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They're not as tough as they think they are," said Toronto's Punch Imlach. "They're a big team, but whenever they've tried to scare us out of the rink by outroughing us it has backfired. I hope they keep on trying because we'll just keep on beating them."
With this brave whistle in the dark, the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs tried last week to dismiss the threat of his major rivals, the big, bad, bold Chicago Black Hawks. The only reply of the Hawks was to hold grimly to their first-place tie with Toronto in the NHL.
Since the Black Hawks won the Stanley Cup two years ago and barely lost in the finals to Toronto last year, and since they boast such proved stars as Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Goalie Glenn Hall, their first-place status may not seem surprising. In recent years, however, Chicago's end-of-season successes have been achieved only after notoriously slow starts. At this time last year, for instance, the Chicago team was in fifth place with a record of 12 wins, 15 losses and 12 ties. Now it is first with 18-11-9. Since the Black Hawks habitually come on like gangbusters in the second half of the season, it seems possible they could turn what remains of the current league race into a romp. "There is no doubt about it," says Toe Blake, whose Montreal Canadiens have finished first for the past five years and who never admits even the possibility of defeat, " Chicago is one of the teams we must beat." Less habitually victorious teams like fifth-place New York and sixth-place Boston have not managed to win a single game from Chicago all season long.
The remarkable fact about this winning record is that Chicago has achieved it while scoring fewer goals than even the last-place Bruins. Although Goalie Hall is having one of his best years to date, and Stars Hull and Mikita continue to give stellar performances, Chicago's success has been earned not so much by its big names and their big play as by the unassuming rank and file. Only four Black Hawks are listed among the league's top 30 scorers, yet in the kind of statistic dear to baseball fans, young Kenny Wharram, who ranks 31st in the point parade, is shown to be one of the most valuable forwards on the ice. A breakdown of NHL statistics for the first 25 games gives Wharram credit for the most "net goals" in the league—15. This means that during the time Wharram was on the ice Chicago scored 15 more goals than its opponents and thus, in an unspectacular way, won hockey games.
Throughout the season the Black Hawks have supplanted an occasional lack of spectacular offense with a thoroughly spectacular defense and an assault-and-battery checking style that wears down opponents while disorganizing their offensive patterns. "They are the toughest team we play," says Toronto's million-dollar forward, Frank Mahovlich, giving the lie to his boss's words.
This sudden realization of the Black Hawks' long-latent power represents the flowering of five years of patient cultivation by Coach Rudy Pilous, who made the Hawks the smoothly functioning unit of interchangeable parts that they are today. It has both surprised and delighted Black Hawk fans who pack gloomy, decrepit Chicago Stadium night after night and, perversely, boo their new heroes for every slightest lapse.
"We don't mind the booing," grins Glenn Hall. "In fact, we expect it. If we won 69 games and lost one, they'd boo us for that one loss."
This fan reflex was thoroughly conditioned during the long lean years from 1947 to 1958 when the Black Hawks lay inert at the bottom of the league. In 1958, after Chicago had tried 21 coaches in 36 years of play, Owner Jim Norris signed on a new man who had never before coached a professional hockey team. "When they offered me the job," said Rudy Pilous last week, "it seemed as crazy as winning the Irish Sweepstakes. Even at that, I had to think it over for a while, though, because this was the graveyard."
Pilous' love of hockey finally clinched it. In the past, an ardent amateur, he had quit a number of steady jobs in the non-sporting world so that he could stay close to hockey, In 1945 he left a job as a department manager with General Motors in St. Catharines, Ontario, to go to work for the Chicago farm club at Buffalo. "The security of knowing that I had a pension and all that was very good," he recalls, "but my bloody head was so thick with boredom that I jumped at the chance to go to Buffalo." The job immersed him in hockey beyond his fondest dreams. "They had me scouting, promoting, publicizing—even buying equipment," says Pilous. "I learned every phase of the game."
More important, he got to know all the youngsters in the farm system as they moved up from teen-age teams to the big time. Seven of the current Black Hawk stars, in fact, came up from the very St. Catharines farm team Pilous had helped build. Besides Hull and Mikita, they include high-scoring Ab McDonald, whose 12 goals have sent him off to the fastest start of his career, rookie Chico Maki, and the team's outstanding defensive pair, Elmer Vasko and Pierre Pilote. Vasko, at 6 feet 3 and 220 pounds, is not only the biggest player in the NHL but has added a useful knack for blocking flying pucks to his proved talent for bouncing around rival forwards. Pilote, a Hawk midget at only 5 feet 10, is the team captain and has been an NHL all-star for three years. The seventh St. Catharines alumnus is a big, biocky rookie named Wayne Hillman. Pilous has paired Hillman with Al MacNeil, a sturdy little defenseman who was traded by Montreal after sporadic service there last winter. The two have combined to give Chicago still another airtight defensive tandem and are regarded as one of the big surprises of the current season. These four, plus a newly restrained Reg Fleming and an older but stronger Jack Evans, have enabled Chicago to choke off nearly 20% of the goals it had allowed last year at this time. No team in the NHL is stopping more goals than Chicago, which has missed only seven of every 100 pucks shot at it.