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The town's toddlin' again
Bob Verdi
March 31, 1980
Chicago Black Hawk fans were turned off when Bobby Hull took off and the team became dull, dull, dull, but with a new coach and new spirit, the old crowds are back
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March 31, 1980

The Town's Toddlin' Again

Chicago Black Hawk fans were turned off when Bobby Hull took off and the team became dull, dull, dull, but with a new coach and new spirit, the old crowds are back

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In retrospect, the non-trade looks golden for Chicago. Ruskowski, once an enfant terrible, has succeeded Keith Magnuson as team captain and spiritual leader and become the Black Hawks' front man in the infighting, while Preston has played both wings with excellence, if not with a whole lot of panache.

Earlier this season Ruskowski, 25, and Preston, 27, joined Mulvey, 23, to form the RPM Line, one of the NHL's most productive. Mulvey, a sinewy right wing who never had scored more than 19 goals in his five NHL seasons, has gotten 37 this season. "Terry and Rich were the best things that ever happened to me," he says. The line was later split up as part of Coach Eddie Johnston's search for scoring balance, but Ruskowski still leads the team in points with 65, Preston has 30 goals and Mulvey is sniffing at 40.

The rest of the Hawks' attack is less imposing, but a vastly unheralded defense, anchored by Goaltender Tony Esposito, makes amends. Esposito, certainly the most durable and probably the top goalie in the NHL, has starred for a decade despite migraine headaches, jangled nerves and broken bones. He has a crack in his left hand right now, but leads the NHL in wins (29).and shutouts (6) and has a fine 2.90 goals-against average.

"Tony's better than good," says Defenseman Bob Murray. "He's unbelievable." Murray is a member of the anonymous backline that has helped the Hawks maintain the NHL's third-best goals-against mark. He, Doug Wilson, Mike O'Connell and rookie Keith Brown are all highly mobile, and Johnston, who was a Boston teammate of Bobby Orr's for seven seasons, has encouraged them to rush the puck, not just pass it.

But Johnston, the nonplaying hero of the team's rebirth, doesn't confine his teachings to the defense. He has coerced the Hawks into becoming more aggressive, more involved. Chicago's lack of offense—the Hawks have scored just 217 goals, 20th in the 21-team NHL—demands that it continue along safety-first lines, but no longer is the team a plotting, plodding, dump-and-pray bunch playing cocoon hockey.

Employing that former style, last year's spineless Black Hawks were a travesty, particularly away from home, where they had an 11-24-5 record. Early this month the new Hawks completed a 3-0-2 road trip, their best since 1971, and Johnston detected a personality trait long absent behind the Indian Head.

"Pride," he said. "We were down 3-0 in Los Angeles in our last game of the trip, but we didn't parachute. We came back and tied the Kings 3-3. That showed me something. We have pride, confidence, a system—and one other thing. We're having fun. You got to have fun. When I came here as a player two years ago, the dressing room was a morgue. When practice was over, players couldn't wait to get out. It was like somebody yelled 'Fire!' But to win, you've got to be together. Now, it's like my old days in Boston. One guy goes for a beer, all 20 guys go."

Make that 21. Whenever the Black Hawks have a team function, Eddie is welcome. Indeed, Johnston, an NHL goalie for 16 seasons, has achieved the ultimate in his rookie coaching year—the players not only respect him, they like him. "Eddie treats us like men because he is a man," says Esposito. "No drudgery. It's not aggravation to come to the rink anymore."

So, camaraderie and communication have replaced tension and apprehension in the Hawks' clubhouse. Ruskowski and Preston each played five seasons in the WHA, but they are constantly jabbed about being in their first year of pro hockey. One Hawk even suggested the WHA refugees are genuine candidates for NHL Rookie of the Year honors. Mike Veisor, Esposito's backup, is chided daily for being a Jewish goalie instead of a Jewish owner. And no longer do the Hawks ask for the "no smiling" section when they board a plane.

Johnston coached the Hawks' New Brunswick affiliate last season and was named to succeed Bob Pulford as Chicago's coach in September, with Pulford concentrating on his GM duties. Pulford admittedly "bit off more than I could chew" three years ago when he signed as both G.M. and coach, after coaching the L.A. Kings for five seasons. A spartan coach, Pulford's idea of a "reward" was putting one case of beer for the whole team on a bus bound for Philadelphia after a game in Madison Square Garden. All 24 cans would be consumed halfway through the Lincoln Tunnel.

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