Hockey Central

Pushing the Boundaries

1967-68 to 1978-79

A decade had been rediscovered. Someone opened a hockey time capsule full of 1970s memorabilia, and suddenly an era that until recently had been remembered only as a cultureless wasteland of bad clothes and bad hair is being recalled with nostalgic affection.

What artifacts were buried in that box? Let's take a quick look – ah! An equipment bag from the Kansas City Scouts .... a stained Flyers sweater ....Inge Hammarstrom's passport .... a season ticket order-form from the Miami Screaming Eagles .... a Canadiens Stanley Cup banner .... a pair of white skates and Henry Boucha's headband!

These artifacts come from an era that was curious, tumultuous, in some ways disastrous and sometimes a hugely enteraining time for hockey. It's all there: expansion, the Broad Street Bullies, the arrival of European players, the WHA, the elegance and excellence of Montreal's 1970s Cup dynasty, and yes, strange uniforms, long hair and sideburns.

In a larger sense, the 1970s really includes the first three seasons of the expansion era, starting in 1967-68. For a quarter century the NHL had been an insular six-team loop, during which time Detroit owner Jim Norris also had an interest either in the Chicago, Boston, and New York franchises or their arenas. Stability reigned: from 1949 through 1966, Montreal never missed the playooffs, Detroit missed only twice, and Toronto just three times, while neither Chicago, Boston nor New York ever won a regular-season title in that span and combined to finish higher than third only six times.

By the mid-1960s, the prospect of substantial profits and the threat of a new major hockey league combined to convince the NHL's club owners to take a great leap forward, doubling in size by adding six new teams. A lot of politicking and networking determined which cities would be awarded new franchises; thus were created the St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota North Stars, Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals and Philadelphia Flyers. The league split into two divisions, the established teams in the East and the expansion teams lumped together in the West, ensuring playoff participation and playoff dollars for the expansion sides.

A surprising amount of talent was available in that first expansion; plenty of NHL-worthy players who'd languished in the minors simply because they'd never gotten a real shot in the tiny six-team league, journeymen who blossomed in a bigger role on an expansion team, and an especially rich harvest of youngsters who could now step into the NHL right out of junior hockey. Expansion also extended the careers of many players to unprecedented lengths; with more NHL roster spots than established NHL talent, players just kept on playing through their thirties and sometimes past 40. It was strange to be an adult fan and see guys out on the ice older than your dad, but it provided a sense of history, a lovingly prolonged view of the torch being passed from one era to the next, and it made the expansion era unique.

The "Original Six" era closed and the expansion age opened with appropriate symmetry. Toronto closed the six-team chapter with a Stanley Cup victory in Canada's centennial year, and Montreal won the first Cup in hockey's new age. The Canadiens were rapidly aging in places – Jean Beliveau and Henri Richard were key centermen, and the venerable Gump Worsley split time in goal – and youthful in others, but blended well enough to win the Cup the first two years of the expansion era. Brilliant g.m. Sam Pollock moved veterans in and out with dizzling acumen to keep the team fresh and strong. The younger athletes – Jacques Lemaire, Yvan Cournoyer, Peter Mahovlich, goalie Ken Dryden – moved to the forefront as the Habs took the Cup again in 1971 and 1973. But the best was yet to come, as Montreal would stake out a Cup dynasty and establish themselves as the team of the 1970s.

There was room for only one team to dominate as the Canadiens did. And as the decade played out and each expansion side was improved, the other clubs from the six-team era found the going tougher.

Boston, NHL doormats since the 1940s, turned the franchise's fortunes around with just two moves as expansion dawned: signing junior sensation Bobby Orr, and stealing Phil Esposito from Chicago in a still-infamous six-player trade. Both proceeded to rewrite the record book: Espo with some of the greatest goals-scoring seasons in history, Orr revolutionizing the way defense was played en route to becoming the best defenseman – some would simply say the best – ever to play the game. Together they galvanized the team that earned a reputation as "the Big Bad Bruins," a sneering, black-garded, provoked-at-a-glance hit squad of a hockey team that seemed to run up seven or eight goals every night and beat the tar out of the opposition while they were at it. Boston won the Cup in 1970 and 1972, yet left the feeling there should have been more despite a remarkable string of consecutive postseason participation, including appearances in the 1974, 1977 and 1978 finals.

