For the last 15 years, the 50 goals in a single season scored by Maurice (the Rocket) Richard have loomed as durably in the record books of big league hockey as Ruth's 60 homers have in those of baseball. But during the last few weeks hockey's statistical peak has been approached by a goal-happy youngster named Frank Mahovlich, the 23-year-old, 200-pound left wing of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Last week Mahovlich got more votes than any other player in the midseason balloting for the NHL all-star team. With 37 goals already to his credit after 46 games of a 70-game season, this budding superstar seems certain to break the Rocket's record, though he could scarcely make it on the Rocket's terms, i.e., 50 goals in 50 games. Three times this season he has brought off the hat trick (three goals in a single game) and twice added an extra goal as a feather for the hat. During one seven-game sequence he scored 12 times.
For Frank Mahovlich, a husky Ontario-born Yugoslav-Canadian, this splurge may be the turning point in a career with the Leafs that started at the top four years ago (when he beat out the Black Hawks' Bobby Hull as rookie of the year) and has seemed headed downhill ever since.
Mahovlich came into the National Hockey League straight from school (St. Michael's College, whose hockey team is sponsored by the Maple Leafs) but with an advance billing that even the Rocket might have had trouble justifying. When this much-touted recruit failed to score more than a run-of-the-mill (for superstars) 20 goals in his first season, a great many Toronto fans were not only disappointed but outraged. In the three years since then, he has inspired both fanatical partisanship and fierce denunciation among the Leaf followers. He has been called a superlative technician, a malingerer, a bum, a genius, too timid, too aggressive and just plain lazy. "I never played any game without trying as hard as I could," Frank himself says in somewhat sullen defense. "It's just that some games you seldom see the puck—so what can a guy do?"
On the ice Mahovlich still shows signs of the indolence of which he has been accused, but his sudden success has notably changed his off-ice personality. Once quiet and taciturn in the locker room and on the bench, he has now become a chronic loudmouth, his high-pitched voice seldom silent during a game. He berates the opposition, the officials and his fellow players with equal intensity, and he doesn't hesitate to argue vehemently with his coach, George (Punch) Imlach. His teammate Bert Olmstead, who has been one of the league's most accomplished bench jockeys for the last 11 years, seems relieved that Mahovlich has at last discovered oratorical powers to match his own. Says Olmstead: "You gotta keep talking to stay alert. Also, it helps loosen up a team and keeps them concentrating."
One or two other Toronto players share Olmstead's sanguine view of the new Mahovlich, but some are less tolerant. "Sometimes I'd like to paste some tape across his mouth," said one player, who requested anonymity. "But what the hell can you do with a guy who's having a year like he is?" "If a guy can get me 30 goals in any single year," says Coach Imlach, "I don't care if he's a cannibal."
One of Mahovlich's favorite feuding partners is Goal Tender Johnny Bower, a patient, philosophical veteran who rarely loses his aplomb or sense of humor. After every game, or at least those the Leafs win, Mahovlich and Bower get involved in a mock-earnest shouting match, debating which of them should get top billing in newspaper reports.
"They'll probably say you were the star again," Mahovlich screams at Bower. "You lucky s.o.b.! If it wasn't for me you'd be back on a farm in Saskatchewan. I'm keeping you in the league."
"If you'd only play your position I wouldn't have any trouble," Bower typically retorts. "If you'd check like you're supposed to and not worry about scoring all the time I'd have a dozen shutouts. You're the softest check in the league."
Quite possibly because they are justified, allegations that he is lacking on defense are likely to send Mahovlich off on another tirade—this time against the Leafs' defensemen, who, he will claim, are derelict in their duty most of the time while he gets the blame. But Frank Mahovlich can be humble as well as arrogant. He will regale the locker room with Mahovlich-edited versions of sports page items about Bower in Bower's discomfited presence, but behind the veteran (16 years) goalie's back, he will say earnestly: "We all play a little harder for Bower. He'll never quit on you, and you can't help giving a little extra for an old meathead like that."
Another Toronto teammate to whom Mahovlich defers in genuine respect is Red Kelly, the Leafs' seasoned defenseman who has now moved up to center on Mahovlich's forward line. Kelly's stabilizing influence on and off the ice has had a notably maturing effect on his young friend. "Red has helped me a lot," Frank himself says when asked about his change in both attitude and accomplishment. "That's something an awful lot of people seem to forget. You can't do it all yourself."