This season the NHL's 21 teams will clash over two grand prizes: the Stanley Cup and Brian Bellows.
Brian Bellows? Mark down the name. A 17-year-old superphenom who plays right wing, Bellows last year propelled Kitchener from last to first in the Ontario Junior Hockey League, and his admirers believe he can work similar wonders in the NHL. Right now Bellows earns $42 a week and boards in Kitchener with Mr. and Mrs. Ray Pedersen. Next year he might make $250,000 and live in a penthouse. The big question is, where.
The NHL's worst team will get first crack at Bellows. Already, though, the haves have begun acquiring the No. 1 picks of the have-nots. Philadelphia has traded for Hartford's, Boston for Colorado's and Minnesota for Detroit's. So coveted is Bellows that Minnesota G.M. Lou Nanne says, only half-jokingly, "I'd love to make a couple of deals to strengthen Hartford and Colorado." Last week Nanne did his part for Hartford, giving Defenseman Paul Shmyr to the Whalers. So far Winnipeg and Pittsburgh, solid contenders for Bellows, have held on to their top choices. But it's early, folks.
Bellows aside, the most significant news is that the NHL has finally awakened and will emphasize divisional play. In recent years all 21 teams faced each other four times. Now teams will play at least seven games against each divisional rival. Suddenly, Adams, Patrick, Smythe and Norris have meaning.
In addition to stimulating rivalries, the new scheduling format will allow coaches to worry less about airline and hotel arrangements and more about on-ice strategy. One result: Scoring will stop going through the roof. Fifteen years ago teams averaged 5.7 goals a game. Last season it was 7.7. No players will be more aware of the keener divisional competition than big guns like Wayne Gretzky, Guy Lafleur, Wayne Babych and Mike Bossy. They won't be moving about the ice as freely as they did when opposing coaches saw them too infrequently to devise ways to harass them.
As for the Stanley Cup? Don't bet against the New York Islanders. Far more wide open is the Brian Bellows Derby.