By whatever name you call them—the Canadiens, Les Habitants, Le Bleu Blanc Rouge—the magnificent 18 who play ice hockey for Montreal are in a class apart in the National Hockey League. The league this season has two divisions: the Habs, up there in first place by a margin never before achieved by the NHL leaders in mid-February; and the five hab-nots, down in the depths scuffling for the three other Stanley Cup playoff positions.
Last weekend the Canadiens lost a close game to Chicago at home, then breezed into Manhattan and gave the second-place New York Rangers a 3-1 drubbing, to lead them by the staggering total of 25 points.
Any team that runs away to that kind of advantage with more than a month of the season remaining obviously must have something special, even in a year of general rebuilding and unprecedented injuries. The Canadiens have everything. You might not see the same 18 on the ice for more than a few games at a time, injuries having been so frequent and severe, but the reserves are so gifted that the effect is the same.
On the attack the Canadiens move with breathtaking speed, like a troop of cavalry overrunning dismounted men. This swashbuckling offense tends to becloud the fact that the defense is far and away the best in the league and probably the best of all in the 28 years since the advent of forward passing in the offensive zone—a change of rules which radically altered the role of the defenseman. In goal, Jacques Plante, who crouches alertly on this week's cover, is a sharp-eyed, courageous and original gardien de buts who has been well-blooded in his difficult profession, having had both cheekbones and his nose broken by the puck.
February 17, 1958
"But see here," someone says, "with the high-scoring forwards the Canadiens have, a good offense is the best defense."
Not true. "We're a freewheeling team," says the Canadiens' managing director, Frank Selke. "We're not. spoilers. We don't try to keep the other team from playing hockey. If we just win the game that doesn't please us. We want to put on a good show for the fans. As a result there is plenty of pressure on the defense, and Plante gets a lot of work."
Playing to scripture according to Frank Selke, the Canadiens have indeed put on a good show. Maurice Richard, one of the great athletes of the century, played in just enough games of his 16th season with Montreal to score that historic 500th regular-season goal and a few more before a slashed Achilles' tendon put him on the sick list. So the precocious left wing, Dickie Moore, took over Richard's right wing, earned a midseason all-star berth and now leads the NHL in scoring. Rocket Richard's little brother Henri (the Pocket Rocket), who won't be 22 until the end of this month, earned the center position on the midseason all-star team. The fact that big Jean Beliveau missed 15 games and Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion missed five and Plante missed nine through illness or injury before the stretch run seemed not to matter. Now Geoffrion is out again, and so are Left Wing Bert Olmstead and Defenseman Jean-Guy Talbot—and the show goes on just about as brilliantly as before.
And though the pressure is great, as Frank Selke says, the Montreal defense is uniquely equipped to thrive on it.
LONESOME BACK THERE
On the tense fifth night of the Stanley Cup finals four years ago (the story goes), a Montreal forward named Johnny McCormack was hawking the puck in Detroit ice so ferociously that the Red Wings could not move it out of their zone. He kept at it so long that finally Doug Harvey, the celebrated arri√®re-garde of the Canadiens, called out to McCormack, "Let 'em get by, Johnny. It's awfully lonely back here."
Harvey, the special ornament of Montreal's defense, is a cool old hand who always has a quip to relax the strain on his hotheaded teammates. He and his colleagues—Tom Johnson, Dollard St. Laurent, Talbot and Bob Turner—are the most effective defense corps in hockey.
"If I had to choose the best defensemen in history," says Selke, "I would put Harvey and Red Kelly on a par among players and pick Eddie Shore and King Clancy from the old days."
"Harvey's the best I've ever seen," says Coach Hector (Toe) Blake, The Old Lamplighter of the Canadiens' famous Punch Line in his playing days. "The biggest single asset a defenseman can have is ability to anticipate plays. In that Harvey is in a class by himself. Besides that, he can do everything else well—body-check, skate, stick-handle, shoot, get the puck out of our zone, set up plays."