New York had last won it all in 1940 and since then had been even weaker than Boston. But like the Bruins the Rangers began building when expansion arrived, and by the early 1970s had assembled a swift, clean, skillful side able to contend for the Cup. Those Ranger teams reeked of style and featured the slick forward line of Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield, centers like Walt Tkaczuk and Bobby Rousseau, young defenseman Brad Park (the poor man's Orr) and the great goaltending of Eddie Giacomin and Gilles Villemeaure. This talent base enabled the team to reach the finals in 1972. But the Rangers always lacked some physical element, some critical mass for combustion. They faded in the mid-1970s, were rebuilt with the acquisition of Phil Esposito and WHA superstars Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg, and returned to the finals in 1979. But this edition of the team – the 'Ooh-la-la' Rangers of the Ron Duguay-Don Murdoch-Ron Greschner years – had the bad timing to face the Montreal dynasty, and New York fans would have to wait until 1994.

Although they were snookered in the Esposito deal, Chicago still had superstars like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita leading a team that had been strong through the 1960s. They wound up last among the old guard in the East in 1968-69 despite finishing over .500, but rebounded to win the division in 1969-70, and got a further boost when the NHL added two more expansion teams in 1970 and moved the Black Hawks in with the arrivistes of the West. With Bill White, Pat Stapleton, and Keith Magnuson leading a superb blue line corps and Tony Esposito in the nets, Chicago won the division in a cakewalk for the next three years, and twice went through to the finals. Both times, however, they fell to Montreal, first in a seven-game thriller in 1971, and then in a crazy-quilt comedy-of-errors finals of 1973. Then the prospect of healthy pay raises drove Hull and other key players into the beckoning arms of the World Hockey Association. Mikita and Esposito were still plugging away as the decade drew to a close, but weren't part of a contender in the latter part of the 1970s.

In Toronto, Maple Leaf owner Harold Ballard spent the decade embarrassing English-speaking Canada's favorite team with front-office choas and boorish comments. In spite of him, the Leafs made the transition from the Dave Keon-Norm Ullman-George Armstrong era to the Darryl Sittler-Lanny McDonald-Borje Salming years without too many low spots, and often provided planty of entertainment in the playoffs. The "Pyramid Power" series against Philadlphia and the 1978 seventh-game overtime series against the Islanders were particularly memorable as was Keon's joining the league-wide fashion trend, switching from his traditional crewcut to a pompadour with long side burns. Although "the Buds" reached the semifinals only once in all that time, still harder times lay ahead for the franchise and its loyal fans in the 1980s.

Ironically, none of the Original Six fell further in the age of expansion than did Detroit. Led by veterans Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio, the Red Wings were still a respectable side as expansion dawned. But the club's front office soon made a habit of alienating their best players. Howe retired, then joined the WHA, and young phenom Marcel Dionne escaped to Los Angeles. Mickey Redmond was lost to a career-ending injury. These developments left a journeyman cast, forcing goalie Jim Rutherford to face more rubber than probably any netminder of the 1970s. Detroit qualified for postseason play only twice from 1967 to 1983, and wouldn't contend until the late 1980s.

So for hockey's old guard in expansion's first decade-plus, Montreal thrived spectacularly, Boston found some glory and just missed more, and New York and Chicago fell just short on their brush with greatness. Even Toronto had its little moments and only Detroit withered away. The new teams were frequently more exciting than their established brethren, and often more colorful.

Second Six

The addition of six new franchises – California/Oakland, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis – doubled the league's membership.

