Montreal's big league hockey team is noted more for its finesse than its brawn. Toronto's hockey players are among the better brawlers in the National Hockey League. A major irony of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs was that Montreal's Canadiens eliminated Toronto's Maple Leafs in four straight games by a spectacular display of muscle.
Though the rules remain the same, the hockey of the playoffs is always vastly different from that seen during the regular 70-game season. For one thing, it is different in spirit. The playoffs are the real test of a team's abilities. Though the Canadiens finished first in the regular season, they knew that no one would regard them as real champions unless they won the cup, and that is a prospect to stir a competitor's blood. For another thing, a team's style often will change radically to accommodate the shorter time in which it must win. There is no room in the playoffs for a midseason slump. Thus in the B series of the semifinals against the Chicago Black Hawks (see cover) the Detroit Red Wings suddenly transformed themselves into a forechecking team that constantly confused and broke up the Chicago attack—something they had only once been able to do during the regular season. In the 14 times they met the Hawks, the Wings had won only once, lost 11 times and tied twice. But as the playoffs got under way in Chicago and Detroit last week, the Wings took two of the first four games by spectacular scores of 7-0 and 5-1.
It happens every year. The playoffs are seldom, if ever, predictable on the basis of regular-season showings. In the past 47 years the league champion has failed to win the cup 20 times and has even been eliminated in the first round 11 times. There is a suspicion that some managers and coaches, most notably Punch Imlach, manager-coach of Toronto, devote their efforts during the regular season less to winning than to finishing among the first four teams. This is enough to make them eligible to play for the cup—which means vastly more in prestige than the league title and quite a bit more in money. For finishing first in the league, a club gets 18 units of $2,250. For winning in its best-of-seven semifinal round a club gets 21 units of $1,500 each. Then the cup winner gets 21 units of $2,000 each.
A modest affair that cost its donor, Lord Stanley of Preston, a mere 10 guineas (about $50 in 1892), the original Stanley Cup now rests atop a large silver base on which are inscribed the names of all the winning teams and of each man who played on them. Actually played, that is. Just suiting up for the playoffs is not enough for immortality.
When hockey had its obscure 19th century beginnings in eastern Canada—several cities and McGill University claim the honor of its parentage—it was, like tennis, a game not only for amateurs but pretty much for well-to-do amateurs. Lord Stanley's five sons played the game in Canada and introduced it to England, where they staged an exhibition at Buckingham Palace. The first team to win the Stanley Cup, in 1894, was the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association. By 1910 the cup was in the possession of the National Hockey Association and thereafter remained a trophy for professionals.
Pro hockey is a rough game, and the cup has had its share of knocks. In 1905 members of the Ottawa Silver Seven, after celebrating their cup victory, were returning to their hotel when one of their number declared that he could drop-kick the cup into the Rideau Canal. He did, too, and it was not fished out until next morning. Five years later the proprietor of a bowling alley who doubled as a member of the champion Montreal Wanderers filled the cup to overflowing with chewing gum and set it out for the convenience of any customer who might want to buy some. Once, when the cup was left at a photographer's studio, the photographer's mother filled it with earth and planted geraniums in it. It has been lost, and it has been stolen. It has been denounced as "a detriment to hockey," and as a competition trophy "that does not advance the interests of the national sport." Now it is a carefully guarded treasure, on reverent display in Canada's Hockey Hall of Fame.
Despite the reverence, there is still criticism that the playoff system drags the season to an absurd length, and that this extension is a mere money-grubbing device of the owners. The charges are correct, but the fans couldn't care less. There are many who would watch hockey in July if they could. There is tension in a Stanley Cup game that no regular season contest can engender.
Cup fever was at its highest the other night in Toronto, when the Canadiens polished off the Maple Leafs in their fourth game. The Canadiens' coach, Toe Blake (SI, Nov. 22) had surprised a lot of fans when, a few years ago, he brought up a couple of fellows named John Ferguson and Ted Harris from the Cleveland Barons. They were neither the worst nor the best in the minor leagues. Just undistinguished. So much so that people went about asking each other who they were. It soon became obvious that who they were was not nearly so important as what they were—a couple of young musclemen recruited to add brawn to the Montreal team. For the first time in years, the Leafs found themselves unable to push the Canadiens around. It may, indeed, have been Ferguson who contributed the most to the Canadiens' third-game victory in the playoffs last week. His team was behind 2-0 in the second period when this burly ice policeman suddenly charged the Leafs' Eddie Shack, long known as Toronto's principal villain. Shack went down. Ferguson was penalized two minutes, but the punishment could have been the best thing that happened to Montreal all season. Shortly after Ferguson completed his sentence, the inspired Canadiens scored three goals in three minutes and 10 seconds and dominated play the rest of the way.
"That check he made on Shack in the second period," observed Coach Blake, "deflated the Leafs and inflated us."
"My job," said Ferguson, who understands it well, "is to put some muscle on the left side, or for that matter, I guess, every side." He takes the task so seriously that during the off season he refuses to fraternize with other hockey players. "It turns out," he explains, "that your friends become your worst enemies on the ice, so I don't talk to anybody."
The Canadiens had, in fact, come out hitting from Game 1 of the series and now, in what was to be the last game, it was obvious that Toronto tempers were frayed. Toe Blake actually cautioned his Canadiens to avoid fights.
