Today's NHL lesson: inspired Black Hawks are no mirage

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It has been repeatedly reported that there were no winners in the pro football strike. That is not so. The Chicago Black Hawks were big winners. Listen to Murray Bannerman, the steadfast young goaltender for the surprise team of the National Hockey League:

''During the football strike, there wasn't a lot for people to do. Chicago fans came back to us. We got inspired.''

The inspired Hawks, who haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1961, have led their division with the league's best record for much of the season. With 46 of 80 games played, they cannot be considered merely a mirage.

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Cavernous old Chicago Stadium seems empty with 10,000 people in the seats, and in recent years that's been a good crowd for Hawk games. This year the turnouts are larger and louder, and the home team is playing with an intensity more often found in the playoffs than in the middle of December.

The cast of characters is basically the same as a year ago, when Chicago staggered to a fourth-place finish in the Norris Division, which is not known for its top-to-bottom strength.

Now good young players like Bannerman, Al Secord, and Doug Wilson are maturing together and blending explosively with hardened veterans like Tom Lysiak, Tony Esposito, Denis Savard.

Then there is Steve Larmer, who joins Savard and Secord on the Hawks' top forward line. He might be the rookie of the year.

Nowhere is this flavorful mix of age and youth more conspicuous than in goal, where the 25-year-old Bannerman is sharing the chores with Esposito, at 39 the oldest player in the NHL, along with Jack Benny.

Esposito formerly shared the goaltending with nobody, and was thought to be at the end of a long and distinguished career (he has more shutouts by far than any other active goalie).

''I'm getting my second wind,'' he says. ''The defense has come together, the kids are playing with a lot of enthusiasm, and the game is interesting again. I enjoy being a part of a resurgence like this.''

Esposito still flops down too early to satisfy the purists, still scrapes the ice around the net into little piles ''to slow down the puck,'' and still gets himself up as high as the rafters for big games. He recently stopped the Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders 4-2. Said Islander General Manager Bill Torrey, ''He was simply tremendous. He showed us he's still one of the best in the game.''

Says Bannerman, ''The two of us talk a lot and understand each other. I know to leave Tony alone before a game, because he goes into a shell. I'm more fun-loving. But we have no problems at all.''

Secord, the former Boston Bruin who is probably the club's best left wing since Bobby Hull, scored 44 goals last season, and should get as many this season. He parks in front of the net and anchors Chicago's explosive power play. Last year he also amassed more than 300 penalty minutes, and he is lagging well behind that lamentable pace.

Secord believes the seeds of the Black Hawks' revival were planted last year in the playoffs against Minnesota, by defenseman Greg Fox, as Chicago reached the semifinals.

''When he scored an overtime goal to beat Minnesota in the first game, it was the first time we looked around at one another and told ourselves we were good, '' Secord remembers. ''That one game turned us around, and that spirit has carried over to this year.''

Save some credit, though, for new coach Orval Tessier, a stern taskmaster who came up from the minor leagues where his New Brunswick Hawks won the American Hockey League championship.

Tessier has turned Chicago into a disciplined, defense-conscious team that no longer relies more on clutching and grabbing than skating and positional play.

''Tessier has them playing a typical Montreal game, and playing it very well, '' observes Pittsburgh Coach Eddie Johnston. ''They move the puck up and down the wings well, and when they get a three-on-three situation, a defenseman will skate up to give them an advantage.''

Tessier, who looks like everybody's Dutch uncle, balding and chunky, is relatively uninfluenced by the voguish European style, in which players circle and interchange positions with unrehearsed regularity. He enjoyed a brief and undistinguished playing career with Boston and Montreal in the old six-team NHL, but his basic systematic thinkng evolved out of that experience.

''He drills it into our players that we have to take care of our own end of the ice first, and pick up the right man coming back on defense,'' says Bannerman. ''We aren't giving up the soft goal that's caused by a lapse.''

The football strike is over, but the Black Hawks' success may be just beginning.

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