At the moment it is a shadow no bigger than a goalie's mask, but the free-agent problem is starting to loom over the National Hockey League. Some 20 players, whose average annual salary is $75,361, will go out on their own this month, among them three of the league's top scorers—Boston's Phil Esposito, the New York Rangers' Rod Gilbert and Detroit's Marcel Dionne.
Although such things are supposedly top secret, the list of potential free agents sent to Montreal headquarters by each NHL club has been widely leaked. The free agent situation is something new for the NHL, but it was part of the 1972 agreement that forestalled antitrust action, and now owners on one side and player representatives on the other are braced for the worst.
Some of the contract action will revolve as much around infirmities as salary demands: fans will recall that the none-too-robust Gilbert, survivor of back fusion surgery some seasons ago, asked for a multiyear pact at $175,000 a year—and the Rangers told the 34-year-old winger goodby and good luck. Dionne, who balked at a reported $1 million, four-year offer from Detroit, got a similar response. Another problem involves the compensation clause, � la the National Football League: if either Montreal or Los Angeles meets Dionne's contract demands they will have to send players of comparable ability to the Red Wings or face binding arbitration.
Among other free agents are Captain Eddie Westfall and Billy Harris of the New York Islanders; Dave Keon and Norm Ullman of Toronto; Henry Boucha, Murray Oliver and Fred Barrett of Minnesota; Rick Dudley, Buffalo; Ted Harris, Philadelphia; and a few lesser lights, including Goalie Ron Low of the lowly Washington Caps, who wants $130,000 a year.
Esposito, meanwhile, having led the NHL in scoring five of the past seven seasons, is 33 and looking for long-term security. As luck would have it, he was holding up a World Hockey Association offer from Vancouver as a bargaining club, but Vancouver moved to Calgary and the deal died. In any case, the NHL no longer seems scared by WHL offers since that organization also is experiencing financial pinches. It looks like a long, hotly negotiated summer.
BEAUTY AT BAT
For those baseball fans so overwhelmed by the action that they miss the esthetics of the game, there is this heady note: the San Francisco Giants may be third in their division, but they lead the league in permanent waves. Six players have perms, seven if one counts Trainer Al Wylder. (It would have been eight, but Dave Kingman was traded to the Mets.) Third Baseman Ed Goodson puts it this way: "Even on the windiest days in Candlestick Park our hair jumps right back into place."
UP THE MIDDLE
Spring training went this way in the San Antonio area: three football teams from local high schools bellied up to a banquet table to see, for charity, which could gain the most weight by eating pancakes. In less than 40 minutes they gobbled up 2,636 pancakes, an average of nearly 44 per man. For the record, the winning MacArthur High team—otherwise known as the Big Macs—gained an average of 5.5 pounds per man for a total of 110.25 pounds. The MVP of the entire event was 202-pound Eddie Lee, who plays tackle for Alamo Heights High. He ate more than 50 pancakes to become a 222-pounder. They say he'll be back on his feet in time for the first game next fall.
NEW OLD GAME
As every big city resident knows, the numbers racket is running slightly ahead of apple pie in terms of things American, and officials have long been of two minds about this oldtime gambling activity. Since 1) the racket apparently cannot be stamped out as police would like, then 2) why not tap the revenue, a solution officials would dearly prefer? Just such an attempt was made last week in New Jersey and, while it is too early to detect any dismay among mobsters, the experiment clearly shows signs of bringing in big bucks.