"We're good enough to win without fighting," he told them beforehand. And afterward he said: "Well, that shows you how much they listen to me."
The fights that went on between these statements made that game a subject for awed study by the league's statisticians. The war began in the first period when Ferguson elbowed Pete Stemkowski of the Leafs. Stemkowski responded with a fist but lost the decision to Ferguson. Shack came over to deliver a protesting swing and found himself jostled out of position by Claude Larose. The Canadiens' Dave Balon rushed to Larose's assistance, holding Shack while Larose threw rights and lefts at Shack's nose, which may be the biggest in professional sport. (At one time he was known as Pinocchio.) Then there were Ted Harris, the Canadiens' second-best policeman, and Orland Kurtenbach, the Leafs' utility player who is—now was—considered the best puncher in the league. They sparred for a minute. Kurtenbach threw a left-right combination that did little harm. Harris then caught Kurtenbach with a right, followed it with a left, and Kurtenbach sagged to the ice, where Harris pounced on him. They wrestled there for several minutes.
Out of it all, Ferguson had the honor of being required to sit out a full 20 minutes of the game. The brawl lasted 17 minutes and it took Referee Art Skov another 15 minutes to work out what the penalties were. In total, he assessed 124 minutes in the box. There were two minor penalties, a dozen five-minute major penalties and six misconduct penalties. With records falling all over the lot, the statisticians were delighted.
But many fans to the contrary notwithstanding, in hockey the game's the thing, and Montreal went on to win with Gilles Tremblay proving the most effective attacker. Toronto had gone into the lead in the first period on a goal by Larry Hillman. In the second, Tremblay scored twice on power plays. It was an anticlimax when Jim Roberts and Dick Duff added two more Montreal scores in the third period.
Meanwhile, south of the border, a less one-sided series was being played out in Chicago and Detroit. Chicago had come through the season in second place, possibly as a result of the emphasis put on making sure that Bobby Hull got his chance at beating Maurice (The Rocket) Richard's record of 50 goals in a season.
Bobby beat it all right. He shot his 51st goal on March 12 (SI, March 21) and wound up the regular season three weeks later with three more goals and enough assists to give him an additional record for scoring points, but his team was in second place and he himself had a lame left knee that was further injured early in the playoffs. This physical handicap was made worse by the clinging tactics of Detroit's tigerlike Bryan Watson, whose sole assignment was to keep Hull too busy to put his famous slap and wrist shots—the fastest in hockey—to effective use.
Sid Abel, coach of the Red Wings, had declared quite brazenly before the playoffs that his sole hope of beating a Chicago team that had overwhelmed him throughout the regular season was to "hit" the Hawks. The Wings did hit the Hawks and hit them hard in the very first game. They lost 2-1, but the new strategy made them look respectable against Chicago for the first time since regular-season play began, and Abel determined that he would continue it.
"I wouldn't say it was a rough game," he said after that first defeat, "but rather that it was just playoff hockey, what you expect to see in the playoffs. We're going to keep right on hitting."
Hull is pretty much accustomed to being followed about the rink. All season long he had been shadowed by experts like Claude Provost of Montreal and Ed Westfall of Boston. He had shrugged them off and made his record nonetheless. But Watson quite clearly got on the big blond's nerves and toward the end Hull permitted himself a mild complaint.
"It irritates me," he said.
More irritating to Coach Billy Reay was the fact that his squad was far from up to par. Bobby's linemate, Chico Maki, had an injured right leg. Sharp-shooting Doug Mohns turned from nursing a sore right shoulder to limping on a twisted left knee, and big Defenseman Elmer Vasko sustained an eight-inch gash in his thigh. It took 20 stitches to close the gash and the injury took Vasko out of contention. Hull minimized his knee injury, but it was obvious that he was skating badly. When he left the ice to sit on the bench, one could see him favoring the knee to bring his left foot up onto the step.
All this, and Watson too, took the zing out of a Chicago attack that had seemed only a few weeks before all but certain to carry the Hawks to a championship.
Even more discouraging—from a Chicago point of view—was the forechecking of the Red Wings. Time after time Norm Ullman, the high-scoring Detroit center, pestered the Hawks deep behind their own blue line to disrupt their offense, as Montreal's Jean Beliveau did against Toronto. He would station himself near Chicago Goalie Glenn Hall and go after the puck carrier. With two other wingmen stationed at the blue line, the carrier had absolutely no avenue out of his zone.
Forechecking works best when your team is ahead, and that is when Detroit used it most effectively. In that 7-0 game Detroit scored three goals in the first period, and thereafter Chicago could do nothing.
So there were the two great reversals in form during the Stanley Cup playoffs—the Canadien substitution of hard and even vicious checking for subtle skills, and the Red Wing adoption of a style that they had used only infrequently. The Wings were helped, to be sure, by injuries to the Hawks, and the Habs by a flu epidemic that struck the Maple Leafs. But, in essence, it was what some call "Stanley Cup play" that gave uninterrupted victory to the Canadiens in the semifinals, gained unexpected wins for the Red Wings, hitherto so ineffective against Chicago, and provided the fans with the best hockey—some of it nationally televised—they had seen all season.
After watching even one of the games that were played last week in Chicago, in Detroit, in Toronto or in Montreal, it would be pretty hard to convince a real hockey fan that there is no point to the playoffs.