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.
January 23, 1956
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."
Beliveau should be a member of the big happy family for the next ten years. As a drawing power second only to Richard (who, at 34, may expect to play two or three more seasons at the most), Beliveau could earn over $25,000 this season, not including the $10000 he is reportedly pulling in for his role as a sort of roving good-will ambassador for a Montreal brewery. He and his pretty wife Elsie have recently moved into a new house and one of their present off-duty preoccupations is the selection of a suite of furniture—a three-year overdue gift from the club management which took this method of showing him its appreciation for consenting to a Montreal try-out while he was still playing for Quebec. Less distinguished prospects on trial receive a flat payment of $100 a game.
When Les Canadiens in their red uniforms with royal blue and white trim skate out on the Forum ice to the applause from the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic audience in all sport, the autograph hunters seek out Richard first and then Beliveau. Quite in keeping with their different personalities, Richard, during this brief lull before the battle, retains his usual serious scowl. Beliveau gives his admirers a faint smile. The game under way, they remain individually different although working for the same cause. "With Maurice," said Managing Director Selke, "his moves are powered by instinctive reflexes. Maurice can't learn from lectures. He does everything by instinct and with sheer power. Beliveau, on the other hand, is probably the classiest hockey player I've ever seen. He has a flair for giving you his hockey as a master showman. He is a perfect coach's hockey player because he studies and learns. He's moving and planning all the time, thinking out the play required for each situation. The difference between the two best hockey players in the game today is simply this: Beliveau is a perfectionist, Richard is an opportunist."
As these classifications clearly suggest, the mannerisms of the two men on the ice are quite different. Richard's fiery and explosive temper has gotten him more than once into a hotbed of trouble. Beliveau, for a time, was just the opposite, and, in fact, during his first year with Les Canadiens he acquired the nickname Gentleman Jean when it was discovered around the league that the new rookie had a distinct aversion to mixing it up. His former coach, Dick Irvin, noticing the change that has come over Beliveau during the last year, says of him now, "Like the other great players in the game, Jean was quick to smarten up when he saw the opposition getting the best of him. He'll never be the type to go around looking for trouble, but now he can be as tough as anybody."
EVERY MAN IS IMPORTANT
Statistics back up Irvin's observations: in the season's first 41 games Beliveau (who scored 23 goals and had 23 assists) racked up 98 minutes in penalties—compared to only 58 minutes in 70 games last season. In the same 41 games this year Richard accounted for only 55 penalty minutes—a seemingly conclusive indication that the Montreal riot of last March left him with a deep sense of mortification, as well as with a fierce determination to keep any further scandal from touching the game he loves and to which he has devoted his life.
Coach Blake naturally believes Richard, Beliveau and Geoffrion will all play major roles in carrying Les Canadiens to the NHL title. But he is quick to point out that his league-leading club is a team of much talent, spread amply from the front line to the nets. "I tell my club," says Blake, "that four or five stars don't make a team. Every one in uniform is important. Take our goalie, Jacques Plante: he has the faculty of stopping the very difficult shots. Doug Harvey and Tom Johnson have very few bad games on defense. They are steady—which is just what a coach wants in a hockey player. Of the forwards, Bert Olmstead and Kenny Mosdell are great team players, and Floyd-Curry does a fine job but he gets little credit. He and Don Marshall are the best penalty killers in the league.
"The rookies are promising too. Claude Provost and Jean-Guy Talbot will make fine National Leaguers in time. So will Henri Richard, whom I've got centering for his brother, Maurice." At 19, the Pocket Rocket is already good—good enough to have earned a spot centering for Maurice and Dickie Moore strictly on his own merits. "He's a little small yet," says Blake, "but with his speed we keep telling him not to try to go through the big opposition defensemen, just go around them." In temperament the younger Richard (who has a capable younger brother, Claude, known as the Vest-Pocket Rocket) is more like Beliveau than he is like brother Maurice; he likes to think things out before making his move. And when he does make his move, Pocket Rocket, like his teammates, moves fast. For Les Canadiens, large as a team, have what Blake refers to as "plenty of leg." They play an offensive type of game, at times a rather wide-open one, but the accent is always on shooting. "We have more fellows with good shots," says Blake, "than any other team in the league. Some people look on us as too old a club. They can say what they want. When our old men stop producing we'll bring up younger fellows who will start producing."
