As Chicago opened hostilities with Montreal this week for possession of the Stanley Cup, it was perhaps fitting that some of the Black Hawks' largest hopes lay with the smallest defense-man on the ice. What Chicago could not accomplish in the same situation in 1965 and 1971 with the bullets of Bobby Hull it was now attempting with teamwork and defense—and the breakaways that could develop through the alertness of that defense. In the Chicago scheme of things no man was more important than 5'7" Pat Stapleton, the team's unfrocked captain but a most conscientious worker.
Indeed, whenever Stapleton comes into focus it seems that he is doing the work of two men, on the ice and off. Take one stretch of 24 hours last week as an example. He was outstanding as Chicago finished off the New York Rangers to gain the finals. He also closed a $600,000 deal to build an ice-skating arena in Westlake, Ohio, promised to provide two dozen old friends with tickets for the games against the Canadiens, stole teammate Doug Jarrett's new tennis racket, debated mortgage rates with a New York financier, checked on the 165 head of cattle at his ranch outside Adelaide, Ontario, dunned some reluctant bill-payers, thanked a Catholic nun named Sister Josita for praying for the Black Hawks and agreed to lead the Naperville, Ill. Junior Olympians in a parade.
For Stapleton, those activities were just another day's work and play. The most satisfying activity, of course, was the 4-1 game and series victory over the Rangers, for New York had been favored to win. Although Stapleton was a dominant force in the game, his contribution was largely missing from the statistics. He was credited with one assist; in fact, he initiated the passing plays that led to each Chicago goal. And though officially he scored only six points in the five games with the Rangers, he was on the ice when Chicago got 12 of its 15 goals.
"Finding the puck was never any problem," mumbled Captain Vic Had-field of the Rangers. " Stapleton always had it. Trouble was, we couldn't get it away from him," Stapleton and lanky Bill White have formed hockey's best defensive pair the last three seasons, and in cup games they always play at least 40 of the 60 minutes. White contentedly anchors himself to the Chicago blue line, but the irascible Stapleton roves throughout center ice on search-and-destroy missions, anticipating plays and then darting in front of opposing forwards to filch the puck from them. "We completed more passes to Stapleton than to any of our own guys," mourned one confused Ranger.
Once Stapleton steals the puck he either headmans it to one of his streaking forwards or cruises to the opposition blue line and fires it at the goaltender. "Most people think I'm an offensive defenseman, but I'm not," Stapleton says. "An offensive defenseman is someone like Bobby Orr who carries the puck in deep. Me? I rarely, if ever, take the puck more than a stride or two across the blue line before getting rid of it."
"If Stapleton plays against Montreal the way he played against us," says New York Coach Emile Francis, "the Black Hawks will beat the Canadiens."
Stapleton did his part in Sunday's opener in Montreal by firing lead passes that were converted into three Chicago goals. The defensive part of the equation didn't quite work out, though. After being up 2-0 and 3-2, in the end Chicago was routed 8-3 because it could not cope with the Canadiens' speed and close-in passes. The Black Hawk goalie, Tony Esposito, was replaced in the third period by Gary Smith. "We had 'em," said Stapleton, "and we let 'em get away."
Regardless of how the Black Hawks ultimately fare against the Canadiens, there is a strong possibility that the 32-year-old Stapleton will not play for them next season. His relationship with Chicago management deteriorated after Coach Billy Reay snipped the captain's C from his jersey three years ago when he had the audacity to hold out for a better contract. Early this season Reay suddenly benched Stapleton and began to play some of his rookie defensemen alongside White. But without Stapleton in the lineup the Black Hawks were listless. Finally, Center Stan Mikita, the team's senior citizen, publicly criticized the benching of Stapleton, and almost immediately Reay restored him to his regular role.
"It's a strange thing," Stapleton says with a grin, "but the wheel always turns. There's a top and a bottom. One day you're on the bottom, the next day you're on top. My day on top will be coming soon." What Stapleton means is that the Los Angeles Sharks of the WHA have offered Stapleton more money for one season than the Black Hawks have ever paid him for three.
Ironically, Stapleton's contract hassle three years ago prompted a change in his way of life that ultimately should make him very prosperous if the WHA does not do it first. For almost 30 years Stapleton was a basic uncomplicated hockey player. Born in Sarnia, Ontario, he was the smallest kid on the block and, as a result, spent most of his early days dodging pucks as a goaltender. "I was eight years old when I told them what they could do with their goaltender's equipment," he says. After that defiance Stapleton alternated between left wing and defense, and eventually he left Sarnia at the age of 17 to play for the Chicago-sponsored junior team at St. Catharine's, Ontario. He was the runt of the team.