If the Montreal Canadiens fail to win the National Hockey League race that is just getting warmly under way, they will know something of the embarrassment suffered by Thomas E. Dewey on that autumn morning in 1948. Dewey couldn't lose, and neither can the 1958-59 Canadiens. The other coaches in the league have already conceded the title to Hector (Toe) Blake's swift pupils; the opposing teams are just scrapping for a crack at Montreal in the Stanley Cup playoffs. "This is the best hockey team in the world," says Frank Selke, managing director of the Canadiens, "the strongest I have had in 12 years at Montreal."
The Dewey analogy is not used to imply that a miracle will happen—but only to emphasize the lead Montreal has piled up in hockey opinion polls. There was no need to call in Dr. Gallup. Everybody favors Maurice Richard & Co.
Richard, "The Rocket"—the Ruth, the Dempsey, the Tilden of ice hockey—is starting his 17th NHL season at the implausibly old age of 37. This is an age at which most hockey players (retired, of course) do well to keep up with a well-oiled perambulator; but Richard, as Toe Blake says, "is not like the rest of us." French Canadians, who revere The Rocket, say he possesses le feu sacré. This sacred fire—or whatever you wish to call the unearthly intensity Richard brings to hockey—is kindling again on schedule.
It isn't just the inspiriting presence of the great right wing that makes Montreal so formidable. The other superstars—Beliveau, Geoffrion, Harvey—are sound; The Rocket's kid brother Henri, one of the fastest and most stylish players in the game, returns at center; the league scoring champion, Left Wing Dickie Moore, has taken the cast off his broken hand; Jacques Plante's in goal; and all's right with the Canadiens. They won last season's title by 19 points despite a wave of ailments which, among other things, nearly killed Boom Boom Geoffrion (bowel rupture) and almost ended The Rocket's career (damaged Achilles' tendon). What a healthy team will do is frightening, or exhilarating, to contemplate, depending on your leanings.
This is not to say that the Canadiens will march routinely and dully to the championship. Seventy games make a long season; like the Yankees, the Canadiens will lose a few and will have to struggle to win others. The sport itself is so fast, the action so rugged and the scoring so close that the customers will have plenty to cheer about, even if their own teams cannot hope to win the title.
What's more, the opposition should be noticeably stronger this season. The dogfight among New York, Detroit, Boston, Chicago and Toronto for the three Stanley Cup playoff berths (besides Montreal's) should be a notably close and vigorous one.
Keen attention will be paid to New York's new kid team, so called because the Rangers let some veterans go in order to protect a flock of promising youngsters. Second in the league last season with a curious mixture of stars and clods, New York is gambling heavily upon five rookies. The most promising among them is a hard-nosed, 21-year-old 190-pound left wing from Sudbury, Ont. named Eddie Shack. Shack, sort of a mean Li'l Abner, is always getting his big nose into trouble, to the unspeakable delight of Coach Phil Watson. Called up from the Providence club, for whom he got 16 goals in 35 games last year, Shack opened a 10-stitch cut in an opponent in an exhibition-game brawl and was bailed out of jail after carrying the fight into the stands.
Elsewhere in the league there has been some reshuffling of veterans, and there are other experiments involving rookies. Chicago is making an especially strong bid to become a cup contender. The Black Hawks got out of the cellar last season as Toronto slipped down; new blood, including two rugged defensemen—Dollard St. Laurent, bought from Montreal, and Al Arbour, from Detroit—could move Chicago up a notch.
Third-place Detroit still has Gordie Howe, probably the best all-round forward in hockey, but not enough other bodies to menace the Canadiens. Fourth-place Boston, with the big roughhouse team that gave Montreal some bad moments in the playoff finals, is, by and large, standing pat. Toronto has picked up the Canadiens' aging but presumably still resourceful playmaker, Bert Olmstead, and has visions of a third-or even second-place finish.
As the majors face off, another set of fans is saluting the start of a companion season, that of hockey's far-flung minor leagues. There are five in all in the U.S. and Canada. At the highest level is the American Hockey League, with teams in Buffalo, Cleveland, Hershey, Providence, Rochester and Springfield. A notch below are the nine-team Western League, predominantly Canadian (Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, New Westminster, Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, Spokane), and the four-team Quebec League (Montreal Royals, Quebec, Three Rivers, Chicoutimi), all Canadian. Then come the Eastern League, with seven teams in the eastern U.S. (Clinton, N.Y.; Charlotte, N.C.; Washington, D.C.; Johnstown, Pa.; Philadelphia; New Haven, Conn.; Commack, N.Y.), and the International League, with five teams in the Midwest (Louisville; Indianapolis; Troy, Ohio; Toledo; Fort Wayne, Ind.).