St. Louis, the city where the original Ottawa Senators went to die in the 1934-35 season, was the best of the expansion clubs in the late 1960s. General manager Lynn Patrick assembled a team of past-their-prime but extremely savvy veterans, starting with Hall of Famer Glenn Hall in goal. The Blues just missed the first West Division title, took it in 1969 and 1970, and went to the Stanley Cup finals in each of those first three expansion years, where they were on each occasion easily dispatched in four straight games by the NHL's old guard. Castoffs like centerman Red Berenson and Garry Unger became stars in St. Louis, three Plager brothers patrolled their blue line, Ernie Wakely, Eddie Staniowski and Jacques Caron shone briefly in goal, and stylish workers like Frank St. Marseille and Garry Sabourin defined the team's identity. St. Louis remained competitive though the first half of the decade, than decayed in the late 1970s, but the emergence of youngsters like Bernie Federko spelled hope for the 1980s in St. Louis.

Pittsburgh was another expansion city with plenty of hockey in its history. It had been home to an NHL club in an earlier era. The city also had been a charter member of the old International (Pro) Hockey League in 1904, was home to the NHL's Pirates in the 1920s and, with the Hornets, hosted a successful AHL franchise. The newly established NHL Penguins struggled until the mid-1970s. Players seemed to toil there forever, clad in those powder blue sweaters with the industrial-league look. Logging time in the Civic Arena were Ken Schinkel, Bryan Hextall Jr., Jean Pronovost, Syl Apps Jr., Lowell MacDonald, Ron Schock, Nick Harbaruk, Greg Polis, Val Fonteyne and fine goalies such as Les Binkley and Denis Herron who were bombarded with rubber nightly. The Penguin's first successful season, an 89-point effort in 1974-75, was the first of three consecutive campaigns over .500 as Greg Malone and Rick Kehoe improved the club. Still, the Pens finished more than two games over .500 just twice and won only three playoff series in their first dozen seasons. As the 1980s dawned, Mario Lemieux's arrival was still five years in the future.

The North Stars, set down in the high school and college hockey hotbed of Minnesota, were an entertaining side with plenty of color, and busy in the expansion playoff mix early on. The North Stars were loaded with veterans like Dean Prentice, Doug Mohns, Ted Harris, Ted Hampson, Bob Nevin, and Charlie Burns and his turban-shaped helmet, not to mention the venerable Gump Worsley, who along with Cesare Maniago gave the early Stars solid goaltending. J.P. Parise and Bill Goldsworthy were notable forwards, but Minnesota failed to build a contender and the Stars faded badly by the mid-1970s. They won only two playoff series until they absorded the floundering Cleveland Barons in 1978; that influx of talent allowed them to shine briefly in the early 1980s.

Los Angeles had a history in the minors since the 1940s, but really got an expansion nod as a media center with a hugh population. Expatriate Canadian Jack Kent Cooke, the team's eccentric owner, thought he had a built-in fan base for hockey with word that 300,000 ex-Candians lived in metropolitan Los Angeles. "I found out why they moved," he said later. "They hated hockey." Unless you had a real passion for purple-and-gold – or at least Vic Venasky – the Kings had little to offer until the mid-1970s, when little Rogie Vachon from Montreal took over in goal, and Butch Goring and Juha Widing emerged as solid pivots. The Kings then acquired future Hall of Famer Marcel Dionne from Detroit and though the Kings won little in the 1970s, as the 1980s neared, they were an exciting team to watch.

Then there were the Seals, a team that seemed to have been born under an unfortunate star. No matter what they did, it turned sour or, just as often, hilarious. Disdaining the Amateur Draft, the Seals traded away their picks for journeymen. That stategy got them a second-place finish in their second season, but soon proved calamitous. A few worthy old-timers quickly came and went, but for the most part a parade of characters now fondly remembered only as answers to trivia questions filled with the Seals bench, while their traded draft choices became superstars for other teams. The California Seals became the Oakland Seals and then the California Golden Seals when flamboyant baseball owner Charlie O. Finley bought the team and changed their yellow-and-aqua uniforms to green-and-gold with unforgettable white skates. But by any name in any colors, the Seals finished last year after year, and there was nothing anyone from Joey Johnston and Carol Vadnais to Ivan Boldirev and Gilles Meloche to Len Frig and Morris Mott could do about it. The team moved to Cleveland in 1976, became the Barons, and spent two more years in the cellar before finally closing up shop and merging its roster with that of the struggling Minnesota North Stars.

