Once again the autumnal ice floes have drifted down on urban sports arenas and another hockey season has begun. But this year the ice could be warmed by unaccustomed competition. For the first time in a long while the perennial champions of the National Hockey League are declared by the experts to be officially vincible, and the race to take their place might be full of suspense.
There are at least three teams capable of unseating the Montreal Canadiens this season. The annual poll of sportswriters taken by Hockey News gives Chicago's Black Hawks and Detroit's Red Wings the best chances and goes on to pick the Black Hawks as likeliest champs. Those who fancy the Toronto Maple Leafs, however, are confident that they will end up ahead of both. Few give New York or Boston much of a chance, but each is starting out with a new coach and, presumably, new determination. On the following pages, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED takes a look at all six contenders.
MONTREAL WON'T QUIT
With the best defenseman of modern times—Doug Harvey—missing from their ranks, with high-scoring Forwards Jean Beliveau and Dickie Moore on the sick list for a month or more, with another defenseman, Tom Johnson, benched with a broken ankle, Montreal's Canadiens had every reason to enter the slump predicted for them. Instead, after two weeks of the new season, they were acting more like the old invincible Habs than ever. Their scoring chores were being ably handled by the veteran Boom Boom Geoffrion, the wonderfully swift little center, Henri Richard, and such lesser stickmen as Claude Provost, Ralph Backstrom and Marcel Bonin. The defense, now featuring pugnacious Lou Fontinato, who was brought north from New York specifically to be a backline cop for Montreal's light hitters, was adequate, and masked Goalie Jacques Plante was off to his best start in years.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think of the Canadiens as the same unbeatable team that won four straight NHL titles and five of the last six Stanley Cup playoffs. But it might be an equally bad mistake to discount their challenge simply because the Black Hawks' bully beef gave them a mauling in last spring's Stanley Cup semifinals.
TORONTO STANDS PAT
If there is nothing much new to say about Toronto's Maple Leafs, it's because Manager- Coach Punch Imlach is retaining a team he has spent a long time building—a team that spent most of last year pacing Montreal at the head of the race and ended the regular season in second place. It was a team full of surprises—good ones like 20-goal seasons from not one but two freshmen, and a 48-goal season from young Frank Mahovlich, whom many had written off as too lazy; and bad ones, like the poor showing of such reliable regulars as Dick Duff, Bob Pulford and Carl Brewer. But the good surprises far outweighed the bad, and Imlach may well uncork a few more this year. If Imlach oldsters like Goalie Johnny Bower (who admits to 37), Defenseman Allan Stanley, 35, and the playmaking center Red Kelly, 34, hold on and if Imlach's youngsters hold up, Toronto will be a real threat. Even without counting Stanley, the Leafs' defense corps of Bob Baun, Carl Brewer, Larry Hillman and Tim Horton may be the best in the league. And if the seasoned forwards slump, kid prospects like Larry Keenan and Bruce Draper can always move up. In any case, Punch Imlach will act as if he's going to win every game by 10 points, and that always helps.
CHICAGO LOOKS TOUGH
As famed for muscle as Montreal is for speed, last year's surprise Stanley Cup champion Black Hawks conceivably could win this year. But to do it, Chicago needs scorers, and so far has not shown signs of having many. Goalie Glenn Hall is first-rate and the Black Hawk defense is mean and expert, but last year the forwards shot only 18 more goals than were scored against them. To be sure, they roughhoused Montreal right out of the Stanley Cup, but they finished a poor third in the regular season, 17 points behind the champions, who were stale and tired from the long season by the time the cup playoff's came along.
To fill the scoring hole, Genera! Manager Tommy Ivan has been shopping hard for new goal-getters. From Boston he drafted blow-hot, blow-cold Bronco Horvath, who dipped from 39 goals two seasons ago to 15 last year. He picked up two youngsters from Detroit, Brian Smith and Jerry Melnyk, in trade for his slumping onetime star wing, Ed Litzenberger.
But until the newcomers shake down, Ivan must depend on his one superior line: Bobby Hull, Red Hay and Murray Balfour and a mixed lot of forwards, of whom feisty young Stan Mikita (19 goals last year) has perhaps the most potential.