The Montreal farm system, which will some day supply the replacements for such veterans as Maurice Richard, Kenny Mosdell and Captain Butch Bouchard, was never geared for mass production of hockey players until Selke, who had learned hockey management under Conn Smythe at Toronto, moved in as managing director of Les Canadiens in 1946. Today, less than 10 years after he first rejuvenated the system by organizing a nine-team junior league within the city of Montreal, Selke can proudly point to 750 teams and 10,000 hockey players either owned outright, sponsored or in some way "influenced" by the Club de Hockey Canadien. This vast empire, now directed largely by Kenny Reardon, onetime Montreal All-Star defenseman, is bigger than the farm systems of all other National Hockey League clubs combined. It stretches from the province of Quebec across the Dominion to Winnipeg, Regina and Kitchener, and down into the U.S., where Montreal assistance is recognized in such cities as Seattle and Cincinnati.
"We have no trouble getting youngsters interested in playing in a Montreal uniform," says Selke. "We have three natural selling points: success of the farm clubs (every major Montreal affiliate finished last season in either first or second place in its respective league); Maurice Richard—and now Jean Beliveau. For years kids have wanted to play where Richard plays. Beliveau is just one example, and now, for years to come, kids will want to play on a team with Beliveau."
Like Beliveau and Richard, roughly half of Les Canadiens are French Canadian, and Selke likes the mixture not only because of the pleasure it affords the 70% French-Canadian Forum audience, but also because "it gives our team a Latin flair which is good for us everywhere. However, we're really more concerned with ability than nationality. If a boy is good enough, he can play on our team no matter who he is."
Long before he can qualify for his varsity uniform, the future Canadien comes under the careful scrutiny of Reardon and his scouts. From the local park leagues good prospects may be signed to Pee Wee teams at the age of 12. From there they can move up to bantam (age 13), midget (14), juvenile (15-17), junior (17-20), senior amateur (over 20) and finally into one of the four professional leagues—the Quebec, the Western, the American or the National. On the way up the ladder they learn from top coaches, many of them former big team stars like Billy Reay, Roger Leger and Elmer Lach. On Selke's orders they also are subjected to lessons in manners (example: in public always wear hat, coat and tie) and character building (example: Junior teams traveling with Coach Sam Pollock were directed to attend church every Sunday).
Today Les Canadiens, recognized as the biggest and most colorful drawing card in hockey, play to sellout crowds at every home game and the gate receipts run to a million dollars a season. Nonetheless there are heavy expenses to be reckoned with. Montreal pays out over $260,000 in annual salaries alone for some 20 players, coaches and trainers on the big team. After the playoffs are over, no rookie will earn less than $10,000 for his season's work, and a few of the big stars can expect to take home well over $20,000. Next to transportation costs—about $38,000 for first-class transportation and hotels over the club's 35,000 miles per season—the major expense is for equipment. Some $20,000 is tossed over the counter for equipment and maintenance—for example: 72 hockey sticks per man per season at $3.50 a stick; three pairs of skates per man per season at $55 a pair. Furthermore, every player's skates must be sharpened every day at a cost of 50¢ a day per man. A Montreal goaltender uses up 125 sticks a season. The cost: $4.50 a stick. And so on through dozens of items of protective equipment and thousands of rolls of friction tape and hundreds of cartons of cotton padding. Added to all this is the cost of lending financial assistance to the farm system (last year's operating loss within the system: $200,000), and, as Selke points out, "We're really not much of a money-maker."
A PICTURE TO WATCH
This week, as Les Canadiens tried to bear down in an effort to end the seven-year NHL championship reign of the Detroit Red Wings, all hands were as optimistic as they dared be. Maurice Richard, still showing the old-time lightning reflexes which many thought would have left him by now, said he felt better than ever. Jean Beliveau, trying to hang on to his league scoring lead, was smiling gently and still maintaining an average of better than a point a game. And Coach Toe Blake, true to form, was giving off the same old gloom. "Our club is like our power play. On that one we have Olmstead, Beliveau and Maurice at forward and Harvey and Geoffrion on the points. If they're playing it right it is a beautiful picture to watch. Well, if our team is playing right they're all beautiful to watch. But any hockey man will tell you that in hockey things don't always go right...."