The Philadelphia Flyers, though, were a book unto themselves – the most successful of the first wave of expansion while at the same time the most infamous. A decent side in their first few NHL campaigns, the Flyers opted to get much tougher. The Flyers took up where the Big Bad Bruins of the early 1970s had left off. Because of Philadelphia's success on the ice, some teams adopted elements of the Flyer's aggressive style.

Alongside their tough guys and plumbers, the Flyers had an elegant forward in Rick MacLeish as well as an effective first line in Bill Barber, Bobby Clarke and Reggie Leach. They were backstopped by the affable and spectacular Bernie Parent, the best goaltender of the 1970s. The Flyers were wildly successful, winning four straight division titles and back-to-back Stanley Cups titles in 1974 and 1975.

The NHL added two more new teams in 1970. Former Maple Leafs major-domo Punch Imlach quickly built an exciting, contending side in Buffalo, with acrobatic little Roger Crozier in net and one of the most spectacular young forward lines of the era, the French Connection of Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert, up front. Along with superb checking forwards like Craig Ramsay and Don Luce and fine defensemen like Jim Schoenfield and Bill Hajt, the Sabres reached the finals in just their fifth year of existence. While Buffalo remained among the league's best and most entertaining regular-season teams through the 1970s, the team had little playoff success.

Vancouver, on the other hand, was often as bland as its blue-and green uniforms. Nifty little forwards like Andre Boudriad and Don Lever helped the Canucks win a division title in 1975, but Vancouver missed the playoffs in six of its first eight seasons and did not win a single playoff series in the 1970s. Goalie Dunc Wilson, though, may have set an NHL record for the largest muttonchops.

Crossing the Frozen Pond

Hockey in North America had certainly gotten bigger, but not necessarily better. In Europe and the Soviet Union, however, the game had both legitimacy and a style all its own. The Soviets earned the gold medal in every World Championship and Olympic tournament from 1963 to 1971. That Soviet hegemony stuck in Canada's collective craw, but the common wisdom over here was that the Soviets beat us in the Olympics because they were amateurs in name only, that our professionals would skate them dizzy if they ever met up. Hockey Canada arranged an eight-game Summit Series in 1972 between Canada's top NHL players and the Soviet Nationals to settle the issue, igniting a flag-waving, chest-thumping nationalistic fervor on these shores. Every hockey pundit in North America felt the NHLers would win in a cakewalk.

It began with embarrassing ease, as the NHL stars sprinted out an 2-0 lead in game one in Montreal. Then everything went awry. The cream of the NHL staggered off goggle-eyed at game's end after the Soviets put on a skills exhibition and breezed to a 7-3 victory. Team Canada managed a win and a tie in the four games on Canadian ice, and the whole tournament was made a microcosm of the Cold War: their way of life against ours. In the end, the NHL players hacked their way to three heart-stopping victories in Moscow to close the series as narrow winners.

The Summit Series was a defining moment not only for North American hockey but for the Canadian identity; more than 25 years later this tournament is still constantly revisited, victory and defeat rolled into one, revered and reviewed, dissected and debated game by game and shot by shot. Paul Henderson's winning goal and the celebrations it touched off obscured the real point: the cloistered, self-absorbed North American version of the game had stagnated, and the game outside North America, so different, was now every bit as good.

Top Soviet club teams made the first of several midseason tours in 1975-76. Central Red Army and Montreal played to a memorable 3-3 tie on New Year's Eve, 1975. Four European national teams joined Canadian and American NHL stars in an inaugural Canada Cup tournament in September of 1976 with Canada defeating Czechoslovakia in the final.

EuropSoviet hockey was a revelation with its swirling, cycling, criss-crossing patterns of attack and emphasis on skating and passing, the very antithesis of the straight up-and-down-the-lanes North American style in which hitting, shooting and jamming the net were supreme. The Soviets couldn't leave their country to play in North America, but word circulated that there were many good players in Sweden, and the Leafs lured Inge Hammerstorm and Borge Salming to the Maple Leafs. Hammerstorm was adequate as an NHLer, but Salming proved to be a gem who was smooth, skillful, smart and tough as any NHL defenseman.

