The Chicago Black Hawks finished up 1976—a year in which they signed Bobby Orr, the best hockey player who ever lived—by firing Billy Reay, their coach of 13� seasons, who had more career wins (542) than any other active NHL coach. The Hawks skated into the new year led by a coaching cooperative, a troika of players that began operation with Bill White behind the bench, Stan Mikita at center ice and Orr keeping notes up in the press box. "In the 1960s the Black Hawks were the first to have a 'Million-Dollar Line,' " said one NHL general manager. "Now they're the first to have a million-dollar coaching staff."
Last Wednesday night Orr shucked his pencil and note pad and, after being sidelined for 42 days and 19 games to rest his mangled left knee, returned to the ice to give the Chicago Stadium crowd its most dramatic moment in years. Six minutes into a game with the New York Islanders, Orr made his entrance on a Hawks power play—a play on which he had been drilling his teammates in his role as coach. Some 33 seconds later, Bobby took his patented short backswing and sent a slap shot whistling over the shoulder of Islander Goalie Billy Smith, and Chicago was on its way to a 2-1 victory. It was stirring evidence that there is life left in a team that had been written off, and in Orr as a player.
The firing of Reay three days before Christmas was met with mixed emotions. It had been called for, both by his players, who second-guessed him, and by the fans, who had watched the Black Hawks grow stale over the past few seasons. But management had something to do with the latter, and when they swung the ax it was with all the sensitivity of an executioner. A month earlier, Black Hawk President Bill Wirtz had publicly outlined a reorganization plan that would have made General Manager Tommy Ivan a vice-president and Reay the GM. Then....
Reay was returning to Chicago from a Dec. 21 tie in Minnesota, due home around 4 a.m. His wife got up about one and found a note under the door of their North Side apartment, informing the 58-year-old Reay that he was not only fired as coach, but also was no longer a part of the Black Hawk organization. "If I'd known Billy was going to be out of a job completely. I might not have agreed to become head coach," said White. Goalie Tony Esposito said he would have to think about his future after the season.
The only explanation of the firing ever made by management was a press release that failed to mention Reay's 13-plus seasons and 516 victories with the Black Hawks. In fact, in all its 10 paragraphs it failed to mention Reay.
Injuries to three centers plus Defensemen Orr and Keith Magnuson had made Reay's job exceedingly difficult this season, but it also seemed that in the last four years Reay had lost some interest in coaching. In the five seasons preceding 1973-74, the Hawks had been 223-100 with four first-place finishes, but in the past two seasons they had barely played at a .500 level, and the night the note was slipped under Reay's door the team was 10-19-5 for the year. Not only were the Hawks weak, they were as exciting as a buttermilk-tasting contest, and crowds at the Chicago Stadium (capacity 17,100) were averaging less than 10,000.
"You just wouldn't believe how awful we'd become," says veteran Forward Pit Martin. "The team needed some kind of a shakeup." "We just have too much talent to be struggling..." Center Jim Harrison started to say, then trailed off. What he was going to say was "to be struggling in the lackluster Smythe Division." "The older players loved Reay and played for him." says one young player, "but we younger ones were tied up in knots. Billy hated young players, and none of us played to half our potential. If this team's going anywhere, the kids better be playing."
After losing the first game under White, the Hawks are now 6-3-1, including victories over Toronto, Buffalo and the Islanders. And they have become interesting: WHA refugee Harrison and John Marks are skating around hitting people and the offense has opened up for end-to-end rushes. Ivan Boldirev, a talented center who had been a disappointment after coming from California in 1974, summed it up after scoring both goals in a 2-1 win over Buffalo three weeks ago. "I used to dread coming to the rink some nights." he said. "I just worried about not making mistakes instead of trying to play."
That Jan. 5 victory over Buffalo evidently established White as coach. The next morning when he came to the Stadium he found his office had been painted and his name was on the door. Previously, a couple of strips of adhesive tape covered Reay's name and White's had been scrawled on the door with a Magic Marker.
White would prefer to be playing, and at 37 would probably still be one of the game's best defensive defensemen were it not for a back injury. "I guess the back's shot," he says. "They say I might be able to play next year, but a year layoff at my age would make it really difficult. So I don't know what the future holds. If we win the Stanley Cup, maybe they'd have me back as coach, but right now I'm just filling in. I don't plan to be back."