Elsewhere, Cloutier showed the established NHL clubs that his WHA goal totals ( Cloutier scored 60 when he was 19 years old) were not merely inflated by dilution—of talent, that is. He had a hat trick against Atlanta in his first NHL game and scored six goals in his first six games. "But I would have had 10 or 12 in the WHA," Cloutier said, dissatisfied. "The NHL goaltenders are a lot better, and it's going to take me a certain time before I know them all."
The Winnipeg Jets were hit hardest by the terms of the merger: only nine of the players on their '79 WHA championship team have returned. Still, General Manager John Ferguson, the man mainly responsible for the successful reconstruction of the New York Rangers, has patched together a team that is 3-5 against the established clubs. On Friday in Winnipeg, the Jets beat Boston 3-2 in a game that featured a bench-clearing brawl in the first minute of play.
One has to wonder how good Ferguson's Jets might be had they been allowed to enter the league intact. Chicago's two best forwards, Terry Ruskowski and Rich Preston, both played for the Jets in 1978-79. So did Kent Nilsson of Atlanta (39 goals), Kim Clackson of Pittsburgh, and Glenn Hicks and Barry Long of Detroit. Thus depleted, the Jets could score only 16 goals in their first nine games. So Ferguson last week lured 40-year-old Bobby Hull out of retirement. Hull will help Winnipeg's offense, but he'll miss old Jet line mates Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson—both of whom Ferguson enticed to New York when he was the Rangers' general manager—something fierce.
Even the Hartford Whalers, whose first two-goal scorer was the Methuselah of hockey, 51-year-old Gordie Howe, have showed strength at times. They tied Pittsburgh, Chicago and the Rangers, all on the road, and the Islanders needed two goals in the third period to beat them 2-1 Friday night. The Whalers' biggest problem has been an inoffensive offense; they scored only 20 goals in their first nine games. Mark Howe, 22, was moved from wing to defense in training camp, but now is back at wing. The younger Howe is Hartford's one truly exceptional under-50 player, but he has not achieved the consistency that graced—and graces—his father's career.
Old Gordie, meanwhile, just plants himself outside the crease and gets more than his share of chances, especially during the power play. Pittsburgh Coach Johnny Wilson, a teammate of Howe's in Detroit, watched Howe tally his 787th NHL goal—his first since 1971—and said, "He just skates around and makes things happen. He doesn't waste any motion. He lets his wingers be his legs, and he's the brains."
To many WHA diehards, the sad thing about the merger agreement was the NHL's insistence that the WHA clubs return many quality players to the teams that owned their NHL rights. "It bugs me that we came into the NHL without all of our defense and half the team we built the last couple of years in the WHA," says Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington. The Oilers' losses on defense include Paul Shmyr, now captain of Minnesota, Dave (Barn-Bam) Langevin of the Islanders, Joe Micheletti of St. Louis and John Hughes of Vancouver. "It might take us quite a while just to get the team back together where we were. But the important thing is we kept the kids. We've got Gretzky for the next 21 years!"
Happily, the NHL fans do, too, although empty seats have been the rule in most NHL cities when the old WHA clubs have come to town. For their part, the Gretzkys and Cloutiers relish being in the NHL.
"This may sound dumb," says Gretzky, "but every time you score a goal, it's more exciting in this league."