The professional hockey season now vibrates to its annual spring climax—the Stanley Cup playoffs—and as this appears it may well be that only the two finalists will remain on the ice. Yet there is a memory of the regular season's events that should not be soon forgotten. For at a point just past mid-season the crowds in the six rinks where the National Hockey League operates witnessed that rarity, the rise of a new star of the first magnitude in the game's superconstellation. He is Andrew James Bathgate, a handsome young man of 24 out of Winnipeg who plays mostly right wing but also left wing and center for the New York Rangers.
During his two major league seasons which preceded this one, Bathgate had many times done things which indicated kinship with the great, but actually he crossed the threshold into the sparsely settled land of the superstars only after the 70-game season of 1956-57 had run half its course. The immediate result was that the Rangers, going nowhere fast, began to play the best and most exciting hockey in the league, driving straight to a Stanley Cup playoff berth with only two defeats in five weeks. And this ability to inspire teammates to play better is something we always find in the great ones.
There are about 100 players on the rosters of the six clubs of the NHL, and many of them are stars as we use that word so freely in sports. But above them there is—as in other sports—another and even higher class. In it are the superstars of hockey, and there have been precious few of them at any one time in the game's history.
In fact, when he had qualified, Bathgate became one of only five front-line men currently acknowledged to be in this category: Maurice Richard, the fabulous Rocket of the Montreal Canadiens; Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay of the Detroit Red Wings (SI, March 18); and Jean Beliveau, a younger Canadien of eminence. To these must also be added a pair of extraordinary defense men—Doug Harvey of the Canadiens and Red Kelley of the Red Wings. Bathgate is the first new member of this lodge since Beliveau elected himself in 1953, but there is a suspicion around the league that Ed Litzenberger, Bathgate's teen-age rival back in Canada, may soon cross the border into greatness as a forward on the Chicago Black Hawks.
They do not burst suddenly in all their brilliance, these superstars. On the contrary, it often seems they take longer to develop than lesser players. Howe scored only 35 goals in his first three seasons. Bathgate, an outstanding schoolboy athlete along with his two older brothers in Winnipeg, needed five years to make it from junior hockey in Guelph, Ontario to stardom in Madison Square Garden.
Two of those years were with minor league teams in Vancouver and Cleveland. But now, like most big league hockey players, Andy is a man of substance, married to a Vancouver girl with whose father he operates a motel out there. He also owns a golf driving range in Guelph which his brother Frank runs, and he is himself a good enough golfer to contemplate a professional career when his hockey days are done.
What is it that sets these so-called superstars apart from their fellows, some of whom seem at times as talented as they? They have much in common, the great ones, but how different they are!
Howe is an enormously strong man of phlegmatic temperament. Richard and Lindsay are the cholerics, always ready for a fight, the one a perfectly built picture of an athlete, the other a wiry little man as tough as rawhide. Beliveau is an amiable giant touched with a moody melancholy, and Bathgate, 6 feet and 175 pounds, is the sanguine who keeps laughingly out of trouble while performing his frequent miracles and charming even the enemy with his strong, open and happy personality.
All of them are at once individualists and great team players, and what they have in common is an uncommon skill and flair for a most difficult game. To each, the number of strategic, or puck-carrying, possibilities is greater than to others and in a game where the unforeseen develops continually they alone try the new, the unexpected.
Bathgate especially has this ability to an unusual degree and, like The Rocket, he can bring gasps from the crowd by the audacity of moves which lesser men can neither conceive nor carry out. All first-class players who keep shooting score goals one way or another. Only the master knows how to direct a series of movements so that they place him where none can prevent his doing so.
There comes to mind a moment in the final home game against Detroit with the score tied. Bathgate had taken a pass some 15 feet in front of the Red Wings' goal and suddenly found himself alone. As he moved toward Goalie Glenn Hall he faked first with his stick, then with his shoulders, until this most capable of goal tenders was hopelessly off balance. At that point Andy flicked the puck in the net as simply as if it had been unguarded. The entire play might have taken no more than the blink of an eye, yet so deliberate and effortless were his actions that Bathgate appeared to have all the time in the world.
LAYING IT ON BLADES
Anticipation—the sort that appears to come by instinct but is, of course, the result of immense talent and concentration—is another of the assets that has lifted Bathgate into the circle of hockey's superstars, as the final NHL statistics eloquently testify. Although his total production of goals was only 27—seventh highest in the league—his 50 assists placed him fourth in the total-points rankings. In other words, he was a team player rather than an individualist, largely because of his instinct for setting up the ideal play—usually feinting the opposing defense out of position with a maneuver that could not be outguessed—and then laying the puck on the blades of either Prentice or Popein, his first-line teammates, for the score.
Finally, the outstanding quality shared by the superstars is the one which dictates that, when all depends on them, they do not fail. They have an extraordinary talent for seizing hold of a situation to score or set up a winning or tying goal when everything seems lost. Any number of games in which Bathgate did just this during the Rangers' late drive could be cited. It is certainly no accident that Detroit and Montreal have now dominated hockey for nine straight years. Teams with such players nearly always have dominated. But Richard, with 15 seasons behind him, and Lindsay with 13 are at least nearing the end of the road. It may be that the Rangers, with Bathgate to lead them, are emerging at last from their "weak sister" category and will move toward the top in the years just ahead.