SI Vault
Martin Kane
April 25, 1966
What matters in pro hockey is not the championship but the Stanley Cup. Last week, as the playoffs began, two teams made radical changes in their playing styles to meet the demands of a short, bitter series
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April 25, 1966

Cup Play: A Whole New Game

What matters in pro hockey is not the championship but the Stanley Cup. Last week, as the playoffs began, two teams made radical changes in their playing styles to meet the demands of a short, bitter series

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Montreal's big league hockey team is noted more for its finesse than its brawn. Toronto's hockey players are among the better brawlers in the National Hockey League. A major irony of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs was that Montreal's Canadiens eliminated Toronto's Maple Leafs in four straight games by a spectacular display of muscle.

Though the rules remain the same, the hockey of the playoffs is always vastly different from that seen during the regular 70-game season. For one thing, it is different in spirit. The playoffs are the real test of a team's abilities. Though the Canadiens finished first in the regular season, they knew that no one would regard them as real champions unless they won the cup, and that is a prospect to stir a competitor's blood. For another thing, a team's style often will change radically to accommodate the shorter time in which it must win. There is no room in the playoffs for a midseason slump. Thus in the B series of the semifinals against the Chicago Black Hawks (see cover) the Detroit Red Wings suddenly transformed themselves into a forechecking team that constantly confused and broke up the Chicago attack—something they had only once been able to do during the regular season. In the 14 times they met the Hawks, the Wings had won only once, lost 11 times and tied twice. But as the playoffs got under way in Chicago and Detroit last week, the Wings took two of the first four games by spectacular scores of 7-0 and 5-1.

It happens every year. The playoffs are seldom, if ever, predictable on the basis of regular-season showings. In the past 47 years the league champion has failed to win the cup 20 times and has even been eliminated in the first round 11 times. There is a suspicion that some managers and coaches, most notably Punch Imlach, manager-coach of Toronto, devote their efforts during the regular season less to winning than to finishing among the first four teams. This is enough to make them eligible to play for the cup—which means vastly more in prestige than the league title and quite a bit more in money. For finishing first in the league, a club gets 18 units of $2,250. For winning in its best-of-seven semifinal round a club gets 21 units of $1,500 each. Then the cup winner gets 21 units of $2,000 each.

A modest affair that cost its donor, Lord Stanley of Preston, a mere 10 guineas (about $50 in 1892), the original Stanley Cup now rests atop a large silver base on which are inscribed the names of all the winning teams and of each man who played on them. Actually played, that is. Just suiting up for the playoffs is not enough for immortality.

When hockey had its obscure 19th century beginnings in eastern Canada—several cities and McGill University claim the honor of its parentage—it was, like tennis, a game not only for amateurs but pretty much for well-to-do amateurs. Lord Stanley's five sons played the game in Canada and introduced it to England, where they staged an exhibition at Buckingham Palace. The first team to win the Stanley Cup, in 1894, was the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association. By 1910 the cup was in the possession of the National Hockey Association and thereafter remained a trophy for professionals.

Pro hockey is a rough game, and the cup has had its share of knocks. In 1905 members of the Ottawa Silver Seven, after celebrating their cup victory, were returning to their hotel when one of their number declared that he could drop-kick the cup into the Rideau Canal. He did, too, and it was not fished out until next morning. Five years later the proprietor of a bowling alley who doubled as a member of the champion Montreal Wanderers filled the cup to overflowing with chewing gum and set it out for the convenience of any customer who might want to buy some. Once, when the cup was left at a photographer's studio, the photographer's mother filled it with earth and planted geraniums in it. It has been lost, and it has been stolen. It has been denounced as "a detriment to hockey," and as a competition trophy "that does not advance the interests of the national sport." Now it is a carefully guarded treasure, on reverent display in Canada's Hockey Hall of Fame.

Despite the reverence, there is still criticism that the playoff system drags the season to an absurd length, and that this extension is a mere money-grubbing device of the owners. The charges are correct, but the fans couldn't care less. There are many who would watch hockey in July if they could. There is tension in a Stanley Cup game that no regular season contest can engender.

Cup fever was at its highest the other night in Toronto, when the Canadiens polished off the Maple Leafs in their fourth game. The Canadiens' coach, Toe Blake (SI, Nov. 22) had surprised a lot of fans when, a few years ago, he brought up a couple of fellows named John Ferguson and Ted Harris from the Cleveland Barons. They were neither the worst nor the best in the minor leagues. Just undistinguished. So much so that people went about asking each other who they were. It soon became obvious that who they were was not nearly so important as what they were—a couple of young musclemen recruited to add brawn to the Montreal team. For the first time in years, the Leafs found themselves unable to push the Canadiens around. It may, indeed, have been Ferguson who contributed the most to the Canadiens' third-game victory in the playoffs last week. His team was behind 2-0 in the second period when this burly ice policeman suddenly charged the Leafs' Eddie Shack, long known as Toronto's principal villain. Shack went down. Ferguson was penalized two minutes, but the punishment could have been the best thing that happened to Montreal all season. Shortly after Ferguson completed his sentence, the inspired Canadiens scored three goals in three minutes and 10 seconds and dominated play the rest of the way.

"That check he made on Shack in the second period," observed Coach Blake, "deflated the Leafs and inflated us."

"My job," said Ferguson, who understands it well, "is to put some muscle on the left side, or for that matter, I guess, every side." He takes the task so seriously that during the off season he refuses to fraternize with other hockey players. "It turns out," he explains, "that your friends become your worst enemies on the ice, so I don't talk to anybody."

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