"A measure of Harvey's greatness," says the Canadiens' vice-president, Kenny Reardon, whose ruggedly handsome face is cross-hatched with scars from his own years as a defense-man, "is that he can break the rules now and then and get away with it. A defenseman is not supposed to carry the puck across the ice in front of the goal in his own zone. Harvey just glides along in there from time to time as if he's daring someone to try to take the puck away from him."
Now in his 10th full season with Montreal, the 33-year-old subject of all this backslapping is a well-muscled 5-foot-10, 180-pound athlete with a disarmingly boyish countenance. His hair is cropped short, his face is round and ruddy, his eyes are clear blue and his nose has a rakish upward tilt.
Doesn't look very fierce, a visitor to Montreal the other day thought as he hitched a ride with Harvey to see 7-year-old Doug Jr. play goal for a neighborhood team. The park in Montreal's West End was aswarm with tots on skates.
"I started young like that," Harvey said. "I guess just about everybody does in Canada. I had a hockey stick in my hands when I was 3, and I was a center until I was 18, playing for a junior team. One day the coach came up to me and said, 'You're too bloody slow, Harvey. You go on defense.' That's the story of my life."
For six consecutive years now, Harvey has made the NHL all-star team. In the midseason selections by the 42 hockey journalists who pick the all-stars, Harvey was the only unanimous choice this year.
Harvey gets a half dozen or so goals a year, but his principal value on offense is his astonishing clearheadedness and ability to set up plays. He seems to be relaxed, almost lackadaisical, amid the turbulence on the ice. He uses his great gifts economically and to the point; last year he assisted on 44 Montreal goals.
THE ALLEY AND THE ICE
It is common knowledge that considerable physical courage is absolutely necessary in hockey ("If you can't beat 'em in the alley you can't beat 'em on the ice," as Conn Smythe, Toronto's president, says), and here again Harvey cannot be flawed. Those baby-blue eyes mask a proud spirit; he is a dangerous man to arouse. Somebody speared New York's scrappy center, Red Sullivan, with the blade of a stick last year and sent him to the hospital with a ruptured spleen. Sullivan says it was Harvey and swears to "get" him. The story in Montreal is that Sullivan crosschecked Harvey three times in the face with his stick and that Harvey, naturally piqued, let him have it.
Tough boy, Harvey. His mates on the backline have it too.
The veteran Tom Johnson is a big, blond, blue-eyed defenseman who is renowned for his persistence.
St. Laurent, another veteran, is the team's heaviest body-checker. Talbot, playing his third full season with Montreal, is an excellent skater and stick-handler and an expert at getting the puck out of the corners.
The defense corps is nobly aided in the elemental job of keeping the puck out of the Montreal filets by Jacques Plante, the gardien himself.
On a recent Saturday before a Chicago-Montreal game, Kenny Reardon fired up a pipe in his office at the Forum and talked about Plante:
"The way he moves away from the goal to set up a loose puck for the defensemen may revolutionize goalkeeping. I'd say he saves them 15% of the work of clearing the puck.
"I'll admit I didn't like it at first. A goaler just didn't move away from the goal like that. It just wasn't done. Well, you'll notice that some of the other goalers are beginning to do it, too. Another thing, Plante's quick. That's why the fans called him Jake the Snake when he was with our Buffalo farm club."
Frank Selke said: "The Canadiens have had some great goalkeepers: Vezina, whose name is on the trophy for goalers; Hainsworth, who had 22 shutouts in a 44-game season; Durnan—he had to be good—six years on the all-stars. Plante hasn't been with us very long, but he has played very well. I wouldn't trade him for any goaler in the league."
It is well known, but perhaps worth repeating for late tuners, that the audience at the Forum is like no other. So many of the 13,531 seats are reserved for the season that some holders of those precious bits of paper sit high in the galleries, necks bent and cheeks pressed against steel girders for a clear view of the ice, and consider themselves fortunate to be there at all. The majority are French Canadians, for this is Montreal, with a population of more than one million—three-fourths French-speaking. A few bars of the Marseillaise are played along with a few bars of God Save the Queen at the start of each game. Montcalm may have lost French Canada to the anglais on the Plains of Abraham, but the French Canadians have by no means lost their identity. The Montreal hockey team in the NHL is Le Club de Hockey Canadien—French Canadian, mind you.
