One morning last week a cartoon appearing on the first sports page of the Montreal Gazette showed an Indian, his feathers drooping, his eyes touched with sadness, carrying a "Jekyll-Hyde chemistry set" under one arm and a bubbling test tube in his other hand. The Indian—a Chicago Black Hawk—was walking toward a wild-eyed, grinning Canadien hockey player. Between the two stood the Stanley Cup, and the Canadien player, grabbing at the test tube, was saying, "It's my turn for a shot of that."
The cartoon referred to the fact—to many, a deplorable and embarrassing fact—that neither the Chicago Black Hawks nor the Montreal Canadiens had been able to win one game in the 1965 Stanley Cup championship playoffs away from "home ice." That night, in the final game of the Stanley Cup playoffs (and the finale of a hockey season that rode in on the first breath of October), the form was hardly threatened. The Canadiens, playing in the Montreal Forum, won their sixth cup in 10 years—much to the surprise of sensible pundits everywhere, who had concluded early in the season that the only way Montreal could get the cup would be to steal it from the team that won it.
This analysis of the Canadiens was not as absurd as it appears now. Montreal's goaltending, handled by Charlie Hodge and Gump Worsley, had been glaringly mediocre during the season. Always a striking asset in other big years, the Canadien goalies ranked fourth in the NHL in goals allowed. Add to this deficiency the fact that Montreal was constantly handicapped by injuries—Gilles Tremblay and Jacques Laperriere have been out most of the season—and you had the ingredients for a dismal finish. Yet the Canadiens stayed near the top throughout, and they entered the playoffs in full stride, with their coach, Hector ("Toe") Blake, in a frenzy of cup lust. Blake had not won a Stanley Cup since 1960. The thought was unbearable.
More than any of his five previous championships, this one was almost completely the handiwork of Blake, a short, corpulent, interminably irascible man who gives the impression he would like to hit anybody in the mouth who dares voice a dissenting view. "I'd hate to play poker with the guy," says a reporter. One must then wonder how it is to play hockey for him, and especially how it must have been this season. From the beginning he worked his club like a man possessed. Psychology is something foreign to Blake—doubtless something to be scoffed at—but he is an inadvertent master of it, even if he does apply it with a heavy hand. "You got to give it to him, though," says one of his critics. "He held this club together with that dock worker's approach of his. They would have never made it without him." Blake's approach, this year more than ever before, was as simple and direct as a blow. He drove his players physically, flogged them mentally and reluctantly applauded them once in a while until he achieved what he considered the proper degree of team spirit.
May 9, 1965
Toe Blake is not enamored of the press or the public, and he has bruised a lot of feelings along the way; his circle of friends is not as large as it once was. But Blake is never indifferent, whether in the dressing room or behind his bench. When coaching, he is either in steady conversation with himself or his jaws are ferociously masticating chunks of gum. After a defeat he is intolerable; after victory he makes an effort to be gentle, and he is full of generous clichés. But he always manages to convey his fierce disdain—and it is said to be hastening his retirement. The retirement rumors are persistent in Montreal, and even Blake said earlier in the season, "If we win the Stanley Cup this year I'm through. I'm going to live like a man again." Following the Canadiens' victory he paused, while wandering about like a stunned fighter, to say, "This is one, more than all the rest of the titles, that I'll never forget."
It is unlikely that Jean Beliveau, the Canadiens' 6-foot-3 center, will forget it either. For Beliveau the season of 1964-65 has been uneven. He had only five goals and 10 assists in the first half of the campaign. Inside he was being ripped with self-doubt, especially when he was scoreless for 12 games. It was 1963 all over again; during that year Beliveau almost retired because of his nerves. This year he was in a difficult position. He was not going well, and he was captain of the team. "I was supposed to show the way," he says, "but it's tough when you're not doing much yourself." When Beliveau finally started to come around, he suffered a knee injury. Even so, he finished strong and entered the playoffs at the top of his game. Slick and cool around center ice and a masterful stickhandler, Beliveau scored 16 points in the playoffs, second in total to Bobby Hull.
Up to the finals, Chicago's Hull had seemed the logical man to cast as playoff hero. Although his headlong run at an all-time scoring record for the regular season (SI, Jan. 25) was interrupted by a knee injury, Hull skated into the semifinal round against Detroit as if determined to make up in seven games what he had lost in half a season. He blasted the Red Wings off the ice almost single-handed and entered the finals with eight goals and five assists to his credit.
Aware that Hull's slap and wrist shots were the major impediments standing between Montreal and the championship, Toe Blake called on craggy Claude Provost for some special help. Provost, a veteran forward whose face looks as though it has been chipped out of basalt with a dull chisel, had surprised all the experts during the regular season by outshooting the rest of the Montreal team. It seemed reasonable that he would be asked to carry this offensive attack into the playoffs, but Blake had other ideas. "Crowd Hull," he told Provost. "Lean on him. Follow him around like a busted garter."
Provost followed his orders. The result was that Hull got only one shot on goal in the first game against the Habs. He got just four shots in the second game. Altogether Hull scored only two goals in the championship round, and both came when Provost was off the ice. "Provost," complained Black Hawk Coach Billy Reay, "has that stick against Bobby every time he gets near him. He isn't yanking Bobby around, so the referees are ignoring it. But he is hooking him any way you look at it." As the playoffs progressed, Hull became more and more perturbed. He became more aggressive with his body, and the Montreal crowds began calling him a dirty player. Until now Hull had been a big favorite in the Forum, but during the playoffs he was booed continually. Provost, however, was not annoyed by Hull's frustration. "Can you blame him?" he said.
Still, the biggest factor in the Canadiens' cup victory, despite some fine individual performances, some spectacular skating and a lethal power play, was "home ice." Montreal had one more game at home than Chicago, hence the grinning Canadien in the cartoon. The inability of the teams to win away from home (only two were won on foreign ice in 20 playoff games) provoked much discussion. There were many explanations, but obviously one of the reasons was the treatment of the ice. In Chicago it was soft—a fact that proved a disadvantage to Montreal. "The ice was too slow in Chicago," said Jean Beliveau, "and it took the edge off our game." In Montreal the ice was hard, too fast for a team like Chicago, which tries to outmuscle the opposition. "Also," said Pierre Pilote of the Black Hawks, "it's tough in the Forum because their corners are deep. The Canadiens are fast skaters. Once they get you in their corners, you just can't get out."
Another explanation dealt with the attitudes of the home crowds. The Chicago fans were quite different from those in Montreal. The body slam and the high stick often turned the Black Hawk stadium into a cacophony of blood-chilling sound. In the fourth game when Montreal—instead of sticking to its skating game—made the mistake of trying to give back some physical punishment to Chicago, the Chicago fans roared with joy. In contrast, the Montreal audience was, it seemed, sophisticated and discriminating. The Canadien fans abhor rough play. They prefer a beauteous blend of skating and passing, and they are, as a group, reserved; they will remain silent until there is a play worthy of recognition.
This is not to say that they are incapable of an occasional violent outburst. In 1955 one of the great riots in sports took place in the Forum when Maurice Richard was suspended in the playoffs. But against Chicago the fans only once lost their poise, and that was when John Ferguson delivered five solid right hands to the right eye of Eric Nesterenko. Around town the next day the people were still talking about the fight. "They had to give him [Nesterenko] six stitches," one man said. "Six stitches!"
Six stitches? Home ice? Officiating? Crowd response? Toe Blake could not have cared less. For the first time in five years, he had a winner.