FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE 1972, there is only one major league in hockey. Unfortunately, when the National League opens its 62nd season Tuesday, it will be continuing a history of no overtime to settle tie games, no network television contract in the United States and a competitive imbalance that has seen the Montreal Canadiens capture the last four Stanley Cups.
The folding of the World Hockey Association and the admission of four WHA survivors -- Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec and Hartford -- to the NHL will end the ludicrous bidding for talent that escalated the average player salary to $101,000 a year ago.
Had the WHA teams been permitted to bring their rosters into the NHL intact, they would have compared favorable to the NHL'S middle echelon. Instead, they were subjected to a player draft as part of the merger agreement and figure to be noncontending victims for years to come.
Perhaps they deserve no better. When the NHL rules committee held a crucial vote on a proposal for overtime play in regular-season games, proponents Edmonton and Quebec were not represented. Their absences resulted in a narrow defeat for progress and another year of living by the time.
Last season, 112 of 680 regular season games were deadlocked, about one in six.
The NHL could not even persuade a network to carry its ballyhooed Challenge Cup series with the Soviets in February, a competition devised almost wholly with TV in mind. So now it must direct its energies toward maximum exploitation of cable TV possibilities. NHL officials note one sign of "progress" this season, the mandatory wearing of helmets by all rookies and all veterans unless they sign a waiver.
Overall competition is lacking, as usual, but at least this year there seems a reasonable chance that the Canadiens will loosen their hold on the coveted Stanley Cup. It is this writer's forecast that when the champagne is poured in June, the Buffalo Sabres will be drinking it.
Montreal laid the foundation for its demise by refusing to elevate Coach Scotty Bowman to general manager. So Bowman took one of hockey's few genuine brains to Buffalo, where superior talent has rotted for years due to lack of motivation. He hired another thinker, Roger Neilson, as associate coach and added a 100 percent hustle guy, Jim Roberts, as an assistant. That is a volatile mixture.
Bowman's first act was to use all seven of his draft choices to select underage players, building a foundation for the future. He predicted that all seven would have gone in the top 30 next year and illustrated admirable why the top teams have benefited from the inclusion of 19-year-olds in the draft. Presumable, instead of going to Buffalo next year, the better youngsters would have helped the have-nots better themselves.
One of the NHL have-nots which is determined to join the elite and apparently is not reluctant to spend to do so is right here in Washington. The Capitals have added five genuine talents since last season, more than any other club in the league, in goalie Wayne Stephenson, defenseman Paul Mackinnon and forwards Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, Mike Gartner and Antero Lehtonen.
With defenseman Pierre Bouchard booked for a longer run than one game and second-round draftee Errol Rausse likely to make the jump from junior to the NHL at left wing, the Capitals figure to be the most improved club in the league.
The only cloud on the Capitals' immediate horizon is a schedule that calls for them to play nine of their first 13 games on the road. However, by season's end they will have played everybody twice at Captial Centre and twice away, so if they are not demoralized by some early setbacks, it should even out eventually, Washington should be even, too -- the prediction here is a .500 record.
Sixteen of the league's 21 teams will qualify for the playoffs. The teams are still grouped by divisions, but only the first-place finishers are assured of playoff berths. The other playoff slots will be filled on a best-record basis.
Accordingly, rather than separating the following appraisal by divisions, we have used three groupings: contenders for the Stanley Cup, other playoff teams and those with no hope.
BUFFALO -- The Sabres were the last team to win a playoff series from Montreal, capturing a 1975 semifinal in six games. Since then, they have been victimized by individualism while other clubs have prospered through team play.
Bowman has promised that such worthies as Gil Perreault and Richard Martin will learn to play two-way hocket or utilize one-way tickets elsewhere. He should get compliance, since even Perreault and Martin mush be weary of bearing a "choke" label home to Montreal each summer. And the shipment of their linemate, two-time 40-goal producer Rene Robert to Denver Friday showed Bowman is not fooling.
MONTREAL -- The Canadiens have lost goalie Ken Dryden to law practice and center Jacques Lemaire to playing and coaching in Switzerland. Added to the departure of Bowman, it should be enough to make them No. 2
Montreal came within one ridiculous extra-man penalty of losing to Boston in the semifinals last season, so it cannot be considered invulnerable. Still, with Guy Lafleur, that great defense and the pickpocketing of goalie Denis Herron from Pittsburgh, the Canadiens will be in the race to the wire. Whether Coach Bernie Geoffrion will last that long is questionable.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS -- The regular-season champions and playoff flops of last season have added WHA defenseman Dave Langevin, WHA goalie Richard Brodeur and Swedish center Andres Kallur, giving them the biggest on-ice improvement of any contender.
Mike Bossy has been satisfied with megabucks and he, Bryan Trottier Denis Potvin and company figure to be a much wiser group at Stanley Cup time.
PHILADELPHIA -- Humiliated by the New York Rangers in the playoffs, the Flyers are a difficult team to figure. They have outstanding depth among the forwards, yet they seem to have difficulty presenting set lines anywhere outside Portland, Maine, where their No. 1 farm club is an annual power.
