On the eve of his second season as coach of the champion Canadiens, Claude Ruel was talking about the first: "There were a lot of people who thought the Canadiens would have a new coach after one or two months—they didn't think I could win the championship—and that is why for me it was a personal victory. There are people, even after we beat Boston for the league championship, they criticize me. I am more confident this time, but at the same time I am more scared."
Ruel knows he must win again to please the tough Canadien fans, and so he should. Through planning and some slick dealing behind closed doors, the Canadiens survived the June draft without losing a regular from last year's club. All the familiar stars are back: Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Jacques Lemaire, Yvan Cournoyer, Bobby Rousseau, Ralph Backstrom, Dickie Duff. Beliveau makes the Canadiens hard to beat in the money games. Lemaire scored 29 goals and played in every game but one. Little Cournoyer, now 25, become one of the NHL's big gunners by scoring 43 times. He also confounded critics who thought he would never become a two-way player.
Defensively, the Canadiens are as big and rangy and stingy as ever. Jacques Laperriere and Ted Harris are coming off excellent years. Serge Savard, only 23, won the Conn Smythe Award as the outstanding cup player. Once again Gump Worsley and Rogatien Vachon will split time in the nets.
These riches have not made the Canadiens complacent. As Ruel says, "If you get too much confidence in yourself, you're gonna have bad success."
The skull fracture suffered by Defenseman Ted Green in the exhibition season dramatizes Coach Harry Sinden's most serious problem, that of avoiding injuries. "Anytime you start cracking heads like Boston does," says the Blues' Lynn Patrick, former coach of the Bruins, "you're going to get people hurt." With Green's own head cracked, Sinden is reviewing a somber league statistic with all the more concern. It is in the category "Player/Games Lost by Clubs," and last year the Bruins lost 240. The next team on the most-injured list was St. Louis, with 135. The champion Canadiens logged 100.
"I'm not trying to alibi," says Sinden, "but that gives you a pretty good idea just how many guys we had racked up last year." In any case, Sinden says he is prepared to "live or die by the sword," and clearly he has no other choice.
Still, the preseason toll was alarmingly high. Besides Green the injured included the youthful superstar Bobby Orr, the daredevil center Derek Sanderson and another good defenseman, Don Awrey. If the Bruins open with these three absent or at less than their best, they will be in for some bad moments.
But barring medical catastrophe, the Bruins can again press Montreal, and if they can contrive to win some "big" games they could dethrone the Canadiens. Boston blew a must game with Montreal the next to last night of last season and won none of three overtime games in the cup semifinals.