A spot quiz: What do Billy Dea and Wayne Maxner (Detroit), Floyd Smith (Toronto) and Murray .Oliver (Minnesota) have in common? Answer: Since 1979, each has coached a Norris team for less than one season.
On the surface it appears that Chicago stands out as a bastion of stability in the division. After all, Bob Pulford is the coach this year just as he was 10 years ago. Oh, how looks can deceive. Over that span, Pulford—who is also the G.M.—has held the coaching job three different times; in between his stints, three head coaches and a co-coach have taken hold of the Blackhawks' reins. The best of the lot, Orval Tessier, accurately recommended a "heart transplant" for the entire team after a playoff loss. Pulford's style is different. This season, despite Chicago's staggering start (they did not win two games in a row until January), Pulford has been so laconic he has been dubbed "Mute" Rockne.
•The Let 'Em Eat Cake Theory. Four of the five Norris teams are located in hockey hotbeds—Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit and Toronto. Maple Leaf Gardens, for example, was claimed to be sold out for every game since 1946 before the string was finally broken in 1985. In Detroit, where the Red Wings have had 13 losing seasons in a row, attendance remains among the highest in the league. Same with Chicago. Why bother paying good money to sign top-notch talent when every seat is already filled?
Only the St. Louis Blues, and to a lesser extent, the Minnesota North Stars, whose fans are fairly discriminating about their hockey, need to win to fill the building. But St. Louis is so chronically strapped for money—the team has changed hands three times since the summer of '83—that it trades its talent every time it needs to balance the books. Money was the motivating factor in both the Mike Liut (to Hartford) and Joey Mullen (to Calgary) trades of recent years, and Demers, who is proving his magic again in Detroit, might still be coaching St. Louis if departed owner Harry Ornest had delivered a contract for Demers to sign after verbally negotiating a three-year deal.
To be fair, new Blues owner Michael Shanahan shows signs of easing the purse strings. And for the past few years, the same has been true in Detroit, where owner Mike Ilitch has dug deep to land free agents and acquire Demers, whom he signed to a five-year, million-dollar deal. But the Wirtz family in Chicago, the clan that let Hull jump to the WHA, is still doing things in 1987 like they were in 1957. And Harold Ballard, Toronto's 83-year-old owner, is such a dinosaur that when it was rumored that he was in failing health this past October, stock in the Maple Leafs and Maple Leaf Gardens soared from $140 to $169 a share. To the speculators' chagrin, Ballard proved resilient and late this fall could be found petting a tiger at center ice of Maple Leaf Gardens, promoting the Grey Cup game that his Hamilton Tiger-Cats later won. Hey, does Gorge Steinbrenner promote Tampa Bay Downs at Yankee Stadium?
•The Why Not Fire The G.M. Theory. The general managers in this division include some of the true dunderheads of sport. One of them, Toronto's Gerry McNamara, even went to court to prove that a 1980 car accident had left him brain-damaged. He accepted an out-of-court settlement for more than $100,000.
Check it out. Detroit's Devellano has made several questionable deals since taking over in 1982, trading away good young talent for the likes of Darryl Sittler and Ron Duguay. True, Devellano has kept his promises to keep all his draft choices and to sign available free agents—except that his top pick from last season, Joe Murphy, is playing for Adirondack in the AHL, and his bonus-baby free agent, Ray Staszak, was headed in the same direction just before being injured. Furthermore, his No. 1 pick in the supplementary draft of college players, Ian Kidd of North Dakota, was ineligible. Adios, No. 1 pick.
In Chicago, Pulford has been reluctant to do any player-swapping since he was burned three years ago by Philadelphia, who bequeathed the Hawks slow-reacting defenseman Behn Wilson in exchange for heady Doug Crossman and a second-round pick. The Hawks need a shaking up, but Pulford's not the man to do it.
The opposite is true up in Minnesota, where Lou Nanne, the Monty Hall of the NHL, seemed to be on the threshold of building an NHL powerhouse before trading himself out of contention in the space of three years. Nanne can't seem to get it into his head that a hockey puck occasionally slips into a corner. He has loaded the North Stars with nifty shifties like Ciccarelli, Nilsson, Broten, Denis Maruk, Brian Bellows, Brian Lawton and Ron Wilson, but the last time one of those slick-skaters dug something out of a corner, it was probably a lint ball.
Then there is McNamara, who was so giddy with success when the Maple Leafs started out 7-2-3 this season that he struck out venomously at the Toronto press during a between-periods interview. "A lot of people are eating crow these days," he gloated. "One in particular has a claw stuck in his throat. I don't think anyone can be as nasty as I can."