At the start of the 40th National Hockey League season just about a month ago—a time, incidentally, when most of us were quite rightly still muttering the names of Larsen, Newcombe, Maglie & Co.—not many hockey men would have registered any undue surprise if the following directive had been issued from league headquarters: "Because of their proved superiority over all other teams, the defending NHL and Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens are hereby automatically awarded first place for the 1956-57 season."
On paper, the directive would have made uncommonly good sense in a sport where good sense has been commonly lacking for too many years. On paper, yes, Montreal has everything: Beliveau, Geoffrion, the Richards, Harvey, Plante and all the other fine skaters who dominated the play a year ago. But, fortunately for the game, reputations earned one season don't win games in another. Montreal has been hard hit by injuries, but the question the rest of the league can ask after seeing the champions win but three of their first nine games, is: should a few injuries have made such an effect on a great team if it is a really great team?
Every team, with the exception of Montreal and Chicago, has gotten off to the kind of start which gives hope for over-all improvement. And Montreal can be expected to return very near to the top if not right to it. Chicago, now with former Detroit coach Tommy Ivan doubling as coach and general manager, has acquired such competent skaters as Ken Mosdell, Wally Hergesheimer, Zellio Toppazzini and Eddie Mazur, but even so the Black Hawks went through seven games before winning one. With Ivan in charge they should improve.
Off and flying, with only one defeat in their first eight games, were the Detroit Red Wings, who a year ago were eliminating themselves from all title hopes by winning only three of the first 18. The difference: last year Coach Jim Skinner spent most of the season remolding a new team around veterans Lindsay, Kelly and Howe. This year the team was ready at the opening whistle.
The New York Rangers and Boston Bruins are suffering from offensive deficiencies. The Rangers scored only 16 times in the first eight games, while the Bruins seem to expect Goalie Terry Sawchuk to carry his team almost single-handedly.
Most improved team so far has been the Toronto Maple Leafs. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, somewhat anticipating this about-face, commissioned Artist Russell Hoban to visit the Leafs' camp to record the spirit of hockey. While there Artist Hoban sensed what the rest of the NHL now knows to be fact: the youngest club in the league history (average age 24) and a sparkling new goalie in Ed Chadwick are showing Rookie Coach Howie Meeker (a former Toronto star himself) that the proper mixture of youth and spirit can—for a time at least—overcome some of the advantages of big-time experience.