Watch him at a hockey game and then compassionately slip him a straight razor. It seems the only kind thing to do as Hector (Toe) Blake, coach of the Montreal Canadiens, spends an evening in his small, rectangular cell at rinkside, in the shadows of a larger, more perceptible hell inside himself. During the game Blake's teeth, like jack-hammers, forever blast into a chunk of gum and at times, it appears, his lower lip. His head rolls like a cue ball with English on it, and his voice—constantly discharging epithets—is that of a foreman in a stamping mill. High-voltage moments send him bolting up and down in a jagged line but, when confronted with obvious defeat or victory or excruciating blunder, he somnambulantly stumbles about in tight little circles. Right now the thing most troubling Toe Blake, the Captain Bligh of the National Hockey League and everybody's candidate for a long vacation in a nice, quiet country place with high walls around it, is the fact that the experts have once again picked his team to finish in first place.
A Canadien game is always, quite simply, the third day at Gettysburg for Blake. Think of hockey in any other way and you had better deal around him. The long run with Blake toward success is never a tranquil trip. He is, true, avuncular at times, but more frequently he is despotic or desperate—a human fusillade of stinging ridicule and penetrating anger. "It's the way I am," says Blake. "It's the only way I know how to get there."
Since 1955, when he succeeded the Habs' highly obstreperous and successful coach, Dick Irvin, Blake has flogged both his opposition and his players. He has given the Canadiens 385 victories, 187 defeats and 128 ties in the regular-season schedule, seven league titles and six Stanley Cup championships, five of them consecutive. His most recent cup victory—the first in four years—came last season, to the bewilderment of every expert in hockey and the embarrassment of all those who have persisted in portraying Blake as just a caretaker coach.
From time to time last year it seemed that Blake was doomed to defeat. The Canadiens went into the playoffs with no Rocket Richard or Boom Boom Geoffrion or Bert Olmstead or Jacques Plante to make things easy. Of course, Jean Beliveau, their brilliant and adroit center for so many years, was still there, but Jean had been brilliantly maladroit and ineffectual (for Beliveau) most of the season. Henri Richard, The Rocket's brother, was out six weeks with an injury. The goaltending, perennially Montreal's reliable hole card, had been excessively generous to the opposition. Despite all this, Blake made a good run at the regular-season title, but still no one was giving the Canadiens much of a chance in the playoffs. Their fine defense-man, Jacques Laperriere, and Gilles Tremblay, their good-scoring left winger, were out with injuries.
Nevertheless, at cup time, sparked by a suddenly rejuvenated Beliveau, the Canadiens handled Toronto in six games in the first round. In the finals against Chicago the lackluster goalies, juggled from game to game on the basis of Blake's whims and figures, began to deliver. Tremblay came back, and Blake extracted solid performances from him and Dick Duff, a former Ranger conspicuous only for his ineptness. The formidable Bobby Hull was stopped by sacrificing the scoring potential of Claude Provost, who—continually prodded by Blake—shadowed Hull throughout the series and followed him everywhere but to the Chicago bench. It made all the difference: Hull scored only two goals. The longest and deepest drink from the Stanley Cup belonged to Blake.
As a result of this, Blake and his Canadiens are now unanimous choices to win the league title and the cup in 1966.
"How can they overlook us completely one year," Blake snorts, "and then pick us to win it all the next?" His complaint is not just another case of a coach's "poor mouth." Blake simply has a very real and gnawing fear of what such conjecture can do to a club. He has seen the debilitating power of complacency. "I recall one great Canadien team," he says, "during my playing days. We lost a few games, and the players weren't particularly worried. They kept telling themselves they'd win the next one. But the next one never came around. By the time we started to play up to our potential we were out of the playoffs."
The frayed script about every great hockey player depends heavily on the moment his mother bought him his first pair of skates. Blake's mother was adamantly opposed to his participation in such foolishness as hockey. She had hoped that Hector (or Hec-toe, as his younger brother called him) would be fortunate enough to acquire a "nice and steady" job—in the mines. Even if she had given her approval, a pair of skates would have been out of the question, with eight children crowding the Blake table three times a day. "It was a big treat," Blake once told a friend, "whenever we got beef drippings on our bread, instead of lard for our school lunches." Lard was a mainstay on the luncheon menus for many youngsters in northern Ontario's Victoria Mines, a smelter and mining community whose families too often could afford only too little.
When he was 12 Blake got a job hitching up horses and delivering milk before going to school. The money enabled him to buy a pair of skates and freed him from the boredom of playing goalie—that hateful position that can, if necessary, be filled by a man without skates, in neighborhood games. From then on, except for an occasional fiercely contested game of old maid with his sisters, Blake had little time for anything but hockey. School was a distraction, but a sympathetic teacher allowed the kids to wear their skates into the old wooden-floored classroom so that hockey games during recess could get under way promptly. In the summer Blake played baseball and was a mascot for an older team. He occasionally forgot to pick up the bats, but he never forgot to be a small aggravation to the umpires when a decision went the wrong way. This early distaste for officials would later prove to be an expensive phobia.
Blake, unpolished and rugged, made the usual stops in the network of kid, junior and senior hockey leagues in Canada. He was deadly serious and unmoved by most social distractions, but every so often his coach would walk by his room and see a dim light under the door. Curious, he would step in and find Toe desperately trying to fill an inside straight when he should have been in bed.