It din't figure. It just din't figure," said the counterman in the restaurant on Grand River Avenue, and almost everyone in Detroit agreed with him. What didn't figure was that the Red Wings seemed about to win their first NHL championship in eight years and one look at the players on the Detroit bench explained why. Gordie Howe, the greatest forward of all time, is graying fast. Bill Gadsby looks as if he should be sipping tea on the porch of an old soldiers' home. Marcel Pronovost looks rather like an old, old boxing glove left out in the yard over a few winters, the result of skating on his face for 14 years. Add to these 40-year-old Ted Lindsay, who returned to hockey after four years of retirement, and you have the nucleus for a bomb—a defused one. When you consider that the last crutch keeping members of this wrinkled cast from falling flat is a rookie goalie playing his first year in the majors, it's obvious the thing is hopeless. But, as Gordie Howe puts it: "Our kids aren't really kids anymore and our old men have quite a bit left."
Howe, even at 37, ranks third among the scorers in the NHL this year. His 34-year-old teammate, Alex Delvecchio, is suddenly more effective than he has ever been. Gadsby (37) and Pronovost (34) are still rated the best defensemen in the league. And Lindsay has scored 14 goals. "Nobody in the history of the world could've predicted that," said one awed fan.
Another prediction nobody could have made was the surprise emergence of Norm Ullman as one of the top stars of the league. Although a baby in comparison to Gadsby and Lindsay, 29-year-old Ullman has been around eight long major league seasons without managing to attract anyone's particular attention. Now all at once he is tied with Bobby Hull in goals scored and ranks second in points to Stan Mikita.
"The big thing about Ullman," says his wingman, Floyd Smith, "is that he's a great forechecker. When the puck goes into the offensive end he's right behind it. The guy never lets up."
Ullman's capacity for hustle was never more apparent than last Friday night when the Wings came into New York anticipating an easy victory that could virtually sew up the championship. The out-of-the-running Rangers, always best with nothing at stake, shattered this complacency promptly with an early first-period goal that put New York one up. Detroit's Ron Murphy evened the score, then Howe and Ullman put the Wings ahead, but not for long. By the middle of the second period Detroit was trailing again by two goals, and Red Wing fans who had come east to see the game were sensing in their stomachs that despair that goes with a foretaste of defeat. In an almost incredible outpouring of sustained energy during the next 30 minutes Norm Ullman forestalled both defeat and stomachache by scoring two more goals. Detroit didn't win, but Ullman by pure hustle had produced the tie that put the Red Wings a comfortable four points ahead of Montreal in the standings.
Ullman's brand of play mirrors perfectly the whole Red Wing attack. They are forever scuffling and scrambling for the puck and continuously checking—a pastime that seems actually to refresh the Wings. "There's nothing mysterious about what the Wings are doing," says Punch Imlach, of Toronto. "It's just work. They never stop skating. They throw the puck in your end and keep chasing it. I don't know how Abel can keep them doing it game in and game out. I can't with our guys."
At least one part of the answer lies in Detroit Coach Sid Abel's decision to use four forward lines in place of the usual three.
"With that extra line," says Delvecchio, "we're on the ice about a minute and 15 seconds and off three minutes. It means us old guys can push ourselves to the hilt."
But the old men are not the only players Abel nursemaids along so solicitously to build his winning team. Some weeks ago, when rookie Roger Crozier began to show the strain of a season that seems certain to win him the Vezina Trophy as top goalie of the league, Abel sent him to Florida for a vacation. Refreshed and rested, but back in his pads again and working harder than ever, Roger celebrated his 23rd birthday in the Wings" dressing room feeling like a veteran.
"I'll tell ya," he said, cutting the cake with a sigh. "I'm 23, but I'm beginning to look 35, and I feel like I'm 48." "Well,"' countered Bill Gadsby, "I'm 40, but I feel like I'm 25."