One of the wildest teams in hockey back in the days of the Depression was a junior outfit known as the St. Boniface Seals. A fun-loving crowd of teen-age Rover Boys, they loved to lock their coach in the ladies' rooms of trains, and once, after winning the junior championship in Toronto, they even succeeded in fouling up an award luncheon given in their honor. Assuming a falsely mature voice, one of the Seals called the hotel where the luncheon was being given and told the maitre d' the festivities were being moved up from one o'clock to noon. Then the whole St. Boniface team went down to the hotel, ate up the early lunch and left nothing but empty plates for the guests who arrived an hour later.
One of the St. Boniface rink rats is still around—older, certainly, and a little better behaved, but still up to his old pranks. With the season still young, the new coach of the first-place Chicago Black Hawks hockey team, former Seal Center Billy Reay, has encouraged his players to lick all the plates clean in the NHL banquet before the other teams have gotten even a taste. At the end of six weeks the Hawks were eight points ahead of the next team and still going away. They had set a new team record for consecutive games without a loss (11) and for consecutive wins at home (eight). The stars of their first two forward lines, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, were Nos. 1 and 3 in the point parade. The fast-skating "Scooter Line" of Mikita, Ken Wharram and Ab McDonald was the highest-scoring line in the league, and the Hawks as a team had scored more goals and won more games than any other. Despite the fact that they still have 51 games to play, the Hawks at this point seem well on their way to winning their first NHL championship after 38 years of trying. Since virtually nothing else on the team has changed since last year, the man responsible must be Coach Billy Reay.
"In coaching hockey," says Reay, a quiet, soft-spoken man whose middle name is Tulip, "the important thing is psychology. You have to know which players to goad and which ones to praise, and you have to know when and how to go about it."
The man whom Reay replaced apparently knew none of these things. A great storyteller and a riot in the banquet hall, amiable, pudgy Rudy Pilous took over the Hawks when they were the New York Mets of hockey and brought them up to within an ace of winning the championship. But in doing so Coach Pilous displayed an uncanny gift for goading those he should have praised and praising those he should have goaded.
"Rudy Pilous couldn't coach a girls' basketball team," remarked Wingman Eric Nesterenko during Rudy's first years. Nesterenko's opinion has changed only to the extent of admitting now that Pilous "probably could coach a girls' basketball team." Last year, in a newspaper poll in which NHL players were asked to name the three best coaches in the league, not one Chicago player named Pilous. And in a postseason TV interview, Center Bill (Red) Hay, explaining the Hawks' failure to win the championship, said "we were outcoached."
"It was a workmanlike stiletto job," said Pilous when Chicago General Manager Tommy Ivan notified him by mail that he was fired. But—except for the method used—Ivan had little choice. With Pilous cast in the role of Captain Bligh, and Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita alternating as Mr. Christian, someone had to be cast adrift, and the Chicago management was not inclined to make it two of the league's sharpest shooters. Manager Ivan fired Pilous, hired Reay—who had himself been fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs after pulling them out of the cellar and into the playoffs in 1959—and, in effect, said to Hay, Mikita, Hull and Co., "Now put up or shut up."
With Reay smiling benignly from the quarterdeck, the mutineers elected to put up, and the results showed promptly in the standings.
No team in the NHL has more individual stars or more temperamental individualists than Chicago. Bobby Hull, year by year, is skating his way into history as one of the game's alltime superstars. Outspoken Stan Mikita, who likes to describe himself as a dirty player, is one of the game's top hustlers. Glenn Hall won the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goalie last year, and Captain Pierre Pilote won a similar award as the top defenseman. Five of the stars chosen by a panel of hockey writers and sportscasters to play in the season-opening all-star game were Black Hawks.
Molding that kind of talent and temperament into a smoothly working unit is not easy, but Reay does it with an easy touch. "He treats us," says Mikita, "like men."
One of the complaints that both Hull and Mikita had last year was that Pilous did not give them enough ice time, a deprivation that cut down their opportunity to score. One of Reay's first changes was to put these high shooters on a schedule that has them skating for 40 minutes of every game. Both of them are now serving not only in their regular lines but as penalty killers and key men. Chicago's players are known for being among the roughest and toughest in the league, but under Reay they seem suddenly to have become also the happiest. Besides Reay, the most notable newcomer to the Black Hawks this season is Howie Young, the onetime Bad Boy of Detroit. Howie last year had the credentials—the biggest penalty record ever—to prove he was rough and tough, and there is scarcely a Black Hawk who doesn't bear scars attesting his ferocity. But the Hawks have welcomed Howie to their midst, and if Howie has not precisely undergone a reformation, he is at least conscious of being in sympathetic company. A few weeks ago he collaborated with Stan Mikita on one of Chicago's most memorable goals to date. The puck came off Howie's stick like a projectile, hit Stan in the neck and caromed past the Toronto goalie. Stan, flinging an arm about Howie's neck, was more than happy to take official credit for the goal.
Things are like that all the time with the Black Hawks these days. In the Boston Garden one night not long ago a manic Bruin fan was screaming imprecations at Howie from a seat almost beside Reay. "Do you really think that is smart?" the quiet-voiced Chicago coach asked him gently. "Do you think you're helping the man by talking to him like that?"
What the Boston fan had to say to such reasonable and characteristic Reay counsel is not known, but what the Chicago Black Hawks have to say to it is all on the record.