Among the bright red equipment bags outside the Red Wings' dressing room after a hockey game in Toronto last week stood a big, black shipping crate awaiting transportation to Detroit. "What's in that?" asked Red Wing Coach Sid Abel, idly curious. "The Stanley Cup," replied one of the porters. "Holy cow," said Abel, backing off as if he had come face to face with a king cobra. "Get it out of here. We haven't won it yet."
If superstitious Sid was as nervous as a mongoose in the presence of the cup that symbolizes National Hockey League supremacy, it was probably because neither he nor his team had any reasonable right to be so close to it in the first place. "I hope it's Detroit we meet," said Chicago's top-scoring tough guy Bobby Hull before the playoffs began. And he got his wish, only to wish he hadn't. With a collection of very old players, a rambunctious gang of very young ones and the incomparable Gordie Howe—who is always at his best in Stanley Cup play—the Wings simply skated their fool heads off in the preliminary round of the playoffs, disposed of smug Chicago in seven games and came close to doing the very same thing to Toronto in the finals. In the last game they failed to become the second fourth-place team in history to win the cup, but the failure was a glorious one for the defeated Wings and a genuine triumph for the Maple Leafs.
Up to the time they met the Red Wings, the biggest problem faced by Toronto in defending the championship it had won two years in a row seemed to be the Montreal Canadiens—a team that beat the Leafs with clocklike precision during the regular season. But the Leafs that finished third in the standings and the Leafs that came snarling into the playoffs were two different teams. There is a strong suspicion around the league that Toronto spent the regular season just warming up for the Stanley Cup.
Coach Punch Imlach moaned and fumed publicly during the season when the Maple Leafs suffered such indignities as an 11-0 loss to the last-place Boston Bruins, but privately Imlach seemed unruffled. "We weren't too concerned," said his assistant, Frank (King) Clancy. "We knew we'd be ready when the playoffs came." Imlach knew what an exhausting fight for a high place in the standings could do to a team. He brought along his players with the tender care of a horse trainer nursing a Derby favorite. After taking on opponents with leisurely grace, winning only often enough to assure themselves a comfortable third-place finish, the Maple Leafs got serious just three weeks before the regular season ended. To strengthen his already well-stocked lines, Imlach talked the New York Rangers into sending Toronto onetime Bruins Captain Don McKenney and Andy Bathgate, one of the truly great players in the NHL. The effect on the Leafs was electrifying.
"Dick Duff and Bob Nevin, the players we gave up," said King Clancy, "were pretty good defensively, but you could take them for granted when they had the puck. But just try taking Bathgate and McKenney for granted and see what happens."
What did happen was a notable increase in Maple Leaf goals. Bathgate tied the league record for assists with 58, and McKenney scored nine goals in 16 games, exactly as many as he had all the rest of the season with New York. Add to these the suddenly improved performances of Center Dave Keon, the finest of hockey's youngsters, and Frank Mahovlich, a brooding wingman who suddenly flashed fire when Imlach moved him to center, and you had a team that disposed of the Canadiens with relative ease and seemed eminently capable of coping with riffraff like the Red Wings. Imlach's chief worry at the start of the final cup series was how to convince his talented players that they could get clobbered by the Detroit team if they loafed.
As for the Red Wings, their strategy was simple: shoot the puck into the Maple Leafs' zone at every opportunity and then harry them into making mistakes, preferably right in front of the goal. For the rest: bump, slash, harass and, when all else fails, bite whatever unfortunate Maple Leaf happens to have the puck.
Imlach planned to counter this anarchy with the same strategy that had helped his team beat the Red Wings eight times in the regular season, hold them to a tie three times and keep Gordie Howe from scoring in 14 games—a feat that could be matched only if one baseball team (say the Red Sox) struck out Mickey Mantle every time he stepped up to bat against it.
"If we skate as hard as the Wings do," Imlach said, "we'll win easy because we have by far the better team."
But skate hard is just what the Maple Leafs did not do in the first two games. They ambled haughtily along the ice, seemingly fearful of working up a sweat. And while Imlach swilled milk to appease his ulcer, the wild-eyed Red Wings went after the Toronto players relentlessly. Leading the fray was Howe, still, at age 36, the best the NHL has, and close behind him were eight young men whose biggest assets are a swashbuckling abandon and the urge to skate full tilt every second they are on the ice.