DETROIT AND MONTREAL SQUARE OFF
Top teams make every blow count as they battle down the stretch toward the Stanley Cup play-offs
The Detroit Red Wings, aiming for their seventh straight NHL title, came into Montreal last week a bare point ahead of the home-town Canadiens. After 15 minutes of penalty-strewn play, the Wings led two goals to none. But the Canadiens roared back with four goals in the last two periods to win 4-2 and take the lead with only a dozen games left in the regular season.
I once heard a man contrasting Maurice Richard of the Montreal Canadiens and Ted Kennedy of the Toronto Maple Leafs by giving an imaginary play-by-play of how each scores a goal. For Richard he said, "Richard...takes the pass, SHOOTS, Scores!" For Kennedy he said, "There's a scramble in the corner, Kennedy comes up with the puck, carries it behind the net, stick-handles out in front, shoots, Worsley saves, Kennedy grabs the rebound, passes back to Smith, who shoots, Worsley saves, a defenseman tries to clear, Kennedy checks him, is knocked down, keeps the puck, gets up, shoots, SCORES!"
That is as good a way as any of describing the sweaty, dogged kind of courage which serves Kennedy where speed and dash and a deadly shot serve Richard and other great scoring stars. This turn of spirit also is mainly responsible for the fact that in mid-season balloting for the National Hockey League's most-valuable-player award Kennedy was trailed (and distantly) by the league's hottest goalkeeper and four forwards, each of whom had scored many more goals this season than Kennedy had.
COLOR AND LEADERSHIP
This mid-season ballot for the MVP (the Hart Trophy, $1,000 bonus from the league and usually another $1,000 from the winner's team) went this way: Kennedy, 40 points; Harry Lumley, Toronto goalie, 23; and four of the league's highest scorers next, Richard with 19, Boom-Boom Geoffrion of Montreal with 15, Gordie Howe of Detroit and Jean Beliveau of Montreal tied with 14 each. Another ballot will be cast at season's end, but since last year's winner (Al Rollins, Chicago goalie, who got it for bravery under fire) needed only 80 points and Kennedy has half that and no really close contender, it seems likely that he's in, barring injury in the final few weeks.
It isn't hard to account for Kennedy's greatness. A serious, taut young gentleman of 29 (5 feet 11 inches, 180 pounds) with a skating style more notable for strength and maneuverability than for grace, he has the color that makes Yogi Berra great in baseball and a team-lifting type of leadership that makes Toronto fans very relieved to see him out there every time the going is tough. In addition to his regular turns at center on his own line, he is used both on the Toronto power play (for scoring punch when the opposition is short-handed due to a penalty) and on penalty-killing duties when the Leafs are short-handed and need their best checkers on the ice. On top of this, as team captain, he argues every arguable decision with referees and is put on the ice every time there is an important face-off, because he is the league's best at getting the draw when the puck is dropped. All in all, a very busy young man.
His goal-scoring, while usually respectable, is well off the league's top pace this year. But he gets important goals. Once this season when the Leafs were trailing Chicago 3-1 with less than two minutes to go in the game, Kennedy fired two goals in 69 seconds to tie it. And numberless times every season his digging for the puck, breaking up plays before they start, refusing to allow the opposition out of its own end, has resulted in a play on goal which someone else may score, but which is at least half Kennedy's because he kept it in there in the first place. The only players in recent Toronto history to score 30 goals in a season, Tod Sloan and Sid Smith, accomplished it with Ted Kennedy as their center man. Smith, who is near the 30-goal mark again as this is written, likely will be this year's all-star left wing. He'll tell anyone who'll listen that this is mainly a result of playing alongside the man whose fans call him by the rather old-fashioned but revealing title "Heart of the Leafs" (a name first used by Toronto Globe and Mail sportswriter Al Nickleson).
The fact that Kennedy never has been chosen on the league's all-star team galls his supporters, among whom, as may be imagined, is King Clancy, the Toronto coach. When the mid-season all-star selection had Jean Beliveau, the league's leading scorer, at center instead of Kennedy, Clancy snorted, "Kennedy is still the best hockey player in the league! Counting everything (Clancy says: "Kennedy does more back-checking in one game than Beliveau does in a week"), he may be right. It is certain that without Kennedy, Toronto is rather an ordinary team. Since he turned professional at age 17 at the tag end of the 1942-'43 season, the Leafs have only twice been out of the Stanley Cup play-offs, the World Series of hockey. Both years they missed were ones in which Kennedy was badly injured and could play only a fraction of the season's schedule.
RIGHT BETWEEN THE EYES
Perhaps one of the most pointed examples of his importance to the Leafs came last year in their Stanley Cup semi-final with Detroit. In the series' fifth game, with Detroit leading three wins to one, Kennedy's magnificent play, along with great goaling by Harry Lumley, was a major factor in the Leafs being able to hold a superior Detroit team to a 3-3 score at the end of regulation time. As the teams played through the first sudden-death overtime period Kennedy was still the hottest thing on the ice. Tony Leswick of Detroit, a player with an uncanny ability for sizing up such difficulties, finally came up with what may have been the only possible answer. Next time he was close enough he hauled off and punched Kennedy right between the eyes. Before Kennedy could realize the trap, he punched back. Each got a penalty. The difference was that while Leswick could be spared, Kennedy couldn't. One hundred nineteen seconds of playing time later, with Kennedy fuming and Leswick very jaunty in the penalty box, Detroit scored to win the game and the series, and later went on to win the Stanley Cup.