Goaltending is questionable, with Phil Myre and assorted candidates replacing Bernie Parent and Stephenson. The defense has three solid anchors in Jim Watson, Bob Dailey and Behm Wilson.
NEW YORK RANGERS -- The Surprise team of the recent playoffs will not creep up on anybody this time. With Naders Hedberg and ULF Nilsson more accustomed to NHL battling, the Rangers figure to be even better this year. But the effects of surgery on goalie John Davidson and winger Don Murdoch could alter the Rangers prospects.
OTHER PLAYOFF TEAMS
BOSTON -- The Bruins came close enough to semll the champagne, but it turned sour and they will need at least a couple of years to regroup.
Defenseman Brad Park's recent knee operation casts further doubt on an aging defense. The Bruins drafted two good young defensive prospects in Raymond Bourque and Brad McCrimmon, but they will need seasoning.
Whether Fred Creighton can motivate those extra-effort forwards the way Don Cherry did is doubtful.
LOS ANGELES -- The Kings had three selctions in the first two rounds of the recent draft and for the first time in their history could see a player, defenseman Jay Wells, jump right from junior hockey to the parent club.
With all those good forwards -- Marcel Dionne, Butch Goring, Dave Taylor, Murray Wilson, etc. -- the Kings are destined for a plus-.500 finish despite a castoff defense that now includes much-traveled Barry Gibbs.
TORONTO -- Punch Imlach and Floyd Smith, who couldn't win with all that talent in Buffalo, have moved their act a few miles northeast. They don't figure to do much there, either, unless they can convince owner Harold Ballard that hockey as played by Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull, Darryl Sittler and Lally McDonald provides greater possibilities than the roughhouse antics of Tiger Williams, Dan Maloney and Dave Hutchinson.
ATLANTA -- Another former member of the Montreal brain trust, personnel director Al Macneil, will stand behind the bench of the Flames, who seem to be snuffed out by playoff time each year. MacNeil's last coaching venture produced a Stanley Cup for the Canadiens in 1971 and he should have Atlanta moving up the ladder, if the funds hold out.
CHICAGO -- The Black Hawks have a new coach in Eddie Johnston. What they need is a new philosophy. Bob Pulford is still the general manager and his aim at game's start is still a scoreless tie.
WASHINGTON -- This is a heady spot for a team that has neither been picked for a playoff berth nor achieved one in its five-year history. But all that new talent, plus the fight for jobs it has created, brightens the outlook at least.
MINNESOTA -- The North Stars were a big disappointment last year, when even the amalgamation with Cleveland could not lift them into the playoffs. They are on the upswing, though, and probably enjoyed the best draft of any team by selecting WHA defenseman Craig Hartsburg, underage winger Tom Mccarthy and University of Minnesota standout Neal Broten, a U.S. Olympian.
DETROIT -- Interest and ticket sales are still high, despite a disastrous season. The acquisition of Pete Mahovlich and the comeback attempts of brother Frank and Mickey Redmond have cynics wondering when General Manager Ted Lindsay will suit up.
PITTSBURGH -- Fans are still unable to fathom the Herron trade, with erratic goalie Bob Holland bearing most of their wrath. Right wing Pat Hughes, the other principal, should be a good one. The Penguins have three solid forward lines, but the defense and goaltending are undistinguished.
VANCOUVER -- First-round draftee Rick Vaive and Bill Derlago, last year's No. 1 who played only eight games because of injury, should add some needed spark up front. The best the Canucks can hope for is the championship of Western Canada.
QUEBEC -- The Nordiques, who lost only three players to NHL teams, are the best of what is left of the WHA. They have some excellent forwards in 75-goal Buddy Cloutier, Marc Tardif, Robbie Ftorek and Michel Goulet, and decent defensemen in Gary Lariviere, Dave Farrish and Gerry Hart. The goaltender is not unfamiliar -- Ron Low.
COLORADO -- Under Coach Don Cherry's picture in the Rockies' training camp guide is a headline "Rebirth" and the statement that Cherry gives the team "instant respect and credibility." At $130,000 a year for four seasons, he had better give them something, but defenseman Rob Ramage is about the only on-ice improvement on a team that was 15-53-12 a year ago.
ST. LOUIS -- Perry Turnbull and Tom Williams will strengthen a forward group that features the 99-goal line of Bernie Federko, Wayne Babych and Brian Sutter. Gary Unger is still on the farm, however, and the Blues' dreadful defense should make goalic Ed Staniowski yearn for some other occupation, too.
EDMONTON -- The Oilers, first place finishers in the WHA, lost 10 players to the NHL and outsmarted themselves by choosing Gustafsson as one of their two protected players, instead of Langevin. They still have Wayne Gretzky and B. J. MacDonald, not nearly enough.
WINNIPEG -- The Jets gave up seven players to the NHL from their WHA championship club. Defenseman Lars Erik Sjoberg is healthy again and Scott Campbell is capable on the back line also, but it will be a long season for former Cap Coach Tom McIvie.
HARTFORD -- This is the only major-league team forced to play all its games in another state. While the Hartford Civic Center gets a new roof, the club is based in Springfield, Mass., with an arena seating only 7,625. That guarantees financial losses and a team that has 51-year old Gordie Howe among its top six players will lose in the standings, too.