Canadians, as a
rule, do not recognize Thanksgiving Day as an official holiday. Last week,
however, an important segment of the Canadian population of Michigan—i.e. the
Detroit Red Wings hockey team—celebrated the day in 100% American style by
making a turkey dinner of the visiting Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens.
Before the biggest crowd ever at Detroit's Olympia Stadium, the Wings beat
Montreal 3 to 1 to take first place in the National Hockey League.
encouragement to his teammates as loudly as any other of the 15,859 zealots
present at the game was an ardent young Canadian redhead in the Detroit net,
28-year-old rookie Goalie Hank Bassen, whose 25 saves contributed substantially
to the victory. One of the sparks that has set Detroit aflame this season,
Bassen was drafted last summer from Vancouver to serve as occasional stand-in
for Goalie Terry Sawchuk, whose decline in the last few seasons has coincided,
by no means coincidentally, with that of the whole Red Wing team. This season
in the Wings' first 21 games, which carried them up to Thanksgiving Day tied
with Montreal and Chicago for first place, rookie Bassen piled up a personal
record of 6-2-2 against Sawchuk's 4-5-2. Tending the net in nine of the last 10
games, he had six victories and a tie to show for it.
"If I go back
tomorrow," said Hank, flashing his gold-rimmed teeth and wrinkling his
scarred brow after the Thanksgiving game, "I'll have no complaints. I've
been up to the big time twice before, and I've had good trials. When they take
you out of the minors no one can make it for you. Take those Montreal guys.
Each of them was a rookie once. Each got his chance and jumped on it. I look at
them, and I tell myself, 'When the time came they made the best of the
opportunity. You can too, Henry Bassen. It's not impossible.' "
This eager young
man epitomizes one of the two principal factors that have helped lift Detroit
out of a three-year slump. Factor 1 is youthful exuberance. Factor 2 of the mix
devised by General Manager Jack Adams is smooth—not tired—experience. Here
Gordie Howe is the exemplar, but Adams also had added such oldtimers as Alex
Delvecchio and Marcel Pronovost. The combination has proved volatile. Seven
times in their first 21 games the Wings have come from behind to win. Once they
spotted the Boston Bruins a 5-2 lead and took them 8-5 in the last period.
nor Howe, together or singly, can take full credit for the lift that has sent
the Wings soaring once again. Since the retirement of the Canadiens' Rocket
Richard, Howe is the reigning king of the NHL ice, but the sad fact is that the
Detroit veteran (who in 15 winters has set more records and scored more points
than the Rocket himself) is not at his best this season. Even at second best,
Gordie Howe is a valuable asset to any team. For a record fifth time last year
the slope-shouldered, 32-year-old Howe was named the league's most valuable
player. He has won the NHL scoring title five times and was chosen for the
All-Star team seven times. When he signed his $25,000 contract for this season
the confident Red Wing management wrote in a clause promising a bonus for every
goal above 50—the Rocket's record. Yet after 21 games Howe had scored only five
times, though he had added 16 assists to approach Thanksgiving with a career
total of 998 regular-season points.
If Howe had shot
two goals or had made two assists against Montreal on Thanksgiving night, he
would have become the first NHL player in history to score 1,000. Adams says:
"The big fellow isn't barreling in and carrying guys on his back like he
used to. He's stopping short too many times to try to make the play."
Teammate Allan Johnson, purchased in June from the Canadiens and one of the
five new faces on the Wing roster, thinks Howe's problem is simple bad luck:
"I've never seen a guy hit the pipes so much. They just won't drop
discouragement that has faced Howe as he tried to push goals into the
opposition net, however, has been amply compensated by the enthusiasm with
which Bassen has fended off the shots of the opposition. This enthusiasm was
typified by young Bassen as he railed at his teammates on the ice during the
Thanksgiving game, urging this one to watch that man, that one to check that
shot. "Hockey's like a crap game," explained one of the players on the
bench. "When you're rolling you've got to yell."
periods, the Wings had a 2-0 lead and Bassen, bouncing up and down, had stopped
12 shots—all of them sizzlers—and had four stitches embroidered over his left
eye for a souvenir. The third period started with noise like a clap of thunder
from the crowd—Montreal's top-scoring Dickie Moore had sneaked through with his
20th goal to ruin the shutout. But another Detroit goal by Alex Delvecchio plus
13 last-period saves by Bassen made the big night a success, and Detroit was at
last alone in first place.
After the game,
as Bassen stripped off his long underwear, stained yellow at the cuffs and neck
by perspiration, Howe dressed hurriedly. He had taken half a dozen shots,
failed to figure in any of the scoring and was still two points away from the
record 1,000. "I feel good, just like always," he said calmly.
"When they go in it's great, when they don't it's no good. But say," he
added, suddenly, as if it was time to talk about important things, "what
about that Bassen? You know a guy like that is refreshing. He's so shy, so
grateful that he's here, but he needn't be thankful to us. That kid's a hell of
a goal tender."