Hey, Bob," Johnny Bucyk said to Bobby Orr, "do you want any tickets for the game?"
"Are you serious?" said Orr. "Who's stupid enough to watch us play hockey?"
Good question, one that players and spectators alike were asking last week not only in Boston but in Montreal, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia as the NHL's five best teams either stumbled from the starting blocks or, in Philadelphia's case, neglected to take up the chase. At one point teams named the Canucks, the Kings and the Islanders all led their divisions; players named Boudrias and Dionne led the scorers even though they had not scored any goals; and goal-tenders named Parent, Dry den and Giacomin needed Solarcaine for the burn on the back of their necks from flashing goal lights.
If Clarence Campbell had Pete Rozelle's writers he could have said, "What the early season proves, gentlemen, is that on any given Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday any team can beat any other team in the NHL." Or find a way to beat itself.
The Canadiens are rapidly becoming the Oakland Athletics of the hockey world, with one major difference: the Canadiens don't win the way the A's do. What they do is squabble. Captain Henri Richard, their last link to the glorious past, refused to show up for the opener at the Forum when he learned secondhand that Coach Scotty Bowman would not be dressing him for the game.
Bowman had other troubles with his players. At General Manager Sam Pollock's insistence, the Canadiens are carrying 25 skaters, six more than they can dress for any game. "Make one mistake and you find yourself sitting in the stands," says one Montrealer. "Everyone's scared stiff." Bowman, already famous for playing musical chairs with his lineup, angered the Canadiens last week when one of his impulsive player changes led to their defeat in a game against the New York Islanders. Seconds after Bowman replaced Guy Lafleur with Jacques Lemaire at center, the Islanders scored to break a 3-3 tie. Meanwhile, Goaltender Ken Dryden had the yips on long shots. In one game he fanned on a slow dribbler from center ice. The Canadiens are so confused these days that they went to the wrong airport in New York for a flight to St. Louis.
For their part, the Rangers are playing defense rather like the football Giants, permitting almost a touchdown a game, and one night they tied the California Seals 5-5 only because Goaltender Eddie Giacomin braved whiplash and snatched a puck out of the net before the goal judge could locate it. Defenseman Ron Harris retired and then unretired within the space of 10 hours, before anyone really missed him.
Flying into Chicago last week, Boston's Bruins were winless—and slightly befuddled, having been shelled 9-5 by the Buffalo Sabres and tied 2-2 by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Remember the big bad Bruins? For 50 minutes the Black Hawks bounced these Bruins around Chicago Stadium the way Bruno Sammartino dropkicks Mr. Moto every night. "The only thing we hit," grumbled Boston Coach Don Cherry, "was the ice."
With slightly more than five minutes to play in the game, and with the Black Hawks on their way to a 4-0 rout, Stan Mikita and Bobby Orr locked together in the corner to the left of the Boston goal. Sticks flew up. Elbows shot in and out. Expletives were exchanged. ("Stan's starting to use his stick on people again," Orr said later. "He's using it this year more than I've ever seen.") They broke away from each other, and there was Mikita's helmet on the ice. As play continued in the Boston zone, Orr and Mikita happened to be skating on a collision course, head-on, without seat belts. Suddenly Orr's gloved right hand shot out—and down went Mikita.
"It was a cheap shot," Orr admitted. Mikita, of course, agreed. " Orr's like a kid at times," said Stan. "When you take his top away, he has a fit. He says I speared him. What else do you expect him to say?"