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There is a small basement bar in Montreal a couple of snow-covered alleyways up from the hotel where most of the visiting National Hockey League teams stay when they play the Canadiens. It is so dingy and obscure that you can't even find a sign telling its name—if it has one. No women are allowed there, no jukeboxes are heard and the hockey players can push a couple of iron tables together and enjoy their after-game pints of beer and ale free from the adulation of the city's bellicose autograph seekers. One night, not long ago, after a key game between the two top teams in the NHL, cab after cab pulled up to the little bar, disgorging players from Chicago until the entire Black Hawk team was inside, grouped around nine tables pushed together in the shape of the letter T. At the top of the T sat Bobby Hull, hockey's No. 1 star. Several stitches criss-crossed the bridge of his nose and, thanks to a double body check which threw him against the sideboards late in the game, he was forced to sit stiffly on the edge of his chair to relieve a severe ache in his back. Near Hull sat Doug Mohns, the balding former Boston defenseman turned Chicago forward, who was having trouble focusing his eyes because he was still woozy from taking seven stitches in his left ear. At the bottom of the T sat the smallest Hawk of all, Stan Mikita (see cover), wearing a tan ten-gallon Stetson. The players grew quiet as the late sports news came over the Canadian Broadcasting System. "The Chicago Black Hawks," said the commentator, "beat the Canadiens at the Forum tonight 4-2, to go three points up on Montreal in the league standings." "That," said Stan, lifting his glass in a toast to his teammates, "was the biggest game we have won in the last three years!"
If the toast had in it overtones of both satisfaction and bitterness, it was because Stan and the Hawks had too often in the past started off a season looking like sure winners only to fold when the championship was all but in their grasp. Twice in the last three seasons, the Hawks lost the title by a single point. Last year, after leading the league once again, they won only two of their final 12 games to finish a desultory third.
That crucial victory in Montreal made it plain that the Black Hawks have had their mangled ears scorched one time too many by the fans' shouts of "choke," "fold" and "collapse," and they are out to get the monkeys off their backs.
If they succeed, it will certainly be due in large part to the two top Hawks, Hull and Mikita, both of whom are striving not only for a team championship but for personal records—Hull in goals, Mikita in goals and assists. That night in Montreal was a big one for both of them. Mikita assisted Hull on the important first goal of the game to get the Hawks off to a good start. After that, he took charge of the puck in 34 of the 35 face-offs he was involved in to give the Hawks possession time and time again, particularly in the defensive zone. It was a pattern that has been repeated many times over in other Hawks' games.
To understand the current state of the NHL and Chicago's peculiar place in it, it is necessary to reflect briefly on the past. In the season of 1960-61, the Montreal Canadiens, after winning five consecutive Stanley Cups and three straight league championships, finally began to feel age nipping at their boots. That year the once invincible Canadiens were knocked out of the cup playoffs in the opening round by the Hawks. As newcomers like Mikita, Hull and Billy Hay joined their burly talents to those of such still young "veterans" as Ken Wharram, Pete Pilote, Moose Vasko, Eric Nesterenko and Goalie Glenn Hall, Chicago went on to win the cup.
The following year, although the Canadiens told lies to their legs for another grand last effort, the Hawks again pushed them out of the playoffs, primarily because of a record 21 points scored by Mikita in 12 games. Chicago lost that Stanley Cup in the finals, but the Montreal monopoly had ended, and today the Canadiens are just one of four good teams skating on NHL ponds. In the three seasons since then, those four teams have been as evenly matched as dice being spun around in a bird cage. Chicago and Detroit have each won 102 games, Montreal has won 100 and Toronto 98. (The Boston Bruins and New-York Rangers are not even allowed to get into the cage since by Halloween both are usually eliminated from serious contention.) Of the four, Chicago remains the most bewildering. During these last three seasons it has twice led the league in scoring, has given up the fewest goals, has placed twice as many players on the league's All-Star teams as any of the others and has won nine of the NHL's prized trophies for individual excellence compared to three for any of the other clubs. Yet it is the only one of the four that has failed to win a championship. Because of all this, the Hawks have earned themselves an unenviable reputation as a "first-half hockey team," leading even their most ardent fans to modify expectations for the current season much as a guest might modify his appetite when approaching the table of a host known to serve excellent soup and fish followed invariably by a rotten roast.
This year the soup and fish in Chicago are better than ever: the Black Hawks have completed the best first-half season in their entire history. Hull is banking pucks at a rate that should easily enable him to break hockey's heretofore impenetrable scoring barrier, the 50-goal season, and Stan Mikita is shooting as well as ever, getting 19.3% of his shots-on-goal into the net. From now until the middle of March, the Hawks will play 22 games of which 14 are at home. Of the eight road games, two are against the Rangers in Madison Square Garden, where Chicago has lost only four of its last 24 appearances. Everything is right there in front of the Hawks now and they realize it. For the voodoo-ridden team of other years, that might spell trouble, but the situation seems to be different now.
"Hockey players often refuse to say how they feel about certain things," Mikita said recently. "But we have been burned enough. Wherever we go around the league we are accused of choking. There is a loudmouth who sits behind the bench in Boston and gives it to us all the time—accusing us of quitting when it counts. You can't hear him when you are out on the ice, but you hear him when you are on the bench and that's enough."
For years, Coach Punch Imlach's Toronto Maple Leafs have been known for coasting along through the regular season, letting the championship go so they can save their strength for the playoffs. The Black Hawks of 1965-66 have quite another attitude; they want that championship. "For those who don't understand hockey it may seem ridiculous to wear yourself out playing 70 games to win the league title and get only $2,250 when you might win the cup in eight games and get $3,500," explains Mikita. "But winning the title this year is now a matter of pride with us and hockey players exist on pride." This year the 5-foot-9 center, known to French-speaking fans as Le Petit Diable, is determined not only to win for the Hawks but to become the second man ever to lead the NHL in overall scoring for three straight years. The first and last player to do it was that ageless elf, Gordie Howe of the Red Wings, who must have sat down with Emil Waldteufel a century ago to help him write The Skaters waltz.
Like Gordie, Mikita is an all-round hockey player, but he is not as spectacular as Bobby Hull, nor is he equipped with Hull's brute strength. Hull's marvelous combination of speed, build, strength and looks forces Stan to play Gehrig to Bobby's Ruth, but Gehrig was a pretty fair ballplayer. Hull has out-scored Mikita in goals over the last four seasons by 40, yet Mikita has outscored Hull in total points by 25.