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Last summer, shortly after he had left his 15-year job as coach of the Montreal Canadiens to accept a similar position with the Chicago Black Hawks, Dick Irvin was asked which of the six teams in the National Hockey League was most likely to win the 1955-56 league championship. "That's easy," replied Irvin. " Montreal by 10 games."
A few days ago Irvin's successor, Hector (Toe) Blake, reflected on the curious position in which Irvin's departure had left him. "It is true," said Blake, "Dick left me a great team, a well-organized and a well-disciplined team. But he also left me on the spot. If we finish anywhere but first I'll feel I've done a very bad job. If things go right, yes, we should win by 10 games. But any hockey man will tell you that in hockey things don't always go right."
What was not going right for Toe Blake that morning was indicated by a medical report just in: three regulars out indefinitely with injuries. "It's strange about injuries on a hockey team," said Blake. "When they hit they seem to hit in bunches—not just one man, but three or four. It happens to every club; now it's happening to us."
Despite this typical Blakelike pessimism, Toe Blake stands today in what certainly must be one of the most enviable positions ever held by a professional coach in any sport. As his Canadiens rolled into the second half of the 70-game season, they were already six games in front of the pack. When established stars were felled by injuries which would send most other NHL clubs into a tailspin for a month or more, Blake could usually count on workmanlike stand-in performances from dozens of minor leaguers literally dying to show their wares just once as members of the "big" team. Furthermore, Blake could boast something no other team had: the two best scorers in hockey. One is Maurice (Rocket) Richard (SI, Dec. 6, 1954). The other is a strikingly handsome young man who answers to the name of Jean Beliveau.
It is quite possible that no hockey team in history has ever been led by two such brilliant craftsmen. It is likewise probable that no two stars on the same team were ever so exactly opposite in temperament as are Richard and Beliveau.
Coach Blake, as the onetime left winger (nicknamed The Old Lamplighter) on the famous Montreal Punch Line with Elmer Lach at center and Richard at his customary right-wing position, probably knows the Rocket as well as any man ever will. When he talks of his friend and star today it is with a deep and far-reaching feeling of fondness and unashamed admiration. "As long as I live I know I'll never see a player like Maurice. He lives for only one thing: to put that puck in the net."
As for Beliveau, this is Blake's first season of close association with the 24-year-old center who is currently leading the whole league in scoring, and he is understandably less inclined to employ full use of superlatives. "I think Jean is great," he says. "He is big and strong and can do everything well, but he doesn't have the desire to score that Maurice has." Tommy Ivan, former Detroit coach and now general manager at Chicago, gives a more thorough appraisal of Beliveau's talents. " Beliveau is great because he takes the direct route. No long way around for him. He has the size (6 feet, 3 inches) and the weight (205 pounds) to hold his own. He's tremendously strong, a beautiful skater, already a superb stick handler, strictly a team man with a perfect sense of playmaking. He has a wonderfully hard and accurate shot. He'd be a star on any hockey club. I wish he were on mine."
The reasons for Jean Beliveau's presence today on the Canadiens' first line (where he is flanked by Boom Boom Geoffrion on the right wing and Bert Olmstead on left) are basically the same that can be found to explain the emergence of Montreal in the past few years as the dominant force in Canadian hockey. Like thousands of youngsters before and after him, young Jean, as a boy in Victoriaville, Quebec and later in the city of Quebec, indulged in the hero worship of Rocket Richard. Unlike the majority of his contemporary hero-worshipers, young Jean Beliveau had tremendous natural talent of his own—a talent which quickly became recognized across the Dominion when he graduated from the juniors to stardom as a $20,000-a-year "amateur" center with the Quebec Aces. When officials of Les Canadiens were trying to persuade him—after a dazzling five goals during a three-game tryout on the big team during the 1952-53 season—that he could earn more than $20,000 by signing a Montreal contract, it remained for his idol, the Rocket, to clinch the deal. Beliveau recalled the incident not long ago in his heavy French accent. "Maurice say to me, 'Jean, you come with us and we have a good time. You like playing for Les Canadiens.' Today I am happy I do what he say."
The Rocket is apparently happy too, for now, after having Beliveau as a teammate for three seasons, he is more of an admirer than ever. The other night he paid the young star what must rank as one of hockey's highest compliments. "He gets along with everyone and he's the best center I've seen since I've been in the league." And Frank J. Selke, the club's managing director, says of Beliveau, "He is so modest that he blushes when anybody says anything nice about him."
Jean's modesty makes it easy for him to minimize his own accomplishments. "If people are saying I am good, it is nice to hear. But to play good hockey you must be lucky to be born with ability. Then you work hard at it the rest of the time. I work hard for my job and I think this team is good one. We are big happy family here."