At first glance the Stanley Cup finals being played along the southern shores of North America's Great Lakes last week seemed like a pretty parochial affair. For the first time in 11 years, both teams were American rather than Canadian—in theory anyway—and both were owned by members of the Norris family. James D. Norris, whose name is more respected in hockey circles than it is in boxing, owns the Chicago Black Hawks; his brother Bruce and his sister Marguerite own the Detroit Red Wings.
In point of fact, however, things were not nearly so Americanized: the 44th playing of the Stanley Cup was, like all big-time professional hockey, a strictly Canadian affair. Its principal protagonists were Canadian Gordie Howe, the Red Wings' ageless one-man team who hails from Floral, Sask., and the Black Hawks' bright, buoyant star, Bobby Hull of Point Anne, Ont. The theme of the drama was the downfall of a team which didn't even make the finals—the National Hockey League champion Montreal Canadiens.
Under the curious rules of pro hockey, winning a league championship is a somewhat empty triumph. After surviving the cut-and-thrust of a full 70-game season, the winning club must then prove in a brief postseason "world series" that it is indeed superior to teams it already has whipped. Only by doing the job twice can a champion become entitled to the large silver basin known as the Stanley Cup—and sometimes the Cup is snatched away by a mere also-ran. The two teams competing in the finals this week stood third and fourth in the season's ratings. If this fact diminished to some extent the significance of the "All-America finals," it in no way diminished the quality of the play. Fans in both Chicago and Detroit got more than their money's worth in the confrontation of Howe and Hull.
After 15 years in the NHL, Gordie Howe is still the most feared player on the ice. Others are strong. He is strong as a boa constrictor and, in his own quiet way, touchy as a cobra. Besides, he can skate, shoot and defend surpassingly well. This season he became the second NHL player of all time to score 500 goals (including playoffs; first was Rocket Richard).
Bobby Hull is a beast of a different kind. Bouncy and breezy as a young calf, he rarely uses his great strength to intimidate. He likes to skate into the opponents' zone, then accelerate full throttle and swoop past, or if necessary through, the defense, and shoot at close range. At 22, he is Howe's junior by 11 years, and although he was the league scoring champion last season he has yet to realize his immense potential. Some hockey people think he is a little lazy, but it was a hurrying Hull that the Chicago Stadium welcomed as the best-of-seven-game series opened last Thursday. Hull not only scored two goals in the Hawks' 3-2 victory but rudely jolted Detroit Goalie Terry Sawchuk right out of the game.
Saturday found Sawchuk still sidelined, along with Defenseman Marcel Pronovost, who is second only to Howe among Detroit assets. That left things pretty much up to Gordie, who led rushes, skated off penalties, stole pucks and occasionally walked on water as the Wings tied up the series with a 3-1 win on home ice.
Diverting as it may have been to Chicago and Detroit fans, however, this skirmishing between Hull and Howe and the war between the Wings and the Hawks was only an anticlimax to the Cup play that had gone on before. An upstart Detroit knocked out the promising Maple Leafs in the semifinal round, and the hefty, hungry Hawks, who haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1938, beat the Canadiens. Of these, the significant victory was that of the Hawks—Toronto's defeat by Detroit was only a logical extension of the Maple Leafs' weary letdown after their frustrating season-long run at the Canadiens, which failed by only one point. The Hawks, however, not only beat the Habs; they sent them back to Canada in a state of shock.
Far from fresh when the series began after the season's draining fight to best Toronto, Montreal still had enough class to win the first game, by a top-heavy score of 6-2. Chicago took the next by only 4-3, and then went one up by snatching a precious, psychologically devastating and physically punishing 2-1 victory in the third 20-minute overtime period of the following game. Vexed at Referee Dalton MacArthur for calling a Hab tripping penalty, which left Montreal shorthanded at the game-winning score, Coach Toe Blake, normally one of the best-behaved gentlemen in hockey, reacted by throwing a punch at MacArthur, a punch that cost Toe $2,000. After that, Montreal rallied and evened the series in the next game. But the wear and tear had been too great. Boom Boom Geoffrion, the Habs' fabulous wingman, had a leg in a cast. Center Donnie Marshall, utility man extraordinary, had a lame knee. The brilliant young wing, Bill Hicke, was wearing a helmet after suffering a concussion. Doug Harvey, the rock to which Montreal's defense has long been anchored, had come into the series with hip, ankle and knee ailments and was feeling new aches and the weight of his 36 years. Center Jean Beliveau, the league's best, was whole but slumping.
To make matters worse for Montreal, the Hawks then lost the hockey man's standard awe of the Canadiens. Hab-fright, as this nervous state might be termed, has long been equivalent to Yank-funk, the Pavlovian swoon common to baseball players upon sight of the New York team's pin-stripes. Suddenly it must have occurred to the Hawks that the Habs could actually be beaten. Until then, despite Montreal's obvious decline from past eminence, Chicago had thought defensively. At that point, however, the Hawks took the offense, mentally and on the ice.
Never before had a good Montreal team been so roughly handled. By the last two games—both of them 3-0 Chicago shutouts—the Canadiens were quite incapable of the swift, graceful and deadly sorties into the enemy's zone for which they had so long been famous. Only by an immense effort of will did the Montreal defense deny the Hawks humiliating goal totals. "They wore us out," said a Montreal front-office man. "We were a battered team. But we were beaten by a better one."
Hungry for the kill, a capacity audience of 16,666 persons jammed Chicago Stadium on the night of the sixth and final game. What they saw was more an execution than a contest. In the very first period Montreal's once-pulverizing power play failed to produce a goal when the Hawks were two men down because of penalties. Geoffrion, the pain in his leg only partly blocked by novocain, gamely got one line drive away, but Hall fielded it. Brave but almost entirely useless now, Geoffrion soon retired for the evening. Had the power play succeeded or had the equally brave Donnie Marshall scored when he stole the puck, soloed the length of the rink and fired at Hall point-blank, the Canadiens might conceivably have stiffened and won. (Hawk Coach Rudy Pilous said the rink was shaly from use by an ice show and Marshall could not properly control the puck.)
But in the second period the strong, close-checking Hawks exerted irresistible pressure and scored their three goals. The third one followed an agonizing two minutes in which the Habs vainly and almost hysterically tried to clear the puck from their end. Hull got his stick on it and fired a scorcher, which Eric Nesterenko tipped in. Hawk fans yelled their heads off. One of them tossed a string of firecrackers onto the ice almost exactly where Hull had shot, and for some 20 seconds there was a crackling counterpoint to the crowd's exultation. In the press box a glum Montreal newspaperman felt Churchillian stirrings and solemnly typed: "It was the twilight of the Titans." But in the Hawks' locker room after the final victory, Chicago Goalie Glenn Hall put the matter in a far less rhetorical nutshell:
"Those guys," he said, nodding toward the Canadiens, "have laughed at us long enough."