GUNS OF JANUARY
Although almost everyone knows that the new U.S. Football League exists, nobody is quite sure yet just how genuine it is. Signing up George Allen as coach of the Chicago Blitz bolstered the league's credibility, but the fact that two USFL teams still didn't have coaches when the league held its first college draft last week kept things a bit on the dreamworld side.
Even so, Allen gave the USFL a mighty push toward being recognized as a functioning, substantial sports enterprise three days after the draft when he signed the Blitz's No. 1 choice, Ohio State Running Back Tim Spencer. Spencer is an outstanding football player, the Big Ten's rushing leader in 1982. He's the kind of solid, if underpublicized, performer who might have been offered a substantial contract by an NFL team. Yet he signed instead with the USFL. Why would he take a chance with a new, untried league?
Well, making it, for one thing. It's not easy breaking into the NFL. But as a prize catch in the USFL Spencer will be given every chance to come through; the competition for jobs won't be as intense, and it seems likely that at least his first year's salary (he signed a four-year contract with the Blitz for a reported $800,000) is guaranteed.
Moreover, if he makes it big and plays out his four-year contract in the spring-and-summer USFL, he'll miss only three NFL seasons and, conceivably, could jump to the old league in 1986. Instead of signing now as a promising but unproved talent, he'd be signing then as an established player who could command much more advantageous terms. Also, because NFL teams will be reluctant to waste any of their 12 draft picks on players already signed by the USFL, Spencer might be a free agent who could sell his talents to the highest bidder.
Certainly, other top college players are aware of all this, and if there's to be a war between the NFL and the USFL, the signing of Spencer may be its Fort Sumter. In short, the new league has served notice that it's serious about going after and getting good players. Sure, putting good teams on the field doesn't guarantee crowds in the stands. For that, a struggling new league needs glamour: 60 years ago the NFL needed a Red Grange, 18 years ago the AFL needed a Joe Namath. The Spencer deal may be the first step toward a showdown a year from now—when an unsigned comet named Herschel Walker appears on the horizon.
THE HOCKEY GAP
The Russians have come. Again. For the ninth time in recent years, NHL players tested themselves against their Soviet counterparts, and for the seventh time, the NHLers failed. To many hockey fans, these meetings, especially when they take the form of midseason exhibition series as did the one concluded last week, have become a kind of pointless self-flagellation on the part of the North Americans. Not since the 1976 Canada Cup has a team of NHL players won a tournament or series against the Soviets; not one of the six midseason competitions has ended with the North Americans on top.
This year's format, pitting a Soviet all-star team against some of the best NHL clubs, appeared designed to favor the Soviets. That the well-oiled Big Red Machine won four of the six games played at Edmonton, Quebec, Montreal, Calgary, Minnesota and Philadelphia, then, was no surprise. The superiority of the Soviets isn't news.
The real lesson of this series was in its exposing the NHL's ballyhooed offensive firepower for the trigger-happy, defense-oblivious style of play that it is. The fact that the visitors outscored the home teams 24-11 demonstrated that NHL scoring, which has increased dramatically over the last five years and reached a 38-year high last season with an average of 8.03 goals per game, is less attributable to the good aim and quick wrists of today's players than to the dearth of defensive play in the league. The Soviets played six of the top seven offensive teams in the NHL, including the top two, Edmonton and Montreal. These teams have averaged 4.42 goals per game in the NHL this season; against the U.S.S.R., they scored only 1.83. All but four of the NHL's 11 goals came on power plays with a one-man advantage.