After taking the WHA championship in the league's inaugural season, NEW ENGLAND was eliminated from last year's playoffs, but the Whalers hope to bounce back stronger than ever. Address get-well cards to Hartford, Conn., where the Whalers are headed after losing $2 million trying to buck the Bruins in Boston. They play their first 14 home games in West Springfield, Mass., after which the new Hartford Civic Center will be ready to accommodate them. The move to the Connecticut capital was partly underwritten by two local insurance giants, Aetna and Travelers, neither of which is known to invest money rashly.
It ought to impress these conservative backers that the Whalers are as prudent about stopping goals as they are about scoring them. Al Smith is spectacular if erratic in the net and he receives quality protection from hard-hitting Defensemen Rick Ley, Ted Green, Brad Selwood and Jim Dorey. For additional, well, insurance, New England has imported Thommy and Christer Abrahamsson, twin brothers who starred as defenseman and goalie respectively on the Swedish national team. Another recent arrival, ex- Toronto Toro Forward Wayne Carleton, adds his proved scoring ability (37 goals) to that of Tom Webster (43) and Tim Sheehy (29). " New England is a solid, all-round, well-run club," says Bud Poile, the WHA's boss of hockey operations. "They have no flamboyant stars, just an awful lot of depth."
Chicago was the WHA's surprise runner-up last season despite erratic goal-tending, and the Cougars have taken corrective action by grabbing Dave Dryden away from the NHL's Buffalo Sabres. But not even Dryden's arrival is likely to deter Defenseman-Coach Pat Stapleton from continuing to make like a second goalie out in front of the Chicago net. The Cougars signed Gary McGregor, a 100-goal man as an amateur, but Stapleton says, "We don't have any big guns. We have to play a tight game, keep the score down and wait for the breaks." The Cougars also are looking forward to a new arena. But with groundbreaking near O'Hare Field stalled by litigation and tight money, they once again expect sparse crowds in the malodorous old International Amphitheatre.
Better off than Chicago in this respect, CLEVELAND will move into the Coliseum, a spiffy $20 million, 18,000-seat edifice situated midway between that city and Akron. The Crusaders' hopes of making the playoffs depend largely on Goalie Gerry Cheevers, and that may be enough. By WHA standards, the goaltending in the East is strong. Along with Smith, Dryden and Cheevers, there is Andy Brown, who should help get INDIANAPOLIS, another new expansion club, off to a respectable start. A former Pittsburgh Penguin, Brown is an adventurous fellow who stubbornly refuses to wear a mask and indulges an off-season hobby of driving sprint cars.
"You only consider something dangerous when you're unsure of yourself," Brown philosophizes. His ardent interest in motor sports makes the Racers the perfect team for him. It certainly would not endear him to those insurance men in Hartford.
Frank Mahovlich has a three-year contract with TORONTO but should require somewhat less time than that to score the 11 goals he needs to pass the legendary Maurice Richard and thus give the WHA the three leading scorers in hockey history, Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull being the others. It cost $200,000 a year to persuade the 36-year-old Mahovlich to abandon the Canadiens, but the Toros have an expensive hankering to become the first Canadian-based team to win the WHA title.
Not content with landing Mahovlich, the Toros also raided the NHL for Winger Paul Henderson—not at a bargain-basement price, either. They signed a fine-looking rookie defenseman, Jim Turkiewicz. And they spent a bundle on a couple of defectors from Czechoslovakia. One is Vaclav Nedomansky, a hulking center of whom Toro GM Buck Houle says, "He's going to be another Hull or Howe, I just know it." Concluding that the 5,000-seat Varsity Arena would no longer do, the Toros arranged to play in Maple Leaf Gardens, where a hoped-for season-ticket sale of 10,000 would help offset the high rental. Coach Billy Harris, who masterminded Team Canada in the Russian series, is a wily soul who deals effectively—and wickedly—with curfew breakers by fining them and sending the money to their wives.
Their spending binge indicates that the Toros are taking dead aim at their Maple Leaf landlords in the fight for Toronto spectator dollars, but the No. 1 interleague battleground remains VANCOUVER. There the NHL Canucks routinely attracted sellouts last season while the WHA Blazers were leading their league with a home-attendance average of 9,356, impressive numbers considering the Blazers' woeful 27-50-1 record. Their porous defense may have been plugged by Goaltender McLeod from Houston and a flock of new defensemen, including former Maple Leaf Mike Pelyk and 19-year-old Pat Price, the league's best bet for Rookie of the Year. Price's price for a five-year contract was $1.3 million and a Ferrari; the car's brief and tragic history was recounted in an urgent phone call to Blazer GM-Coach Joe Crozier.
"I feel terrible," Price moaned. "I've just smashed up my Ferrari."