Among the bright red equipment bags outside the Red Wings' dressing room after a hockey game in Toronto last week stood a big, black shipping crate awaiting transportation to Detroit. "What's in that?" asked Red Wing Coach Sid Abel, idly curious. "The Stanley Cup," replied one of the porters. "Holy cow," said Abel, backing off as if he had come face to face with a king cobra. "Get it out of here. We haven't won it yet."
If superstitious Sid was as nervous as a mongoose in the presence of the cup that symbolizes National Hockey League supremacy, it was probably because neither he nor his team had any reasonable right to be so close to it in the first place. "I hope it's Detroit we meet," said Chicago's top-scoring tough guy Bobby Hull before the playoffs began. And he got his wish, only to wish he hadn't. With a collection of very old players, a rambunctious gang of very young ones and the incomparable Gordie Howe—who is always at his best in Stanley Cup play—the Wings simply skated their fool heads off in the preliminary round of the playoffs, disposed of smug Chicago in seven games and came close to doing the very same thing to Toronto in the finals. In the last game they failed to become the second fourth-place team in history to win the cup, but the failure was a glorious one for the defeated Wings and a genuine triumph for the Maple Leafs.
Up to the time they met the Red Wings, the biggest problem faced by Toronto in defending the championship it had won two years in a row seemed to be the Montreal Canadiens—a team that beat the Leafs with clocklike precision during the regular season. But the Leafs that finished third in the standings and the Leafs that came snarling into the playoffs were two different teams. There is a strong suspicion around the league that Toronto spent the regular season just warming up for the Stanley Cup.
Coach Punch Imlach moaned and fumed publicly during the season when the Maple Leafs suffered such indignities as an 11-0 loss to the last-place Boston Bruins, but privately Imlach seemed unruffled. "We weren't too concerned," said his assistant, Frank (King) Clancy. "We knew we'd be ready when the playoffs came." Imlach knew what an exhausting fight for a high place in the standings could do to a team. He brought along his players with the tender care of a horse trainer nursing a Derby favorite. After taking on opponents with leisurely grace, winning only often enough to assure themselves a comfortable third-place finish, the Maple Leafs got serious just three weeks before the regular season ended. To strengthen his already well-stocked lines, Imlach talked the New York Rangers into sending Toronto onetime Bruins Captain Don McKenney and Andy Bathgate, one of the truly great players in the NHL. The effect on the Leafs was electrifying.
"Dick Duff and Bob Nevin, the players we gave up," said King Clancy, "were pretty good defensively, but you could take them for granted when they had the puck. But just try taking Bathgate and McKenney for granted and see what happens."
What did happen was a notable increase in Maple Leaf goals. Bathgate tied the league record for assists with 58, and McKenney scored nine goals in 16 games, exactly as many as he had all the rest of the season with New York. Add to these the suddenly improved performances of Center Dave Keon, the finest of hockey's youngsters, and Frank Mahovlich, a brooding wingman who suddenly flashed fire when Imlach moved him to center, and you had a team that disposed of the Canadiens with relative ease and seemed eminently capable of coping with riffraff like the Red Wings. Imlach's chief worry at the start of the final cup series was how to convince his talented players that they could get clobbered by the Detroit team if they loafed.
As for the Red Wings, their strategy was simple: shoot the puck into the Maple Leafs' zone at every opportunity and then harry them into making mistakes, preferably right in front of the goal. For the rest: bump, slash, harass and, when all else fails, bite whatever unfortunate Maple Leaf happens to have the puck.
Imlach planned to counter this anarchy with the same strategy that had helped his team beat the Red Wings eight times in the regular season, hold them to a tie three times and keep Gordie Howe from scoring in 14 games—a feat that could be matched only if one baseball team (say the Red Sox) struck out Mickey Mantle every time he stepped up to bat against it.
"If we skate as hard as the Wings do," Imlach said, "we'll win easy because we have by far the better team."
