Two months ago, at the start of the current National Hockey League season, the nation's top hockey writers almost unanimously predicted a close race, with Chicago's Stanley Cup champion Black Hawks leading the pack (SI, Nov. 6). They were half right. Last week, as the season entered its third month, the race was close all right—closer than it had been in years—but the Black Hawks weren't even in it. The three front runners were the New York Rangers, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the indestructible Montreal Canadiens, who were widely held to be all washed up. Only a single point separated any one of these teams from the other two, while the next best team, Chicago's lagging Black Hawks, dragged along a good 10 points behind.
Toronto's position in the front rank should have surprised nobody, for patient Coach Punch Imlach, who left his near-championship 1960-61 team virtually unchanged, had planned it that way. With veteran Goalie Johnny Bower still a stalwart in the Toronto net, with the new superstar Frank Mahovlich and the slick-skating sophomore, Dave Keon, firing pucks with predictable effect, the Leafs were behaving just as Imlach expected. The season's surprises concerned the other two teams.
By any sane prediction, of course, New York had no business being anywhere near the top after its dismal fifth-place finish last year. Yet, under the impetus of their new coach, Doug Harvey, late of Montreal, the Rangers had been skating in and out of first place with all the confidence of a team that belongs there. Andy Bathgate, their new captain, is leading the league in scoring, and the forward line he mans with old-time teammate Dean Prentice and comparative newcomer Earl Ingarfield has suddenly become one of the most effective in the business, while Player-Coach Harvey himself has put new iron in the defense. "I'm used to winning," says Harvey, who got the habit during 13 victorious seasons with the Canadiens.
With Harvey on board, it figured that the Rangers would get better, but with Harvey gone it figured also that Montreal would get worse. It didn't. Bullied and beaten by the Black Hawks in the Stanley Cup semifinals last year, the Canadiens started the season with serious gaps in forward line and defense. Harvey himself—the best defenseman in the league—had been traded off to New York. Jacques Plante, the acrobatic masked goalie, was coming off a horrible season, so bad, in fact, that the five-time Vezina Trophy winner was at one point exiled to the minors. Left Wing Dickie Moore, the team's third-highest scorer, and Center Jean Beliveau, the league's second scorer, had suffered crippling knee injuries in training. But with some old patching tape and several tons of psychology, Coach Toe Blake managed to get his team off to one of its best starts ever. It didn't lose one of its first eight games. "The Canadiens are still the team to beat," said Toronto's Imlach. 'They are always the team to beat." And maybe they always will be.
There is a mystic quality about the Canadiens in hockey as there is about the New York Yankees in baseball, a quality rooted in talent, money, planning, good management and good luck but somehow surmounting them all. " Montreal doesn't like to lose," is the way Frank Selke, the club's managing director, puts it, "and maybe that's why Montreal doesn't lose very often."
Because it is used to winning, Montreal has attracted some of the greatest stars in hockey. "We had Howie Morenz and Aurel Joliat in the '20s," said Frank Selke Jr., the manager's son and club publicity man, last week, "and Sylvio Mantha in the '30s and Blake and Elmer Lach and The Rocket in the '40s and '50s.
"A superstar like The Rocket," he went on, referring to the great Maurice Richard who retired two seasons ago, "comes but once in a team's lifetime. We have no Rocket anymore. But we still have the tradition of winning." There is, for instance, still a Richard on the Canadien roster, and even though he is not the great Maurice, he, too, is responsible for many a Montreal victory. This Richard is Maurice's kid brother Henri, a young man whose diminutive size (5 feet 7, 160 pounds) has earned him the belittling title, Pocket Rocket. He also happens to be one of the best centers in hockey, if not the best.
" Henri Richard is typical of the men on our team. He is like all French Canadians," says Toe Blake, himself the son of a French Canadian mother. "They love to skate. Hockey is a way for them to succeed. They all want to play for the Canadiens. They are comfortable here."
Henri Richard, the seventh of eight children of a Canadian Pacific Railroad worker, never thought of doing anything else but playing hockey. "I always play hockey," he says. "I never worked a day in my life."