Once again the autumnal ice floes have drifted down on urban sports arenas and another hockey season has begun. But this year the ice could be warmed by unaccustomed competition. For the first time in a long while the perennial champions of the National Hockey League are declared by the experts to be officially vincible, and the race to take their place might be full of suspense.
There are at least three teams capable of unseating the Montreal Canadiens this season. The annual poll of sportswriters taken by Hockey News gives Chicago's Black Hawks and Detroit's Red Wings the best chances and goes on to pick the Black Hawks as likeliest champs. Those who fancy the Toronto Maple Leafs, however, are confident that they will end up ahead of both. Few give New York or Boston much of a chance, but each is starting out with a new coach and, presumably, new determination. On the following pages, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED takes a look at all six contenders.
MONTREAL WON'T QUIT
With the best defenseman of modern times—Doug Harvey—missing from their ranks, with high-scoring Forwards Jean Beliveau and Dickie Moore on the sick list for a month or more, with another defenseman, Tom Johnson, benched with a broken ankle, Montreal's Canadiens had every reason to enter the slump predicted for them. Instead, after two weeks of the new season, they were acting more like the old invincible Habs than ever. Their scoring chores were being ably handled by the veteran Boom Boom Geoffrion, the wonderfully swift little center, Henri Richard, and such lesser stickmen as Claude Provost, Ralph Backstrom and Marcel Bonin. The defense, now featuring pugnacious Lou Fontinato, who was brought north from New York specifically to be a backline cop for Montreal's light hitters, was adequate, and masked Goalie Jacques Plante was off to his best start in years.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think of the Canadiens as the same unbeatable team that won four straight NHL titles and five of the last six Stanley Cup playoffs. But it might be an equally bad mistake to discount their challenge simply because the Black Hawks' bully beef gave them a mauling in last spring's Stanley Cup semifinals.
TORONTO STANDS PAT
If there is nothing much new to say about Toronto's Maple Leafs, it's because Manager-Coach Punch Imlach is retaining a team he has spent a long time building—a team that spent most of last year pacing Montreal at the head of the race and ended the regular season in second place. It was a team full of surprises—good ones like 20-goal seasons from not one but two freshmen, and a 48-goal season from young Frank Mahovlich, whom many had written off as too lazy; and bad ones, like the poor showing of such reliable regulars as Dick Duff, Bob Pulford and Carl Brewer. But the good surprises far outweighed the bad, and Imlach may well uncork a few more this year. If Imlach oldsters like Goalie Johnny Bower (who admits to 37), Defenseman Allan Stanley, 35, and the playmaking center Red Kelly, 34, hold on and if Imlach's youngsters hold up, Toronto will be a real threat. Even without counting Stanley, the Leafs' defense corps of Bob Baun, Carl Brewer, Larry Hillman and Tim Horton may be the best in the league. And if the seasoned forwards slump, kid prospects like Larry Keenan and Bruce Draper can always move up. In any case, Punch Imlach will act as if he's going to win every game by 10 points, and that always helps.
CHICAGO LOOKS TOUGH
As famed for muscle as Montreal is for speed, last year's surprise Stanley Cup champion Black Hawks conceivably could win this year. But to do it, Chicago needs scorers, and so far has not shown signs of having many. Goalie Glenn Hall is first-rate and the Black Hawk defense is mean and expert, but last year the forwards shot only 18 more goals than were scored against them. To be sure, they roughhoused Montreal right out of the Stanley Cup, but they finished a poor third in the regular season, 17 points behind the champions, who were stale and tired from the long season by the time the cup playoff's came along.
To fill the scoring hole, Genera! Manager Tommy Ivan has been shopping hard for new goal-getters. From Boston he drafted blow-hot, blow-cold Bronco Horvath, who dipped from 39 goals two seasons ago to 15 last year. He picked up two youngsters from Detroit, Brian Smith and Jerry Melnyk, in trade for his slumping onetime star wing, Ed Litzenberger.
But until the newcomers shake down, Ivan must depend on his one superior line: Bobby Hull, Red Hay and Murray Balfour and a mixed lot of forwards, of whom feisty young Stan Mikita (19 goals last year) has perhaps the most potential.
DETROIT HAS HOWE
This year as before, Detroit is searching for picture cards to go with its one luminous ace, Gordie Howe. Last year, in a massive new deal, the Red Wings added nine new players—and finished fourth. But Coach Sid Abel felt the team was 50% stronger at season's end. This summer Abel played his cards a little tighter. He took only two major gambles: trading two young, unproved forwards to Chicago for Ed Litzenberger, a 30-goal man gone sour, and giving hard-pressed New York $20,000 and an obscure minor leaguer for the slick but aging defenseman Bill Gadsby.
Centering on a line with Howe, big Litz has already boomed in six goals in the first six games. Gadsby, an expert rushing defenseman and power-play man, was hired not only for his own skills but to put some sense and style into a quick-fisted defensive bravo named Howie Young.
But Detroit's one sure trick remains Gordie Howe, who is still, at the age of 33 and after 15 NHL seasons, not only hockey's best player but also its most feared one. By spring he should become the second player in history to score 500 goals (Rocket Richard was, of course, first). Without this sturdy veteran the Red Wings could still be nothing.
NEW YORK HAS HOPES
Struggling to rise above its usual mediocrity, New York has boldly lured 36-year-old Doug Harvey from Montreal to direct the ascent as player-coach. Ranger fans haven't been so excited in years, for as a player he has at least a year of superior hockey in his tiring legs, and as a coach he brings a touch of the Canadiens' winning aura to the disheartened Ranger locker room. With the Rangers leading the league at the end of the first two weeks, the Harvey magic seemed to be working fine.
Viewed realistically, however, the magic seemed almost bound to run out for lack of rabbits in the hat. Of Ranger forwards, Harvey can count only four holdover "pros": Superstar Andy Bathgate, Andy Hebenton, Dean Prentice and Camille Henry.
With Gadsby, Lou Fontinato and John Hanna gone, Harvey himself will serve as the core of the New York defense, along with holdover Harry Howell and newcomer Junior Langlois. He has brought chippy Jean Guy Gendron from Montreal to bolster the front line. But most of Harvey's fortune will depend on players who may—or may not—improve.
And, just to make matters worse, Goalie Gump Worsley was hit by a puck and sent to a hospital last week.
BOSTON, POOR BOSTON
Once again the sadsack, rookie-heavy Bruins seem to be in for a miserable season. But they do have a new coach, and his incendiary tongue may distract public attention for a time from the team's spectacular ineptitude. This unlucky man is none other than Phillipe Henri Watson, the same Phiery Phil who tongue-lashed the Rangers to three consecutive playoffs before losing his winning touch, his health (via ulcers) and, in 1960, his job.
As replacement for kindly Coach Milt Schmidt (who escapes to the front office), Watson will teach a special brand of tough hockey, and Boston has always loved a bad, bold team ever since Eddie Shore scrapped nightly on the ice.
The trouble now is that Phil has nothing but cardboard grizzlies to fight with. Tough and touchy old Fern Flaman has retired to coach Providence, leaving beefy Leo Boivin as the only genuine bad guy in the bunch. There are signs that rookie Defenseman Ted Green might develop. He's already broken a fist on several Toronto players and a goal post. Unlike most goalies, Boston's Don Head has proved a good fighter but he doesn't stop many goals.
It looks like another long, hard winter for the hockey tans in cold Back Bay.