But skate hard is just what the Maple Leafs did not do in the first two games. They ambled haughtily along the ice, seemingly fearful of working up a sweat. And while Imlach swilled milk to appease his ulcer, the wild-eyed Red Wings went after the Toronto players relentlessly. Leading the fray was Howe, still, at age 36, the best the NHL has, and close behind him were eight young men whose biggest assets are a swashbuckling abandon and the urge to skate full tilt every second they are on the ice.
Typical of the young Red Wings is 23-year-old Larry Jeffrey, who has fallen arches (he rolls a pop bottle endlessly under his bare feet to strengthen them) and the ability to ricochet off goalposts, side boards and opposing players like an uncorked balloon zipping around a New Year's Eve ballroom. Jeffrey has been knocked cold on three occasions this year and has been flattened against the boards by opposing defensemen countless times. But his style is catching. All the young Red Wings, and most of the old ones, seem to have adopted it. Bill Gadsby, for example, is a player who has been employed as a defenseman for 18 seasons in the National Hockey League. His special talent is getting in front of a rapidly approaching puck with whatever part of his anatomy is handiest. "I swear I'll never get in the way of a puck again," Gadsby once said after a slap shot shattered his wrist. But after watching Jeffrey and the other young Red Wings cavort, Gadsby joyfully reentered the line of fire. "I like the life," he said with a toothless smile.
During the last weeks of the season, as it became fashionable for Red Wing players to fling themselves recklessly into the fray, the results became apparent both in the win column (Detroit won more games than any other team the last half of the season) and in the hospital. For a while Sid Abel seriously wondered how he was going to get his team through a season, let alone into the Stanley Cup competition. As ankles, backs, cheek bones, hands, knees, legs, toes and wrists were cut, strained, wrenched, chipped, fractured, pulled, bruised and generally maltreated, the training room began to resemble an army field hospital. Abel had to employ 38 different players over the season to keep his team up to full strength. But, though the injuries hindered their progress toward the playoffs, it was the devil-may-care attitude behind them that made the Red Wings too much for the Black Hawks to handle when they got there, and very nearly too much for the Maple Leafs, too.
It was not until the fourth game, when they were trailing two games to one, that the Maple Leafs began to shake their confident pose and play the hockey one would expect of defending champions. Before that game, Imlach took Mahovlich and Bathgate aside and suggested that they stop passing the puck around and start shooting. "You've got the best shots in the league," he reminded the players. "So use them." And at long last the Maple Leafs came alive.
Midway through the third period of the fourth game, Bathgate jumped clear of the puck near Detroit's blue line, poked it past Red Wing Defenseman Marcel Pronovost, passed by the hapless defenseman himself with a quick burst and, just as Imlach suggested earlier, fired. Sawchuk was crouched low in the Detroit net, but Bathgate has just the trick to handle such situations.
"The blade of my stick is curved," he explained afterward. "When I slap a puck from long range it rises and then drops as it reaches the net. That is exactly what happened." The former New Yorker shot from 35 feet out, the puck a rising blur that looked as if it were going to miss the net entirely. But suddenly it dropped straight over the shoulder of a bewildered Sawchuk. "Damndest thing I ever saw," the Detroit goalie said. Soon afterward Mahovlich also disdained a pass, shot and scored. That was the first game in the final series to be won by a margin of more than one goal, and it was the crucial game. The teams split the next two games, thanks largely to the incredible goal-keeping of (first) Sawchuk and (second) Toronto's Johnny Bower.
But the soaring Red Wings, who had flown high above their station, were exhausted. In the seventh game Leaf Defenseman Allan Stanley gave notice of what was to come at the very start of the first period when he slammed frisky young Jeffrey into the boards with a classic display of brute power. After that, the Leafs simply skated away from the drooping Wings for three periods.
After fighting through breathless games marked by close scores and tie-breaking overtime periods, the Maple Leafs won their third straight Stanley Cup with an anticlimactic 4-0 shutout. The Wings were defeated, but they went down with honor.