The news that Goaltender Ken Dryden was leaving the Montreal Canadiens to work for a law firm in Toronto sent shock waves through three cities. In New York—true story—Ranger loyalist Wayne Lachman phoned his wife Toni and told her to change plans for their annual May visit to the Caribbean. "We're finally going to win the Stanley Cup," he told her. In Boston drinks were on the house at the Rusty Scupper and the Boston Garden's belligerent "gallery gods" reportedly volunteered to take up a collection to pay Dryden's moving expenses. In Montreal, though, Scotty Bowman, the coach of the Canadiens, just stared at his office wall in disbelief. "There are only three people around here who can be very happy about this thing," Bowman said sadly, "and their names are Michel Plasse, Wayne Thomas and Michel Larocque."
Before Dryden decided to become a $134-a-week clerk instead of a $130,000-a-year puck-stopper, Plasse, Thomas and Larocque were destined to spend the season either sitting on the bench in Montreal or riding buses in the minors. Quickly Plasse and Thomas became early favorites to win Dryden's job, but the 21-year-old Larocque turned out to be Montreal's best training-camp goalie. He idolizes Glenn Hall, the former Chicago and St. Louis nonpareil, and while he does not sprawl on the ice � la Hall, he does get sick before the start of every game � la Hall. "We probably won't have a No. 1 goalie," Bowman said after reflecting on Dryden's loss. "We'll play whoever is hot." He reached into his pocket for a piece of paper. "Look how important Dryden was to us last year," he said. "Forget all empty-net goals. We played 42 games that were won or lost by a single goal, and we had 16 ties. Let's see, that means 58 of our 78 games were cliff-hangers. Also, our first six losses were by one goal, and altogether eight of our 10 losses were by just one goal. That means we had fantastic goaltending."
But send no sympathy cards to Bowman. The revelry in Boston and New York is premature. The Canadiens are still the best team in hockey. Oh, if Henri Richard and Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe and Jacques Laperriere and Yvan Cournoyer and Jacques Lemaire and Guy Lafleur and the Mahovlich brothers suddenly became law clerks, too, the rest of the NHL would have a chance, but the Canadiens' mystique is so powerful and their well so deep, they appear unstoppable.
On defense young Larry Robinson moves in alongside Laperriere as a regular, confident that Laperriere will cover for most mistakes he makes. The other pairing of Savard and Lapointe is hockey's best. Marc Tardif and checking specialist Rejean Houle jumped to the WHA, but Bowman has a rinkful of kids to replace them. Bob Gainey, the best skater in junior hockey last season, inherits Houle's duties and plays on a line with Cournoyer and Lemaire—not bad company for a rookie—and Murray Wilson takes over Tardif's left wing assignment. "Don't worry about us," says the high-scoring Cournoyer. "The Rocket retired, remember, and Harvey, Plante and Beliveau all left us, too, but we continued to win. Why should it be any different now?"
For different, try Boston. A funny thing happened to the Bruins in training camp. They worked. And they worked. And they worked some more. In the old days—like last season—the Bruins were lazy. Practice was just the excuse they used to get out of the house in the morning. Now it is this year. "Kenny Hodge lost so much weight in training camp it cost him $1,900 to get his clothes taken in," says Derek Sanderson, who conveniently missed the hard work himself because of an ailing back.
But Boston's hopes for a revival require more than exercise. Much depends upon the knees of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and the goaltending of newcomer Gilles Gilbert, an erratic performer when he played for Minnesota. Orr says his tender knees are not bothering him for the first time in five years, and he does seem to be in the best physical condition of his recent career. "I always used to spend my summers recuperating from an operation or just resting my knees," Orr says. "This year I ran three miles, played tennis, skated and lifted weights every day." Esposito had knee surgery while the Rangers were routing the Bruins from the playoffs, and at that time his doctors said he would be unable to play again until January. "I told them I'd be ready for the exhibition games," says Esposito. He was, and the operation has not affected his goal-scoring touch. He had four goals in his first four games.
Goalie Gilbert, 24, is this year's key Bruin. "If he isn't outstanding for us, we're in trouble," says Coach Bep Guidolin. "He has his bad nights, but what goalie doesn't? It will be a lot easier for him playing in Boston than Minnesota. We'll get him some goals to work with."
New York's Rangers neglected to win the Stanley Cup again—it is a habit they have—so General Manager Emile Francis traded off a few of his $200,000-a-year laborers, right? Wrong. They are all back. All Francis did was relinquish his coaching duties and assign them to former Ranger Larry Popein. Surely, then, Popein arrived in New York with a list of changes he planned to make in order to create a winner? Nope. "Nothing has changed," says one Ranger. "When Larry talks, he sounds just like Emile. They both say the same thing." There is one major difference between Popein and Francis: the lapels on the new coach's suits are about two inches wider than Francis'.
So Ed Giacomin and Gilles Villemure still share the goal-tending; Brad Park, Rod Seiling, Jim Neilson and Dale Rolfe still start on defense; Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield are back together on one line, and so are Walt Tkaczuk, Bill Fairbairn and Steve Vickers on another. For three years Francis tried to find a left wing to work with Tkaczuk and Fairbairn, and then last year in desperation he tried Vickers. Thirty goals later Vickers was Rookie of the Year. "We're not a finesse line," Vickers says. "We're only successful because we grind things out. I know I haven't got great moves, that I'm not going to put anyone in awe. But we're always digging in the corners, and when I can I just position myself in front of the net. It doesn't take much brains to do that." The average Vickers goal last season traveled about 3'5", which is far enough to turn on the red light.
But don't think change will never come to New York. One Ranger looked at his team's roster and decided, "If we don't get off to a good start, you can be sure that Francis will start moving bodies in all directions. And if we don't win the cup this year, we'll all be gone."