It was Kentucky Derby Day and people in Montreal naturally wanted to talk horses with that noted thoroughbred owner, Gerry Cheevers. No matter that illness had prevented Cheevers' colt, Royal Ski, from running in the Derby. Reporters, TV men and other interested parties wanted to know who Cheevers thought would win the Derby. And what if it were a muddy track, Gerry? And how would Royal Ski do if he could run, Gerry? Cheevers fielded the questions for a while, then gently declined to discuss the race any longer. "Hey," he pleaded, puffing on a sequoia-sized cigar, "doesn't anybody realize we're here to play a hockey game?"
Unfortunately for Cheevers, who also tends goal for the Boston Bruins, the Montreal Canadiens realized it only too well. On Kentucky Derby night, to the amusement of a crowd of 17,311 in the Montreal Forum, the Canadiens practically blasted Cheevers out of the nets in the opening game of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals. The 7-3 shellacking by the Canadiens was a rude comedown for Cheevers, who had lived up to his reputation as a "money goalie" in the Bruins' sweep of favored Philadelphia in the semifinals. And it put Royal Ski's unfortunate owner in the singular position of coming up empty in two classic sporting events on the same day.
For Montreal, the romp was a welcome pick-me-up. The Canadiens had a 60-8-12 record in the regular season, best in NHL history, only to play sluggishly against the New York Islanders in a semifinal series that unexpectedly lasted six games. The gritty Islanders had pretty much silenced Montreal's big guns, Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt, and while neither of them scored in the opener against the Bruins, their teammates had no trouble beating Cheevers with two goals apiece by Mario Tremblay and Yvon Lambert and one each by Doug Risebrough, Jacques Lemaire and Rick Chartraw. In the face of this barrage, the beleaguered Cheevers could find no comfort in the fact that he had received little protection from his defensemen.
"When you give up seven goals, you're not sharp," he said. "The Canadiens came in so fast you didn't have time to breathe. Our defensemen? There was room for improvement for us all over the ice—starting in goal."
Montreal's goalie, Ken Dryden, was dependable, if not sensational, and this was enough to cheer the Canadiens. In the regular season Dryden teamed with backup Goalie Bunny Larocque for an NHL-leading 2.09 goals-against average, but he was hot and cold during the Islander series. This raised fears in Montreal that the Bruins might have an edge with Cheevers, who has never had Dryden's glittering stats, but whose clutch performances helped the Bruins to Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972. Then Cheevers bolted to the WHA for three-plus seasons before returning to the Bruins last year. This season he had a so-so 3.04 goals-against average, but was practically impenetrable as the Bruins won 10 of their last 11 games to overtake Buffalo for the Adams Division championship. In the subsequent sweep of Philadelphia, Cheevers was brilliant, yielding but one goal in the last 174 minutes—the equivalent of nearly three full games.
"With Gerry, statistics just don't mean anything," says Boston Coach Don Cherry. "If we're leading 6-0, he'll let in two, three easy ones. But if we're winning 2-1, look out. There's no goaltender tougher than he is."
"I feel funny about the talk about me being a clutch goaltender," says Cheevers. "It makes it sound like I'm not playing hard the rest of the time. But I'm fairly emotional, and I suppose the adrenaline gets going during playoffs."
Whatever happens in the rest of the series, the contrasts between Dryden and Cheevers make their Stanley Cup showdown a compelling one. The handsome 6'4" Dryden comes across more like a lawyer than a hockey player—actually he is both—and he is analytical and circumspect in even the most casual conversation. On road trips he enjoys nothing more than ordering from room service and curling up with a weighty tome. To ease the Stanley Cup pressures, he was reading a book last weekend that dealt with population migration in the "very delicate savannahs" of East Africa. There is a sobriety about Dryden even on the ice. Using his height and reach to advantage, he stands before the net in the stolid manner of a palace guard.
Cheevers is a different kettle of fish. He flashes a big bankroll, which the frugal Dryden would never do, and enjoys playing gin with the boys—at such moments, that is, when his nose is not buried in the Daily Racing Form, which is hand-delivered to him in the Bruin locker room. At 36, seven years older than Dryden, Cheevers has a widening bald patch and a paunchiness that has prompted masseurs to mistake him for, among other things, a cabdriver. He clowns at practice, too, which was of some concern when he backed up the Los Angeles Kings' Rogie Vachon for Team Canada in last fall's Canada Cup tournament.
"When is Cheevers going to get serious?" demanded Montreal's Scotty Bowman, Team Canada's head coach.