The rival World Hockey Association began play in 1972-73, and from its inception, welcomed players from Europe. The WHA, organized by American Basketball Association entrepreneurs Gary Davidson and Dennis Murphy, set up shop with teams in a dozen towns. Six were cities bypassed by the NHL – Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec, Ottawa, Cleveland and Houston – and six went head-to-head with NHL teams in the bigger media centers or more hockey-crazed regions – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Minnesota and New England. Some of the NHL's biggest stars jumped to WHA teams. Bobby Hull gave the new league credibility as did Frank Mahovlich, Paul Henderson, J.C. Trembley, Dave Keon, Jacques Plante, Gordie Howe and others. While the WHA's on-ice product was not, at first, NHL quality, it soon wasn't far off, complete with its own garish uniforms and, on occasion, white skates.

Along with a horde of minor-leaguers, numerous NHLers flocked to the redel circuit, lifting its quality, lowering the NHL's, and hiking the average player salary in both leagues. Some second-line NHLers like Andre Lacroix, Marc Tardif became superstars in the new league, but established NHL stars who jumped did not outshine them. Parity was further indicated by young WHA talents who later joined the NHL and remained stars there including Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Mike Messier, Mike Gartner, Mark Howe and Wayne Gretzky.

The Winnipeg Jets won WHA championships with an electrifying, largely European roster and NHL scouts began to scour Scandinavia and Czechoslovakia for talent. By the second half of the 1970s, North American teams eagerly, if at first ineptly, began to copy EuroSoviet offensive style. North American defense, on the other hand, diluted by expansion and the clutch-and-grab tactics in vogue in the early part of the decade, took longer to adapt.

The WHA operated on a financial tightrope for seven seasons before it went out of business in 1979. The only four teams that remained in constant operation through all seven WHA seasons – Edmonton, Quebec, Winnipeg, and New England (Hartford) – joined the NHL, albeit stripped of all but four players each.

The NHL's major reaction to the WHA was a desperate scramble to mint more NHL franchises. In a preemptive strike to head off the redel loop's planting teams in cities in which neither league yet had a foothold, the NHL put the Flames in Atlanta and the Islanders in New York's Long Island suburds in 1972, and then begat the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts in 1974.

With as many as 32 teams in the NHL and WHA combined and slim pickings available in expansion drafts, these new clubs weren't competitive. In addition, poor crowds forced several NHL franchises to relocate; Oakland moved to Cleveland, Kansas City decamped for Colorado, and Minnisota stayed afloat only because Cleveland failed. The novelty would soon wear off in Atlanta, as well, and Colorado would relocate to New Jersey.

One team rose above the thuggery that threatened to drag the game down in the 1970s. The Montreal Canadiens returned as conquering heroes in 1976, paragons of the best hockey had to offer. Many of the players who were part of great Montreal teams in the early 1970s were still in place, but in addition to this talent base, Guy Lafleur had blossomed into the game's most electrifying scorer, Steve Shutt proved a capable sniper on the opposing wing, checking forward Bob Gainey turned into a force of nature at playoff time, and Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, and Guy Lapointe – the Big Three on defense – were numbered among the best rearguards in the game.

In 1975-76, Montreal breezed through the regular season and early playoff rounds to face the defending Cup champion Flyers in the finals. In this showdown of hockey philosophies, the Canadiens swept Philadelphia aside in four straight games.

Montreal rarely took a night off for the rest of the decade. In the 1976-77 season, the Canadiens won a record 60 games and repeated in the finals with a four-game sweep of Boston. Another regular-season cakewalk followed in 1977-78, capped with another Cup victory over the Bruins. And the Canadiens topped their 115-point regular season in 1978-79 with a fourth consecutive Cup win, dashing the Rangers four games to one. The decade of the Seals and Scouts, of Peter Puck, of Fighting Saints and Golden Blades, of Hound Dog, the Hammer and the Moose, of Hockey Sock Rock, of white skates and giant sideburns ended with hockey artistry ascendant. The Islanders and Oilers – dynasties that followed the Canadiens – both used aspects of the Canadiens' system as models for their own.