Almost unbelievably, as professional hockey's big race approached its end last week, the Toronto Maple Leafs were leading the Montreal Canadiens. What's more, the Leafs gave every indication of getting in first at the finish.
Unlike Beat-'em-Bucs Pittsburgh or Gallic Montreal, which adores the Habs when they win and hates them when they lose, good gray Toronto has maintained a cool aplomb in the face of its team's triumphs. After all, the townspeople could argue, the Leafs' manager planned it that way. They are talking about George (Punch) Imlach, a man who has his city's own unearthly calm in his bones. Imlach runs the Leafs like a combination geriatric ward, rescue mission and finishing school.
"A hockey player isn't a machine," says Punch. "You can't press a button and make him grind along the same way every time. You have to develop him. If you give up on a man, he senses it and it hurts him."
One of Imlach's most useful forwards today is Eddie Shack, the unpredictable individualist traded off by the Rangers as uncoachable early this season.
As it happens, Shack somehow managed to get through his youth in 20th century Canada without learning how to read or write, and much of his intransigence was the result of sensitivity about this lack. When Imlach picked him up Eddie diffidently brought up the matter of his near illiteracy. In his casually profane way, Imlach replied that he didn't hire Shack to be his adjectival secretary, but if Shack wanted to play hockey, he'd be glad to give him a try.
By last week an ever more confident Shack had scored 13 goals for Toronto—four more than in his best full season in New York—and was taking a regular turn on a line with the veteran Bert Olmstead and everybody's rookie of the year, Dave Keon.
Winger Olmstead, a flaming competitor, is one of Imlach's prize old-timers. Another is Goalie Johnnie Bower, who says he's 36 but may be 40 (Imlach doesn't care which). Another is Center Red Kelly, once a superstar on defense for the great postwar Detroit Red Wings. Imlach plucked the aging Kelly from Detroit last season chiefly because he had no one to handle the Canadiens' awesome center Jean Beliveau. As a bonus, Kelly proved to be the key that unlocked the potential of the Leafs' top scorer, Frank Mahovlich (SI, Jan. 30).
The Big M himself, now just 23, is naturally the pick of Imlach's youth group, which is the largest and best in the league. Dave Keon, 20, with 19 goals already in his first big league year, has the makings of a major star, as does Carl Brewer, 22, a truculent, fast-skating defenseman. Center Bob Pulford is a superior hockey man at 24; Larry Hillman, a Boston castoff, a blossoming defenseman of the same age.
It is with this fragile merchandise that Imlach is at his best. "You can never expect a youngster to carry your team," he says. "At first he's fighting just to stay in the league. If you give him too big a load, he can't develop normally."
Punch Imlach, however, doesn't just sit around being patient and understanding during the development process. If it seems to be lagging, he has a tongue that can sting or inspire as the occasion demands. He has, besides this, a rare ability to keep track of all 12 men on a hockey rink at once, a filing cabinet memory and an implacable optimism.