One might guess that the walls of the Forum locker room are painted a pale blue to soften the hate that certainly must be there. But there is no hate; on the contrary, there is a strong bond between Blake and his players. The Canadiens can talk over their troubles with him, and he has never believed it necessary to run a bed check. And even in this jet age Blake puts the team on trains whenever he can. "The best you can get on a plane is a three-handed poker game," he says. "That's no good."
Blake's mood improved after that pivotal Toronto tie on Dec. 27, 1967 and became even better with the return of Beliveau, Ferguson and Cournoyer to good health. Now his primary concern is keeping the players working and happy—but always working. "I'd like to see everybody get all the game time they want," he says, "but that's pretty hard. So I play the men who are going the best."
Henri Richard, one of the few Canadiens remaining from Blake's powerhouse teams of the '50s, still has some of his old speed and all of his playmaking brilliance, but his knees are battered and unreliable. The Pocket Rocket has been sidelined three times by knee injuries this year. During his absences a rookie center, Jacques Lemaire, stepped in with such a hard shot and so much ice presence that Blake benched Henri for a time. Henri sulked and quit the team for a week.
Lemaire, meanwhile, became the darling of the Forum fans; in fact, it seemed that the public-address announcer's frequent recital of "Le but du Canadien: Jacques Lemaire" drew more cheers than had goals by Richard or even the team's superstar, Beliveau.
From exile Richard sent word that "I'd rather collect garbage than sit on the bench." That remark prompted gags about work awaiting him in garbage-littered New York, but it failed to impress Blake. After a week of sitting around home Henri conferred with Blake, was reinstated, and is now playing his best hockey of the season. The fact that he and Lemaire are now splitting time on the ice is just one indication of Montreal's continuing remarkable depth.
The point at which one begins to measure that depth, of course, is just beneath the crown of Blake's fedora. He is convinced that you can win them all. He is the only coach in the NHL who believes he can win the league championship every year—and he is outraged when he fails.
"All I know," he says, "is that I have a job here as long as I win."