It just didn't make sense. After a full month of play, the Detroit Red Wings—almost universally touted to finish no better than fifth—were still skating along undefeated in first place. They had no business looking so good.
After all, the Red Wings finished in fifth place last year, missed the Stanley Cup playoffs and distinguished themselves only by setting an alltime club record for the most goals ever allowed in a season. Yet here they were on top and—except for a handful of rookies—with many of the same players. Behind the bright red locker room door in Detroit's Olympia Stadium last week (after shutting out the Rangers 4-0) even the players were happily shaking their heads as if trying to figure out what was going on.
At least a partial explanation was the marvelous goal work of oldtimer Terry Sawchuk. Once the outstanding goalie of the league, Sawchuk had declined in recent years to the point where he seemed overdue for the minors. But this year, wearing a mask (√† la Montreal's Plante) for the first time in his 13 years in the NHL nets, Sawchuk was leading the league with a goals-against average of only 1.3 goals per game and batting away pucks so skillfully that he already has scored a remarkable total of three shutouts.
But there are other factors in the Detroit renaissance beyond Sawchuk's rediscovered brilliance. The names of two of them are Doug Barkley and Howie Young.
"This is the first time I've ever gotten a decent chance," says Barkley, a fast-skating 25-year-old who languished six years in the Chicago farm system before Detroit got him in a trade. Barkley looks boyish and shy. He isn't. Last week, after absorbing some rough tactics from New York's Bronco Horvath, he responded by knocking Horvath into a heap against the boards and then, without a change of expression, skating placidly over to the penalty box to sit down before the referee had finished calling the foul.
Howie Young is a smoldering, red-cheeked warrior with black hair and a scandalously handsome profile who was thrown off the team last year after 30 games for breaking training, skipping practice and generally misbehaving. He got a second chance this year because when Detroit put him on waivers no other club would touch him.
Now Howie seems to have reformed. Fortunately, the reformation hasn't taken away any of the peculiar magic that makes him the most electrically exciting young player in the NHL. The crowds in Detroit scream and shiver in anticipation whenever he comes on the ice and scream again when he leaves—reluctantly, with hanging head—for a rest on the bench.
Something still compels Young to collide belligerently at least once during every game with every man on the opposing roster, just as some baseball players must touch third base for luck, but since this habit contributes little to the composure of opposing forwards, it is not discouraged. Howie is among the league leaders in penalties, but his new restraint was summed up by one fan during an angry moment last week as Young helped the Wings shut out Toronto: "Last year he'da socked that guy. Now he only pushed him down." Not even the most sanguine fan, however, could describe Young as inhibited. Once last week he found himself with a broken hockey stick as New York's Veteran Wingman Andy Hebenton bore down on the Detroit goal during a power play. With no weapon at hand, Young simply dived head first into the Ranger, rolling him to the ice in a comic embrace. Howie's only comment about such utter disregard of life, limb and profile: "We're winning games. This is how it should be."
Along with Young's spectacular recklessness, Sawchuk's new infallibility and Barkley's grateful and confident determination, there is a spirit of infectious success in Detroit this season that has touched every Red Wing player, from the incomparable Gordie Howe to newly elected Captain Alec Delvecchio. This spirit stems directly from a new deal on the coaching-management level that was inaugurated last April when the Detroit owners fired their crusty and outspoken general manager, 67-year-old Jack Adams. Adams had held his job for 35 years, and he had spent much of that time interfering with Red Wing Coach Sid Abel's decisions on tactics and personnel. Promoted to coach and manager in one, Abel, a tall, silver-haired 44, began a series of trades, drafts, purchases and farm club changes that resulted in a total of eight new names on the 18-man Red Wing roster.
"I was concerned about three things " explains Abel. "The goaltending, the need for a new defenseman and someone to increase our scoring."
Abel began by gathering all 77 candidates for his team together on the ice the first morning of training camp last fall. "This will be a new deal for all of you as far as our organization is concerned," he told them. "In 12 days I am going to take the best hockey players I have back to Detroit, and I don't care who they are."
Abel is a man of his word, and his players know it. The scramble for jobs became so heated that fistfights erupted during nearly every scrimmage. Abel boosted morale by making assistant coaches of the only two men who have ever played more than 1,000 games of NHL hockey, Howe and Defenseman Bill Gadsby. He formed a fast-skating third line of young hornets called the Kid Line, built an effective penalty-killing tandem out of speedy Val Fonteyne and terrier-tough Bruce MacGregor and redesigned his offense to capitalize on the added firepower from the points.
"It was the best training camp I have ever seen," said 13-year Defenseman Marcel Pronovost, whose own vigorous return to form is another reason for Red Wing success. What's more, the promise of the training camp has been fulfilled in the season. As he sat in the Red Wing locker room last week pulling on a pair of bright yellow cowboy boots, Howie Young summed it up in a word. "Management," he said thoughtfully. Then, elaborating, "Last year the guys were playing for their jobs. This year they're playing to win."