Plante, a French Canadian to the eyebrows, played a sound game that night and gave up only one goal, on which he had no chance. Harvey was superb, stopping a vicious shot at one point when Plante was scrambling back after one of his patented sorties away from the nets. The forwards were having an off night; still they got two goals, which were enough.
Late next morning, on the long train ride to Detroit for a game that night with the Canadiens' historic antagonists, the Red Wings, Plante ate a bowl of cereal and a plate of ham and hashed-brown potatoes.
Looking lean, hollow-cheeked and serious, almost melancholy, he said in very good English:
"I started skating away from the goal to set up the puck for the defense eight years ago, because the defense-men were so slow. It worked well, and I have done it ever since."
AND BOOM BOOM SHOT
Plante lightly fingered the bridge of his nose.
"I wear a mask now in practice. I think some of the other goalers do, too. First one cheekbone was broken in a warmup before a game, then the other and the nose in practice, so I got the mask. One day I thought, 'My timing is off and perhaps this mask is interfering with my vision. I will take it off after this practice.' And just then Boom Boom shot. The puck came so hard it broke the mask at my forehead. I decided to keep wearing it. The pleasure of this game is to like it, not to think about getting hurt.
"When I was a year and a half old my father carved a goaler's stick for me from a big tree root. When I was 5 he gave me a regular stick, and I played in games in the streets with the older boys. We used a tennis ball for a puck. It would become very hard from the cold. Often it would hit me in the face, and I would cry and go home to mother. She would say, 'Why do you play with the older boys?' But I would go back.
"People say, 'It must be great to be a goaler for the Canadiens, the defense is so strong.' But if a goal is scored, then the goaler is at fault. With a crowd like the one at the Forum, they really give it to you when you make a mistake. 'Reveille-toi!' they will say. 'Wake up!' Or 'On veut Hodge.' 'Bring back Hodge at goal.' On the road there is not as much pressure."
In the Canadiens' car Harvey and Johnson paired off against Talbot and Left Wing Marcel Bonin at bridge. A woman walked through and inquired brightly, "Are you boys hockey players?"
"Only at night, ma'am," replied Harvey.
By and by Johnson explained their bridge technique: "We bid high and sleep in the streets."
Detroit was comparatively warm after the cold of Montreal. After a 3 o'clock steak and baked potato the team loafed until game time at the Olympia Stadium.
Harvey talked about Planter "If the goaler makes a mistake everybody's watching, everybody sees it, you know. If a defenseman makes a mistake it's not as noticeable. And he can say, 'Let's go, now. Let's get that one back.' All Jack can do is stand there and burn.
"Jack saves us a lot of trouble by going after the puck when they dump it into our end. We'd really get reefed in the corners if he didn't do it. He's a good fast skater—as fast as some forwards—and I've only seen it backfire twice."
That night the Red Wings were hot, playing hard to make up for the loss of Gordie Howe, who was sidelined by a rib injury in a game with Boston the day before. The Canadiens lost, 2-4, yet looked good even though losing. On the following Thursday the Canadiens shut out Detroit 7-0 at the Forum, and all was right again in Montreal. Harvey scored one goal and assisted on three others. It was Plante's eighth blanchissage of the season, the most by any goal tender. This shutout was another big step toward his third consecutive Vezina Trophy—the award to the goaler of the team that yields the fewest goals.
Montreal is naturally proud of Le Bleu Blanc Rouge, and naturally there is a song for French Canadians to sing about the team. There is a stanza for each of the stars. At 29, Jacques Plante is in his fourth full season with the Canadiens. He should be back for many more years to hear his part of the song:
Venons donc au grand Plante.
Pour un gardien de buts c'en est un.
Il évite vraiment les coups.
Il a le nez fourré partout.
Un autre blanchissage
Et le Detroit se décourage.