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Was it all in the mind or was a sharp new wave of anti-American sentiment actually sweeping through Montreal early last week? Canadian customs inspectors at the airport seemed to be double-checking the identification and baggage of visitors from the United States. One had the impression that change clerks were carefully authenticating U.S. dollars before paying the 7.5-cent conversion premium, that the mini-midi-maxi French girls at Chez Bourgetel suddenly were not speaking their very good English anymore, that waiters were spilling an unusual amount of onion soup into American laps.
If all this was so, there could be only one reason: the four U.S.-based teams in the National Hockey League's East Division had better records than the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens were down there in fifth place, three points out of fourth—and fifth place, of course, means you are kaput for the Stanley Cup playoffs. "I cannot imagine," said Jean Beliveau, the Montreal captain, "a Stanley Cup without the Canadiens playing in it." Beliveau, the classic hockey player, has led Montreal to the cup the last two seasons, four of the last five and nine of the last 14.
But the plight of Canadian hockey was not merely a provincial matter. It had become a national emergency. The Toronto Maple Leafs already have been all but eliminated from the playoffs. If Montreal does not make them it will be the first time in hockey history that a team from Canada has not competed for the cup. "If we fail," Beliveau said, "we will hear about it from everyone in Canada."
Confronted with this crisis, Montreal rallied brilliantly last week behind its two most valuable men—Beliveau and hardrock John Ferguson—and moved within a point of the fourth-place Detroit Red Wings. "It used to be that we always were playing for first place," Beliveau said,' 'but this year it will be tougher to get into the playoffs than it will be to win the Stanley Cup."
The Canadiens would not be in such distress if Beliveau had been able to play like the old Beliveau all season and Ferguson had not missed almost half the schedule because of injuries and a six game suspension. Jean and John represent the absolute extremes of hockey players. Beliveau, now 38 years old, is tall and strong, an effortless skater, a precise shooter, an adroit playmaker, a persistent checker. He is the complete hockey player—and the silent leader of the Canadiens. Ferguson skates with great effort but he gets there, and when he does he usually stops himself by running into one of the enemy. He is the Canadiens' cop, the bodyguard for the smaller players on the Montreal team. He is the Canadiens' noisy leader.
When Ferguson plays, the fleet Montreal forwards skate recklessly, knowing he is around to protect them. When he does not play, these same forwards look as though they are out for a quiet afternoon of public skating.
"I sat in the press box one night," Ferguson said, "and watched one of our forwards get belted to the ice. Three other Canadiens were standing around but they never made a move." What did Ferguson do? "I picked up my chair and threw it," he said. So far this year he has broken his thumbs and cracked a bone below his right eye.
For Beliveau it has been an equally frustrating season. There he is, the greatest winner in hockey history, with 10 regular-season championships and those nine Stanley Cups. Now he wants to do what basketball's Bill Russell did last year: lead his team into the playoffs and win the last championship. Like Russell, Beliveau will not say it will be his last championship, but those who know him expect that No. 4 will be retired at the end of the season.
Typically, Beliveau blamed himself for most of the Canadiens' recent problems.
"If I had played my game all the time," he said, "maybe the others would have played better. When I pass the puck, I pass it a split second too late. When I shoot it, I shoot it a split second too late. That is what happens when you are 38 years old."