godfather romances so assiduously?
"It is all I ever wanted to do, to be a hockey player," Perreault says, spacing out the words. He has been speaking English for less than two years, so it does not come easily, and as Perreault talks he nervously taps his heels against the floor. Although Beliveau also lived in Victoriaville, Quebec, Perreault never met him until he moved to Montreal himself and joined the Junior Canadiens in 1967. "I try not to copy Beliveau," Perreault says. "He was too great for me. Certainly I wanted to play with him in Montreal, but now, as I look back, I see that it was best for me that I come to Buffalo. I like it here. There is not so much pressure on me and I can play my game." Perreault plans to spend much of the summer in Victoriaville playing tennis and golf. "There is a big tournament at the golf club," he says. "It used to be called the Jean Beliveau Golf Tournament. Now they call it the Jean Beliveau-Gilbert Perreault Golf Tournament." Gil Perreault smiles.
"C'mon, Walter, I'm not waiting for you again today." Brad Park was impatient as Walt Tkaczuk finished dressing, but he had no choice. Tkaczuk was driving them home. Hockey's strongest center and its best penalty-killer, the 6', 190-pound, 25-year-old Tkaczuk earns about $125,000 a year from the Rangers, but he has not forgotten the summers when he made as little as $1.67 an hour working 3,300 feet below ground in the gold mines around South Porcupine, Ontario. "I was a stoper's helper when I was 16," Tkaczuk says. "The stoper is the man who traces the gold veins. I helped him carry the dynamite. I wore a helmet with a searchlight attached to the front, and I had a battery gadget hooked to my side and a cord running from the battery to the light. Without the light I couldn't see a foot in front of me. If we knew one of our friends was passing by, we'd put out our lights and scare him. When the stoper located a vein of gold, he'd plant the dynamite and we'd both run off into these little caves and wait for the blasts to go off. You'd hear a BANG!, then a BOOM! The BANG was the cap shooting off; the BOOM was the dynamite. If you set six sticks, you waited for the six caps to go off. You never moved until the last one went off. Otherwise you might get killed. But the toughest part of the job was the shuttle trip to and from the surface. They'd pack 40 of us into a cage, like animals. We all had our work clothes on—and we all stank. Then the cage would go so fast that my stomach would end up in my mouth. The cage broke a couple of years before I went to work there, and I think 12 or 13 people were killed."
Tkaczuk stood up and walked away. "C'mon, Brad"—he motioned to Park—"I'm not waiting for you again today."