Although most of the minor league teams are independently owned, they serve as farm teams for the National Hockey League, the one major league in hockey. NHL teams may draft players from the American, Western and Quebec leagues; the American League in turn may draft from the Western and Quebec leagues. The other two leagues, however, have no such formal draft arrangements.
The usual affiliation between an NHL team and one or more minors is that of a working agreement which permits an interchange of players during the season that is apart from the off-season draft. An important exception is Montreal, which owns the Montreal Royals of the Quebec League outright and has, with Toronto, a financial stake in Rochester of the American League.
You remember Montreal? The Canadiens? Ah, yes. They're in. Can't lose.
PLAYERS, PLANS AND PROSPECTS
This is one of the great teams of all time. Maurice Richard, at 37, expects to get 25 goals. Former scoring champs Jean Beliveau and Boom Boom Geoffrion, healthy again, will make Dickie Moore (right) dig to repeat his 1957-58 title. Henri Richard, second in last season's scoring, centers for The Rocket and Moore. Rookies Ralph Backstrom and Ab McDonald are competing for Bert Olmstead's old left wing slot on a line with Beliveau and Geoffrion. The incomparable Doug Harvey leads the league's best defense, reinforced by Rookie Albert (Junior) Langlois. Goalie Jacques Plante had the best goals-against average last year; he's back.
NEW YORK RANGERS
A surprising second last season, New York is gambling now that five rookies will prove out. While they get acclimated, the team must rely heavily on veteran Right Wing Andy Bathgate (right), a certified superstar; Defense-man Bill Gadsby, one of the NHL's best; Left Wing Dean Prentice, recovered from last year's injuries; and little Camille Henry, a 32-goal man. The brawling rookie wing, Eddie Shack, goes on a line with Red Sullivan and Andy Hebenton. Newcomers Jim Bartlett, Earl Ingarfield and Les Colwill are forwards; another, John Hanna, plays defense. "We'll get better," says Coach Phil Watson, "as we go along."
DETROIT RED WINGS
Firmly dislodged by Montreal as the power of the NHL, Detroit is rebuilding. Six players are new to the team this season. One thing is constant, however-the stature of Gordie Howe (right). Scoring champion five times and most valuable player four times, Howe, at 30, is fit and looking for another 40-goal season. Center Alex Delvecchio moves to left wing on a potent line with Howe and Center Norm Ullman. Five new forwards are being tried out, including a lad named Charley Burns who suffered a terrible skull fracture five years ago. "We can finish anywhere from second to sixth," says General Manager Jack Adams.
Boston extended the mighty Canadiens to six games in the Stanley Cup finals on aggressiveness, desire and the inspired goal-tending of Don Simmons. There are no superstars, but instead a high proportion of good, honest workmen like Defenseman Doug Mohns (left). The first line of Don McKenney, Fleming Mackell and Jerry Toppazzini is intact, and Real Chevrefils, a 31-goal player in 1956-57, takes over Johnny Bucyk's wing on the line with Bronco Horvath and Vic Stasiuk. Center Earl Reibel was obtained from Detroit, Winger Guy Gendron from New York. Captain Fernie Flaman, Mohns, Leo Boivin and Bob Armstrong make up a stout defense corps. "We'll be stronger," says Coach Milt Schmidt.
CHICAGO BLACK HAWKS
Chicago has not had a playoff team since 1952-53 and, in fact, has yet to win an NHL title. The great ex-Detroit left wing, Ted Lindsay, fizzled expensively last year. Now the Black Hawks have spent $100,000 more to acquire the veteran NHL defensemen Dollard St. Laurent, Al Arbour and Jack Evans, and Forwards Tod Sloan and Danny Lewicki, as well as some minor leaguers. All-Star Goalie Glenn Hall (left) is bound to have a more effective defense in front of him; Sloan and Lewicki help fill the chasm at center. Holdover Forwards Ed Litzen-berger, Eric Nesterenko and Bobby Hull must provide the scoring punch. "I think we'll get one of the playoff spots," says Coach Rudy Pilous.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Toronto's prospects for a solid recovery from last season's horrible finish depend on some big ifs. If 32-year-old Bert Olmstead digs for the puck and makes plays as he did at Montreal...if last year's rookie sensation, Frank Mahovlich, clicks on the new line with Olmstead and George Armstrong...if Johnny Bower, up from Cleveland, trades off effectively with Ed Chadwick in goal...if the Leafs' 1957-58 scoring leader, Dick Duff (left) keeps improving...if the minor league stars Steve Kraftcheck and Carl Brewer make good on defense...then the slump will be over. Right now it's hard to envision a Toronto playoff berth, but Coach Billy Reay insists, "I'm sure we can finish third."