My mother used to tell me, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," but I'm going to stray from that advice this once and talk about the Norris Division. For one thing, I know my mother would approve, because she was a Blackhawk fan back in the Bobby Hull era, before the team became imbedded in the Norris quagmire of mediocrity. For another thing, my motives are pure. I grew up with a grandson of the late James Norris, played grade school hockey and football with him, and once burned my lips with him while engaging in a candle-snuffing-out-in-the-mouth contest—another thing that my mother advised against. He deserves better, my friend's grandfather. The name Norris has been dragged around in the muck and yuchh of divisional doormatdom long enough. Something has to be done.
It has, after all, been 20 years since any of the five teams that make up the Norris Division—Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, Toronto Maple Leafs and Minnesota North Stars—last won the Stanley Cup. And the end of this miserable string is nowhere in sight. At the midway point of the 1986-87 season, no Norris team had won more games than it had lost, and only the Black-hawks (11-10-4) could claim a winning record in games played outside the division. Indeed, the Norris is made up of such a collection of patsies that the downtrodden from other divisions are clamoring to get in. At last winter's NHL Board of Governors meetings, the Pittsburgh Penguins petitioned to move from the powerhouse Patrick Division to the cozy den of Norris. "We could compete better in the Norris than in the Patrick," J. Paul Martha, the team's vice-president and general counsel, said candidly. Eventually, the motion was withdrawn.
"The Norris is like puppy love," Detroit G.M. Jimmy Devellano has said. "Nobody takes it seriously except the puppies." The Puppy Love Division. That's cute. Not so cute is the perception that all too often teams in the Norris appear to be playing in the Dogging It Division. "There really isn't that much difference in talent between the divisions," says Kelly Kisio, who was traded from the Red Wings to the New York Rangers last summer. "But in the Patrick, if you don't finish your check, they're going to score on you. In the Norris, if you don't finish your check, the feeling is, 'Ahhh, I'll get 'em next time.' "
Kisio called it right. There are some extremely talented players in the Norris Division—Chicago's Denis Savard and Doug Wilson; Minnesota's Dino Ciccarelli, Kent Nilsson and Neal Broten; St. Louis's Bernie Federko; Toronto's Rick Vaive; Detroit's John Ogrodnick—none of whom works as hard in a month as Wayne Gretzky does in a night. As a result, nobody takes them very seriously either: Since the basic divisional alignments were made in 1981, the Norris can boast only two first-team All-Stars (Chicago's Wilson in 1981-82 and Detroit's Ogrodnick in 1984-85).
If there is anything heartening about the division at all, it is that this season, for the first time in years, there are no teams that can be labeled just plain inept; i.e., Detroit and Toronto are no longer an automatic two points for any team skating against them. The Norris standings, in fact, are so close that in a 48-hour span at the end of December, the Blackhawks went from last place to first, then back to last. Every team in the division has held the lead at some point in the season. Any day we might find a 5-way tie for first, or last. "The NHL wanted parity," says Minnesota coach Lorne Henning. "And they got it."
They can keep it. True hockey fans yearn to see genuine excellence every once in a while, a team to tuck away in the memory bank and compare with the greats of all time. No one has seen that in the Norris Division since Hull bailed out of Chicago in 1972.
Why has the Norris Division been so bad for so long? Theories abound.
•The Mediocrity Begets Mediocrity Theory. At the top of the division the two teams with the most raw talent—Minnesota and Chicago—have not pulled away. Consequently, there is little incentive for the rank and file to improve. "If we were in a division with Philly or Edmonton, we'd have to pick it up," says North Stars goalie Don Beaupre, who calls for a return to the pre-1981 balanced schedule among all NHL teams. "The pressure of winning every night isn't there in the Norris. It doesn't matter where you end up overall in the NHL standings, and everybody knows it."
Compounding the problem was the fact that while no team was pulling away at the top, there was always one team so mired at the bottom—either the Red Wings or the Maple Leafs—that a playoff berth was an Impossible Dream for it by mid-November. The other four Norris teams merely had to show up for the last 60 games of the regular season to grab a piece of the playoff payoff. The 1985-86 season was a classic example. Thanks to what was an off-year even by Red Wing standards (17-57-6), the Leafs made the playoffs with the third-worst record in the NHL (25-48-7). "Imagine winning about one game a week," says Kisio, "and still being in the playoff race until close to the end of the season. Pretty ridiculous."
•The If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Wayne Maxner Theory. No division chews up and spits out coaches like the Norris. Over the past 10 years, these five teams have made 43 coaching changes, which constitutes more action in the front office than is usually seen on the ice. Just this season there are three new coaches—Jacques Demers, who leapt from St. Louis to Detroit; Jacques Martin, who replaced Demerson St. Louis; and Toronto's John Murphy. Brophy and Demers are already feuding. Rather, they are continuing a feud that began in the old World Hockey Association, when Demers coached the Cincinnati Stingers and Brophy was coaching those merry mayhem-makers, the Birmingham Bulls. When the Maple Leafs shut out the Red Wings earlier this season, Brophy bellowed at Demers, "Big, [bleeping] zero." And punctuated it with a classic rude gesture. This was not closed-captioned, to the delight of the spectators, who have learned to take their excitement any way they can get it.