The colors of the autumn Canadian countryside moved past the windows as Dick Duff told his story to Toronto Maple Leaf coach Tom Watt. The trip from Toronto to Montreal had hit the boring stages now, three hours down, two more remaining, so some entertainment had to be cooked up in the first passenger car of the afternoon train called The Meridian. Duff did the honors, with playing cards.
He held the deck in his left hand, and every time he mentioned a fact in his story, he turned over the top card or cards with his right hand to illustrate what had happened. There were four guys, you see: one, two, three, four kings. They went to New York, looking for four women: one, two, three, four queens. They were....
He seemed to shuffle the cards while he talked very fast, but somehow the random arrangement always seemed to wind up as his arrangement.
"The guys were told they should go to the 484 Club." Four. Eight. Four.
" 'Where's that?' they asked. Someone told them it was 'over on Second Avenue.' " Two.
" 'No,' they said. 'We think we'll go to the Club 77 on 58th.' " Seven. Seven. Five. Eight.
Along the length of the car, Toronto players slept or read or talked. This was Oct. 2, and the Maple Leafs were on their way to open the 75th NHL season the next night in the Forum against the accursed Montreal Canadiens. The train ride was a public relations gambit, a traveling photo opportunity to promote the anniversary, a return to a time when the league had six teams and its map began in Boston and went no farther west than Chicago or south than New York, when the train was an everyday fact of hockey life. Each of the players had been given a hat—a fedora—as part of the show. But the Leafs looked more like a group of young rabbinical students on their way to a convention than the Al Capone gangsters they thought they resembled.
Watt, 56, and Duff, 55, a winger in the 1950s and '60s for both Toronto and Montreal, and the four other old-timers on the train looked better in their hats. The fedoras fit their older faces, and their older faces fit the long-ago picture. Nostalgia? Duff's story ended as the four guys in New York played in a late-night card game in which they figured to win with a hand of four nines—nine, nine, nine, nine—but were beaten by a four, five, six, seven, eight straight flush that neatly finished out all the cards in the deck. Watt hooted in proper amazement.
How long had it taken to learn a trick like this? How many hours? How many days? How many idle moments had to be killed?
"Do you know what?" Watt said. "Two of these players told me they'd never even ridden on a train before."