"Things are different these days around Olympia Stadium in Detroit, and it's not just the new seats they put in the balcony or the houses they tore down on Hooker Street. The difference is that the Red Wings are seriously pressing for their second straight National Hockey League championship, and nothing like that has happened since Unchained Melody was No. 1 on the hit parade. If Detroit's fans can't get into the stadium when the team's in town, they stay home by the radio, because nobody wants to miss a single score.
Since the great days when Coach Sid Abel was playing alongside Terrible Ted Lindsay and indestructible Gordie Howe, the Wings have mostly been content to finish just high enough to make the Stanley Cup playoffs. Sometimes they didn't even get that high. When they did, it was Howe who put them there. At 37, Gordie is still quite capable of muscling the Red Wings into the playoff singlehanded, and he could probably do the same thing for even the lowly New York Rangers or the Boston Bruins. But finishing No. 1 is something else again, and now that the Red Wings have had a taste of first place they don't want to settle for less. Their attitude as a team is summed up in the person of a once comparatively obscure team member named Norman Ullman.
For 10 years Norm Ullman impressed people around the National Hockey League as being a "real nice guy," a "hard worker" and a "hustler." He was competent, industrious, ambitious and never really bothered anybody. He got a big goal now and then and he got his share of assists, but the only time you really noticed Ullman was when he was assailed by some big defenseman on the other team. Unadorned competence, however, doesn't win championships. You do that by scoring goals—lots of goals—like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita and Gordie Howe, who's in his 20th year of it. And Rocket Richard. Last year Norm Ullman suddenly started to score goals and Detroit suddenly won a championship. And now everybody—well, nearly everybody—wants to know what it is about Norm Ullman, and how he got that way.
Because Ullman has suddenly become one of the four (along with Hull, Howe and Mikita) best persons in the world at slipping a puck behind a goaltender, the Detroit Red Wings are once again riding high. King Clancy, assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and a man who knows his hockey, accords Gordie Howe the respect due a saint. But recently Clancy crossed himself against the heresy he was about to speak and said the Red Wings could remain contenders without Howe but certainly not without Ullman. "Right now I would say that Ullman is the player the Red Wings depend upon most," mused the King. "Certainly they would miss him more than Howe. I've said for years that Ullman is a great hockey player, and I think this year he's better than ever. Hell, he has to be great. They moved him from center to left wing to get out of a slump, and there wasn't a better left winger in the league."
There were many experts around at the end of last season who thought that the Red Wings' first-place finish and Ullman's own scoring spree were just flukes. And, when this season first got under way, the Wings did little to dispel the notion. They won only three of their first 15 games, and Coach Abel was in a somber mood one night in Boston as he walked, chin in hand, among his players. It was only a minute before game time when he stepped over to Ullman and said, "Norm, tonight you will play left wing." Abel might as well have told the team he was sending Howe to Pittsburgh for more seasoning. Center Ullman had never played left wing before in his whole life. "They needed a shock," Abel said in explanation. "They'd been playing rotten hockey."
So Ullman, a quiet man who never complains, went out and played left wing for the next 15 games. He felt "terrible." As a center he was used to charging deep into the opposing zone, breaking up plays before they got organized and feeding broken and intercepted passes to his wingmen. At his new position he had to discipline himself to follow an assigned man.
"Boy, I forgot a few times and it cost us some goals," said Ullman. But it didn't cost the Red Wings as much as it cost the opposition. In those 15 games Ullman scored eight goals and 15 assists to give Detroit 13 wins. The three-man combination of Ullman, Howe and Alex Delvecchio piled up 26 goals and 40 assists and, with the speed of a Bobby Hull slap shot, the Wings rose to third place.
By late December Abel felt he had better break up this winning combination because, as he put it, "They're our three best scorers and we had all our eggs in one basket with them playing on the same line." Ullman returned to his old spot as center for Floyd Smith and Paul Henderson. The wiseacres sat back and waited for the Red Wing slump to set in again. They were instantly disappointed. From his center position Ullman popped in 10 more goals in the next eight games to put Detroit right back on top of the league. Ever since then Detroit's standing and Ullman's scoring have been as closely matched as a set of Arnie Palmer irons.
Recently, wearing a white tab-collar shirt, black blazer and gray slacks, Ullman sat at a corner table of a bustling coffee shop in Montreal's Queen Elizabeth Hotel, talking and worrying about a current scoring slump, which had, at that time, reached six games. Ullman smiles rarely, and almost never around strangers. Looking solemn and nervously tapping his knife on a napkin, he said, "It's weird. Last year when I got to 24 goals I hit a slump and didn't score for seven games. Now I've got 24 again." The slump reached nine games before it ended against the Rangers in Detroit on February 10. Of those nine games the Wings won only three, lost three and tied three, slipping from first place to third. At long last Norm scored again, beating Ranger Goalie Cesare Maniago for his 25th tally. The Red Wings went on to win the game 6-2, and climbed right back into a first-place tie with the Chicago Black Hawks. "That's the way it's been going," said a team member of Ullman's success. "When he's hot we win; when he's not we either tie or lose."
The rest of the league has found this out, too, and they do their best to strong-arm him from the front of the net to reduce the number of shots he gets from in close. "Last year I was hardly checked at all," says Ullman. "I think everybody thought I would cool off sooner or later. But this year it's been murder. I don't think they've actually assigned a man to trail me like we do Hull, but I know I'm being checked much, much closer."
"Norm is a hard-working hockey player," says Red Kelly of the Maple Leafs. "He is on you all the time. And he is getting better, because where he used to try to beat you all by himself, now he passes at just the right time."
Phil Esposito, the fine young center of the Black Hawks, says: "Ullman goes into the corner with the idea he's going to come away with the puck. It's simply the power of positive thinking." Esposito's teammate Chico Maki would rather not comment because he doesn't want anyone on another team to know how good he (Maki) thinks they are. Privately, however, Maki thinks Ullman is "terrific" and he's "so smart" the puck "seems to stick to him." Bobby Hull says, "Ullman's concentration is what makes him great."
Perhaps the finest tribute to Norm, however, was that paid by Montreal Coach Toe Blake, who loses real sleep over him. "That man is a mystery tome," says Blake. "He is not all that fast and sometimes I don't even know he is there. I sure don't expect him to be. And then the loudspeaker announces "goal by Ullman" or "assist by Ullman" and I know he was there all the time. I don't know how he does it. If I knew, I'd stop him. All I do know is he has been poison for us."
There are other Red Wings besides Norm Ullman, players like young Roger Crozier, the 23-year-old goalie, Defense-men Bill Gadsby and Doug Barkley, whose recent injury was a major tragedy for the team, Team Captain and Center Alex Delvecchio and, of course, Gordie Howe. But unassuming Norm Ullman is suddenly the force that is adding lift to these Wings.
The way modest Norm puts it is, "I know they don't expect me to get 40 goals again this year, but if I don't score or get my share I get the feeling we could be in trouble."