All through the week he displayed his X-Reay face: an evil-eyed, closed-mouthed, furrowed-brow glare that penetrates flesh and bone. "When the coach looks like that," said one of the Chicago Black Hawks, "he doesn't need a lot of words to transmit his displeasure. He just kills you with his face." In recent years Billy Reay has reserved that wicked look primarily for referees and long-haired members of the liberal Eastern press, but last week he turned it upon forwards, defensemen, goalies and the citizenry at large.
Reay was understandably perturbed as the Black Hawks flew off to Philadelphia and Minnesota for some early-season crisis games with the brash Flyers and backs-to-the-wall North Stars. For three years the establishment Hawks had been the holy lords of the West Division, treating the expansion teams with total disdain, usually buttoning up first place by Thanksgiving. "We always knew that Chicago was better than us, it was that simple," said Philadelphia Center Bobby Clarke. Now, however, Pat Stapleton, the only Black Hawk defenseman who could rush the puck with any effectiveness, and Center Ralph Backstrom had joined Bobby Hull in the WHA, and tough Wingers Dan Maloney and Jerry (King Kong) Korab, who were the only aggressive forwards on the Chicago roster, play elsewhere in the NHL, prompting Clarke to state, "For the first time we really think we're a better team than the Black Hawks."
There was little doubt about Philadelphia's superiority in October as the Flyers streaked to a four-point lead over the Black Hawks, who managed to win only two of their first eight games and skidded to fourth place. "Remember, though, pennants are not won in October," cautioned Chicago Right Wing Jimmy Pappin, borrowing a thought from the Chicago Cubs. Worse yet for Reay, Defenseman Bill White was sidelined by a groin injury, Center Stan Mikita—now known as Doc because of the honorary Doctor of Laws degree he received from Brock University in Ste. Catharines, Ontario last month—could not get a goal with a writ, and the rest of the Hawks were just as feeble around the net. The once-potent Chicago scoring machine had produced only 20 goals in eight games.
Mikita had scored just two goals all year, while Pappin, who had 41 last season, still had not gotten his first. This did not prevent him from tossing a dart at Goalie Tony Esposito. " Esposito makes so much money now we call him Tony oh oh oh, oh oh oh," said Pappin. "Yeah," Esposito countered, "and if you don't score pretty soon, we're going to start calling you Jimmy oh oh oh, oh oh oh."
Arriving in Philadelphia, Reay signed the Black Hawks into their hotel, announced a team meeting for the next morning at the Spectrum—then mysteriously disappeared for the next 18 hours. In many ways the 55-year-old Reay is the mystery man among NHL coaches. Outside Chicago he is regarded as a surly little tyrant who tried to bring Bobby Hull and Pat Stapleton to their knees, a media manipulator who invented the French-speaking Designated Talker for postgame interviews with English-speaking journalists, and the muddled trader who sent Phil Esposito to Boston. The folks at home, though, think of him as a genius—the man who coached the Hawks to five first-place finishes and two seconds while never having a losing record in his 10 years behind the Black Hawk bench.
Reay's longevity is unique in the NHL, where 12 of the 16 coaches have held their present positions less than two years and the No. 2 man on the seniority list, Minnesota's Jackie Gordon, has just started his fourth season. Reay had been a center for the Montreal Canadiens for eight seasons. He was a pesky checker and playmaker, but he was always overshadowed by the Maurice Richards and Doug Harveys in Montreal. While a Canadien, Reay helped coach the Junior Canadiens, and when he retired from the NHL he was hired as a playing coach for Victoria in the Western League. Eleven years later, after more coaching stops in Seattle, Rochester, Toronto, Sault Ste. Marie and Buffalo, he took over in Chicago.
How has Reay managed to survive his stormy decade with the Hawks? He has been blamed for everything bad that has happened to them—the empty Stanley Cups, the Esposito trade, Hull's money wars and his ultimate defection to the WHA, Stapleton's humiliating loss of his captaincy—but he is not guilty on all accounts. He did not make the Esposito deal, although he did approve it, and he never involved himself in salary matters until the Chicago management almost lost Bill White and Pit Martin to the WHA last year because of its naively callous indifference to the new league. "People don't realize it," said one Hawk, "but Billy, more than anyone else, has kept this club together. He has rebuilt us overnight about five times. Without him, who knows where we'd all be?"
Although Hull and Stapleton both left Chicago with bitter feelings toward top management, they still respect Reay. "If Billy had been running things himself," Hull once said, "I probably would never have left." It was Reay who, five years ago, ordered Hull to abandon his free-skating, gun-them-down style and play an orderly, conservative, close-checking left wing. And that undoubtedly added years to Hull's playing life.
Stapleton, now the playing coach of the Chicago Cougars of the WHA, met Reay recently at a luncheon and kidded with his old coach. "Billy showed great foresight during the years I played for him," Stapleton said. "He told me, 'Pat, if you work hard, do the job and stay patient, you'll be rewarded with the money you deserve.' What he didn't tell me was that I'd have to go to another team in another league to get it. Last year I wondered why Billy kept me on the bench for three months. Now I know why he did it; he knew I was going to become a coach."
So it was a depleted and struggling crew that Reay took to Philadelphia for the meeting with the hot, division-leading Flyers. Several Black Hawks reported to the Spectrum for the scheduled Thursday morning strategy meeting, but Reay never appeared. He had gone to Buffalo the night before to scout the Sabres against California and had rescheduled the team meeting for their hotel. Some Hawks had not gotten the word. "Maybe the Black Hawks are a rumor," said White, who was taking treatment for his groin injury at the Spectrum. "Or maybe they traded all the other guys and we're the only ones left."