Three weeks ago Wayne Gretzky, the Edmonton Oilers' 18-year-old center, walked into Chicago Stadium and mumbled to himself, "Hoo boy, I can't believe this is happening!" On another night, given the location of the Black Hawks' arena, Gretzky might have been referring to, say, the vandalizing of the Oilers' bus. But this night he was talking about Edmonton's first game as a member of the National Hockey League.
Gretzky was not the only one who couldn't believe it. WHA fans had been waiting for the rival leagues to merge for seven years, and owners in every corner of the continent had been bankrupting themselves while hoping for this day. On the other hand, the players had prayed the merger would never happen so that the salary wars could last forever.
Ah, but all things must pass, and with the end of the WHA era, one question still remained: Could the league's four survivors ( Winnipeg, Edmonton, Hartford and Quebec) be competitive with the established teams after meeting the merger provisions? Each incoming team was allowed to protect two skaters and two goalies from its WHA roster, with the rights to most of the remaining players reverting to the NHL clubs that had owned or drafted them.
Judging from the results of the first three weeks of the NHL season, the answer seems to be a definite maybe. On Sunday night in Quebec the Nordiques struck a mighty blow for the late WHA when they stunned the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens 5-4. So far the old WHA clubs have an 8-18-8 record against NHL clubs and an 8-17-10 record overall. On the whole, the WHA teams seem to be well ahead of such expansion gems as the 1974-75 Washington Caps, who went 8-67-5 that season. Indeed, the Caps now are at the point where the WHA clubs appear to be.
Edmonton lost that first game in Chicago 4-2, but Black Hawk Goalie Tony Esposito was the only significant difference between the teams. Mark Messier, Edmonton's other 18-year-old, was so thrilled that he said, "I sat in my hotel room afterward, and all I could think about was 'Hey, we're in the NHL!' "
Edmonton then played its next five games without a loss (albeit with only one win, that a 6-3 decision over fellow WHAer Quebec), tying NHL regulars Detroit, Vancouver, Minnesota and the New York Islanders. And these were not dump-it-in-and-pray-time-runs-out ties, the kind that make kissing your sister seem like heaven on earth. These were good, wide-open games. The Oilers tied both Vancouver and Detroit by scoring in the last minute, and against Minnesota they came from three goals down.
Gretzky made the step to the NHL as easily as he has made every other step during his brief but well-chronicled hockey career, scoring seven points in his first five games against established clubs. And linemate Blair MacDonald scored eight goals in his first five games. But it was MacDonald's defensive play that made Minnesota Coach Glen Sonmor somewhat effusively call him "the best checker in the NHL," forgetting that one Bob Gainey still plays for Montreal.
The Oilers did some gushing of their own. Goalie Dave Dryden, the Most Valuable Player in the WHA last season, said, "We won't be an expansion team like other expansion teams of the past. The fans should expect this team in the playoffs." Defenseman Pat Price, late of the Islanders, expects a lot more than that. Calling his club "a carbon copy of the Islanders when they were young," Price flatly predicts, "We are going to win our division." Even given the fact that the division in question is the hapless Smythe—the leaching field of professional hockey—such optimism seems excessive, but enthusiasm can take a club a long way. Says Coach Glen Sather, "Most of these guys have been playing first-rate pro hockey for a few years. They want to show the NHL they're good hockey players."
One believer is new Colorado Coach Don Cherry. In their first two meetings with the new teams, the Rockies were whipped by Winnipeg 4-2 and Quebec 5-2. "The four WHA teams have had a lot better start in the NHL than teams like Kansas City and Washington did," says Cherry. "As far as I'm concerned, they all got to keep four super players. They're going to surprise some people. I should know, they surprised us twice."
After beating the Canadiens, Quebec had a 3-2 record against established clubs, including a 3-0 shutout win at Chicago. With Robbie Ftorek, Marc Tardif, Real Cloutier and Serge Bernier, the Nordiques have an impressive nucleus. Cloutier, who scored 75 goals last year and had 283 in five WHA seasons, was given a backhanded compliment, Canadien-style, when Montreal Coach Bernie Geoffrion assigned Gainey, who really is the best checker in the league, to cover him. Cloutier was shut out by Gainey in the Canadiens' 3-1 win at the Forum, but he had a goal in the Nordiques' win at La Colis�e.