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The trouble with most professional sports is that their sponsors don't know when to stop. And as long as the fans keep crowding up to the box office to see postseason games, they are not likely to learn. The regular National Hockey League season of 70 games per team—a heavy enough schedule in itself—ended nearly a month ago with the emergence of Coach Punch Imlach's Toronto Maple Leafs as the virtually undisputed champion. But because New York's great owner-coach-player Lester Patrick got the notion some 40 years ago of using an old challenge cup presented by Lord Stanley as an excuse for extending the hockey season well into the baseball season, the Leafs had to win their championship all over again.
They did it with consummate ease in what proved one of the least suspenseful cup series in years. The Toronto team, efficient and cautious much of the time, tough and aggressive when they had to be, required only five games to eliminate Montreal's Canadiens, and only five more to dispose of the Detroit Red Wings, who should never have been in the finals anyway.
Despite League President Clarence Campbell's sturdy insistence that "there is more excitement generated during the Stanley Cup playoffs than there is during the rest of the season," the players were as matter-of-fact as a platoon of stockbrokers performing routine chores around the exchange, with the fans watching dutifully but silently like sightseers at an art gallery.
"There wasn't a tough game in the whole series," said Imlach's million-dollar forward, Frank Mahovlich. "I thought it was a specially quiet series during the first four games, with nobody going all-out." Moody and seemingly indifferent, Mahovlich himself played so listlessly that he was booed by Toronto fans in a downtown victory parade.
"I didn't think it was so quiet down where I was," said the Leafs' scarred and ageless goalie, Johnny Bower. "With that Gordie Howe firing bullets at me all night long, I kept wondering if one of them was going to take my head off."
Gordie was working hard. At 35, the former captain and now assistant coach of the Red Wings is the most respected player in the league and, in the opinion of many, its ablest. As Bower's testimony indicates, he was a formidable player throughout the series, on the ice about 80% of the time in the final game. But, hard as he tried, Gordie could not do it alone, and there seemed to be no one else. The Red Wings had come a long way through the season on a kind of youthful exuberance. But in a determination to play it safe for the Stanley Cup, Coach Sid Abel had removed much of the excitement by dropping from the team his fire-and-brimstone defenseman, Howie Young, the top penalty gatherer of all time, after the second game of the series.
"We tried," said a weary Gordie Howe when the last game of the series was over, "but it was like growling against thunder." A personal ovation from the Toronto crowd was the only triumph he could bring home out of the series.
"The Leafs," conceded his teammate Bill Gadsby in the locker room sometime later, "are a good hockey team. But," the veteran defenseman added, "they're also the luckiest bunch in the league. They stole two games from us on ridiculous breaks."
Punch Imlach's rejoinder to this kind of criticism might well be a quiet, "Still, we got the games, and they counted," Two Stanley Cups in two years and a league championship in one of them suggests that Toronto's current supremacy in the NHL is no fluke. "They were the strongest team all through the season," said Boston's Milt Schmidt last week. "I picked them all the way."
Not everyone was willing to give the Leafs that much credit. Some suggested that the emergence of the relatively colorless Toronto team is simply an indication that big league hockey is becoming a feeble facsimile of its former self. They question Imlach's use of a two-goalie system, which they claim is risky at best, and they criticize both of the goalies involved: ancient Johnny Bower, who was a veteran of 13 years in pro hockey before he even signed up with the Leafs, and Don Simmons, who was considered incompetent and dropped to the minors by the lowly Boston Bruins two years ago. The answer to this is Bower and Simmons somehow managed all season to stop shots.