The possibility of a hockey merger, as early as October, flared anew today when the National Hockey League board of governor voted to send its fact-finding committee back for further discussions with the World Hockey Association.
"The National Hockey League board of governors directed the fact finding, committee to continue its work in considering possible expansion and the various ways that may be accomplished," was the text of a statement read by NHL president Clarence Campbell, who added that he had been instructed not to expand on it.
Harold Ballard, who had assured one and all that he had the votes to destroy, merger took his defeat quietly, saying. "I have nothing to say."
Campbell said the vote was "very close to unanimity," and it was believed that only Toronto and Los Angles objected to further moves toward merger.
Meanwhile, two blocks away, WHA representatives concluded on agreement with their players' association, guaranteeing that all contracts would be honored in the event of merger. That eleiminated one of many obstacles standing in the way of one hockey league.
Asked whether merger was possible during the coming season, Campbell said. "Even miracles happen in this league." It had been felt that merger that soon was beyond even the miracle state, with an all-star game and postseason playoff being the only possible joint activity this year.
The presence on the board of governors of three men instrumental in the successful basketball merger - Abe Pollin of Washington, WIlliam Wirtz of Chicago and Roy Boe of the New York Islanders - apparently served to assuage the hesitation of several fence sitters on the volatile issue.
Ballard several times reportedly made remarks deprecating the basketball triumvirate and suggesting everyone stick to hockey, but in the end he lost his bid to bury the possibility of merger. Had the vote gone the other way, the committee's existence would have been terminated.
The plight of the Clevelands Barons remained critical and undecided. It was to have been discussed this afternoon but, Campell said. "Some of the interested parties disappeared We're got to decide to tomorrow morning, it can't wait any longer."
Othr teams, ostensibly Colorado, St. Louis and Atlanta, are not yet fully committed toward the coming season, Campbell indicated. He sid it was a case of determining "willingness or unwillingness," rather than a matter of solvency.
The amateur draft will be held as scheduled June 14, but Campbell said the finaliation of the scheduled would likely "roll beyond the target date of July 1." A schedule has been prepared with the same 18 teams as last year, but the league's uncertain composition obviously precludes releases of it.
The fact-finding commitee on merger possibility will next report on June 22 in Chicago when John Ziegler apparently will be named the league's new president. Two days of meetings with the NHL Players' Association on changes in the collective bargaining agreement, a necessary prelude to any merger, will follow.
Montreal goaltender Ken Dryden, honored during today's NHL Awards Luncheon commented. "It's a pleasure to be invited to the only function that wasn't put off until June 22."
Dryden meant the remark as a joke, but the day waned, it proved prophetic.
Dryden and teammate Michel (Bunny) Larocque shared the Veizna Trophy as the goaltenders of the team yielding the fewest goals. Montreal's Guy Lafleur earned the Ross Trophy as the leading scorer and also was voted the Hart Trophy, as the most valuable player, by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association.
Other voting awards included the Norris Trophy, as best defenseman, to Montreal's Larry Robinson; the Calder Trophy, as best rookie, to Atlanta's willi Plett, and the Lady Byng Trophy, for combined ability and sportsmanship, to Los Angeles' Marcel Dionne.
Washington center Guy Charron ranked sixth in the Lady Byng balloting with 15 points.
The Capitals terminated their working agreement with the International Hockey League Dayton Gems, which had existed three seasons, when that team changed ownership.