If the Montreal Canadiens fail to win the National Hockey League race that is just getting warmly under way, they will know something of the embarrassment suffered by Thomas E. Dewey on that autumn morning in 1948. Dewey couldn't lose, and neither can the 1958-59 Canadiens. The other coaches in the league have already conceded the title to Hector (Toe) Blake's swift pupils; the opposing teams are just scrapping for a crack at Montreal in the Stanley Cup playoffs. "This is the best hockey team in the world," says Frank Selke, managing director of the Canadiens, "the strongest I have had in 12 years at Montreal."
The Dewey analogy is not used to imply that a miracle will happen—but only to emphasize the lead Montreal has piled up in hockey opinion polls. There was no need to call in Dr. Gallup. Everybody favors Maurice Richard & Co.
Richard, "The Rocket"—the Ruth, the Dempsey, the Tilden of ice hockey—is starting his 17th NHL season at the implausibly old age of 37. This is an age at which most hockey players (retired, of course) do well to keep up with a well-oiled perambulator; but Richard, as Toe Blake says, "is not like the rest of us." French Canadians, who revere The Rocket, say he possesses le feu sacr�. This sacred fire—or whatever you wish to call the unearthly intensity Richard brings to hockey—is kindling again on schedule.
It isn't just the inspiriting presence of the great right wing that makes Montreal so formidable. The other superstars—Beliveau, Geoffrion, Harvey—are sound; The Rocket's kid brother Henri, one of the fastest and most stylish players in the game, returns at center; the league scoring champion, Left Wing Dickie Moore, has taken the cast off his broken hand; Jacques Plante's in goal; and all's right with the Canadiens. They won last season's title by 19 points despite a wave of ailments which, among other things, nearly killed Boom Boom Geoffrion (bowel rupture) and almost ended The Rocket's career (damaged Achilles' tendon). What a healthy team will do is frightening, or exhilarating, to contemplate, depending on your leanings.
This is not to say that the Canadiens will march routinely and dully to the championship. Seventy games make a long season; like the Yankees, the Canadiens will lose a few and will have to struggle to win others. The sport itself is so fast, the action so rugged and the scoring so close that the customers will have plenty to cheer about, even if their own teams cannot hope to win the title.
What's more, the opposition should be noticeably stronger this season. The dogfight among New York, Detroit, Boston, Chicago and Toronto for the three Stanley Cup playoff berths (besides Montreal's) should be a notably close and vigorous one.
Keen attention will be paid to New York's new kid team, so called because the Rangers let some veterans go in order to protect a flock of promising youngsters. Second in the league last season with a curious mixture of stars and clods, New York is gambling heavily upon five rookies. The most promising among them is a hard-nosed, 21-year-old 190-pound left wing from Sudbury, Ont. named Eddie Shack. Shack, sort of a mean Li'l Abner, is always getting his big nose into trouble, to the unspeakable delight of Coach Phil Watson. Called up from the Providence club, for whom he got 16 goals in 35 games last year, Shack opened a 10-stitch cut in an opponent in an exhibition-game brawl and was bailed out of jail after carrying the fight into the stands.
Elsewhere in the league there has been some reshuffling of veterans, and there are other experiments involving rookies. Chicago is making an especially strong bid to become a cup contender. The Black Hawks got out of the cellar last season as Toronto slipped down; new blood, including two rugged defensemen—Dollard St. Laurent, bought from Montreal, and Al Arbour, from Detroit—could move Chicago up a notch.
Third-place Detroit still has Gordie Howe, probably the best all-round forward in hockey, but not enough other bodies to menace the Canadiens. Fourth-place Boston, with the big roughhouse team that gave Montreal some bad moments in the playoff finals, is, by and large, standing pat. Toronto has picked up the Canadiens' aging but presumably still resourceful playmaker, Bert Olmstead, and has visions of a third-or even second-place finish.