Two months ago, at the start of the current National Hockey League season, the nation's top hockey writers almost unanimously predicted a close race, with Chicago's Stanley Cup champion Black Hawks leading the pack (SI, Nov. 6). They were half right. Last week, as the season entered its third month, the race was close all right—closer than it had been in years—but the Black Hawks weren't even in it. The three front runners were the New York Rangers, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the indestructible Montreal Canadiens, who were widely held to be all washed up. Only a single point separated any one of these teams from the other two, while the next best team, Chicago's lagging Black Hawks, dragged along a good 10 points behind.
Toronto's position in the front rank should have surprised nobody, for patient Coach Punch Imlach, who left his near-championship 1960-61 team virtually unchanged, had planned it that way. With veteran Goalie Johnny Bower still a stalwart in the Toronto net, with the new superstar Frank Mahovlich and the slick-skating sophomore, Dave Keon, firing pucks with predictable effect, the Leafs were behaving just as Imlach expected. The season's surprises concerned the other two teams.
By any sane prediction, of course, New York had no business being anywhere near the top after its dismal fifth-place finish last year. Yet, under the impetus of their new coach, Doug Harvey, late of Montreal, the Rangers had been skating in and out of first place with all the confidence of a team that belongs there. Andy Bathgate, their new captain, is leading the league in scoring, and the forward line he mans with old-time teammate Dean Prentice and comparative newcomer Earl Ingarfield has suddenly become one of the most effective in the business, while Player-Coach Harvey himself has put new iron in the defense. "I'm used to winning," says Harvey, who got the habit during 13 victorious seasons with the Canadiens.
With Harvey on board, it figured that the Rangers would get better, but with Harvey gone it figured also that Montreal would get worse. It didn't. Bullied and beaten by the Black Hawks in the Stanley Cup semifinals last year, the Canadiens started the season with serious gaps in forward line and defense. Harvey himself—the best defenseman in the league—had been traded off to New York. Jacques Plante, the acrobatic masked goalie, was coming off a horrible season, so bad, in fact, that the five-time Vezina Trophy winner was at one point exiled to the minors. Left Wing Dickie Moore, the team's third-highest scorer, and Center Jean Beliveau, the league's second scorer, had suffered crippling knee injuries in training. But with some old patching tape and several tons of psychology, Coach Toe Blake managed to get his team off to one of its best starts ever. It didn't lose one of its first eight games. "The Canadiens are still the team to beat," said Toronto's Imlach. 'They are always the team to beat." And maybe they always will be.
There is a mystic quality about the Canadiens in hockey as there is about the New York Yankees in baseball, a quality rooted in talent, money, planning, good management and good luck but somehow surmounting them all. "Montreal doesn't like to lose," is the way Frank Selke, the club's managing director, puts it, "and maybe that's why Montreal doesn't lose very often."
Because it is used to winning, Montreal has attracted some of the greatest stars in hockey. "We had Howie Morenz and Aurel Joliat in the '20s," said Frank Selke Jr., the manager's son and club publicity man, last week, "and Sylvio Mantha in the '30s and Blake and Elmer Lach and The Rocket in the '40s and '50s.
"A superstar like The Rocket," he went on, referring to the great Maurice Richard who retired two seasons ago, "comes but once in a team's lifetime. We have no Rocket anymore. But we still have the tradition of winning." There is, for instance, still a Richard on the Canadien roster, and even though he is not the great Maurice, he, too, is responsible for many a Montreal victory. This Richard is Maurice's kid brother Henri, a young man whose diminutive size (5 feet 7, 160 pounds) has earned him the belittling title, Pocket Rocket. He also happens to be one of the best centers in hockey, if not the best.
"Henri Richard is typical of the men on our team. He is like all French Canadians," says Toe Blake, himself the son of a French Canadian mother. "They love to skate. Hockey is a way for them to succeed. They all want to play for the Canadiens. They are comfortable here."
Henri Richard, the seventh of eight children of a Canadian Pacific Railroad worker, never thought of doing anything else but playing hockey. "I always play hockey," he says. "I never worked a day in my life."
Henri gives Maurice (the oldest child) little credit for his own hockey playing. "Maurice is more like an uncle than a brother. He is 15 years older. I teach myself everything," he says proudly. Henri was 19 when he joined the Canadiens in 1955. "Henri helped Maurice more than the other way around," says young Selke. "He has fantastic speed. He made Maurice dig hard to keep up. Nobody can get the puck like he can. He has incredible stamina and moves as fast in the third period as in the first."
"I start to skate before I walk," says Henri. "Maybe even before I talk."
"He still doesn't talk," says Toe Blake. "We didn't hear a word out of him for two years. I told a reporter one time I didn't know if he spoke French or English because I never heard either. He's improved, but I wouldn't describe him as gabby."
"I just wanted to play for the Canadiens. I spent all my time skating, not talking," says Henri, who earns $16,000 a year. "I would play for nothing."
At 15, Henri was playing for a Montreal junior team in Toronto. "Maurice was a big name then," he says. "Everybody knew The Rocket. One day I read the Toronto paper. Somebody called me Pocket Rocket. In those days I would not tell anybody he was my brother. 'We just have the same name, eh? We are not related,' I would say. Now I don't mind the name Pocket Rocket."
The name has, in fact, become a badge of honor on its own. "Henri will never be the scorer his brother was, but he's a better mechanical hockey player," says a top Montreal official. "He's a clutch player," says Toe Blake. "He gets a goal when you need it most."
There is a pleasant custom at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, home ice of the Maple Leaf fans—a custom of hailing an outstanding player on each team as the star of the evening. In a recent bitterly contested game at the Gardens, Montreal lost by a heartbreaking 3-2. Throughout the game, Henri Richard had performed with his usual effectiveness, his body swinging gracefully along the ice, his large No. 16 visible wherever the puck happened to be. Like the rest of the Canadiens, he was crestfallen when the game ended in Toronto's favor, and he sat sullenly on the bench waiting for the evening ritual to be done. "For Montreal," came the star-hailing announcement at last: "Henri Richard!"
Henri skated to the center of the ice, his head down, his stick held high at the waist, as another Richard had often done on another day. The motion was effortless, the skating fluid, the grace something you would expect less at a hockey game than an ice ballet.
"Hell," said a Montreal newsman, watching the scene from the security of the press box. "Why should he be the game star? He didn't even get a goal."
It was a good question. But the answer may be that on the Canadiens everyone is a star.