A placard mounted high on the wall of the home-team dressing room at the Montreal Forum proclaims heroically: "Nos bras lassés vous tendent le flambeau. A vous, toujours, de le porter bien haut." Beneath this message are pictures of some of the greatest Montreal Canadiens of the past—Georges Vezina, Joe Malone, Aurel Joliat, Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Sylvio Mantha, Herb Gardiner and Newsy Lalonde. And, as is the custom in bilingual Montreal, the message is repeated in English at the bottom of the sign: "To you with failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high."
Last week—after a faulty start in which their own hands seemed to be failing—the Habs of 1966, neither the finest nor the worst of the teams to represent Montreal in National League hockey, did indeed hold the torch high by beating Detroit four games to two in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The ability to come from behind is one of sport's most admired qualities, and the current crop of Canadiens showed they had it in surplus after losing the first two games of the final cup series—and on their home ice at that. After that less than lustrous start, they outskated, outhit and outfinessed the Wings with some of the best hockey seen in many a year. In the final game, the sixth of what could have been a seven-game series, they had to go overtime to do it, for the Red Wings, playing with the sporadic inspiration that was their mark throughout the series, caught up with a 2-0 lead to tie the score at the end of the third period.
What happened at that point is told in as many versions as there were players on the ice to tell it. The referee's version was simple: at 2:20 of the sudden-death overtime period Henri Richard, the talented Canadien forward, put across the game-winning, series-winning goal in one way or another.
Others said that Richard, sliding on the ice, pushed the puck in with his body. Richard's own version, which may be the most authoritative, is that Montreal Wing Dave Balon "passed the puck out from the corner, and as I was going to hit it someone tripped me. The puck hit my knee and went in."
But, said Detroit Goalie Roger Crozier, principal victim, "Richard pulled the puck in with his hand. It should have been no goal at all." He was backed up in this by Bert Marshall, Detroit's rookie defense man, who was on the ice at the time. "I know one thing," Marshall said. "Richard didn't shoot it in. The pass from the corner [Balon's] hit my stick and dropped in front of the goal—right in front of Richard."
Tense situations often tend to breed strong language in strong men, so who can blame Detroit's Bill Gadsby if his comments on the disputed goal were somewhat salty?
Bill has played in the National Hockey League for 20 years without ever getting his name on the Stanley Cup. A shot by Canadien Forward J. C. Tremblay broke his right big toe in the fifth game last week. His body bore a dozen bruises, and he had a thigh wound, too. Not to mention a cut muscle in his right forearm. As he sat soaking his broken toe in ice water and contemplating the Red Wing defeat in the Detroit dressing room, Bill mused, "If Richard rifled the bastard into the net you don't mind, but you hate to lose like that. Well, what the hell, it's not the end of the world."
The Red Wings, in truth, had very little to complain about, considering that they had finished fourth among six teams in the race for the league title, which was won by the Canadiens. What made it so hard was that the Wings had reared up in the cup semifinals to eliminate the Chicago Black Hawks, who had finished second in the season race, and so got a heady taste of victory. But Montreal had previously knocked out the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs in a fantastic four straight games, and seemed a cinch to win it all.
Before facing Detroit in the finals, Montreal had a 10-day rest, and there was speculation over whether this would be good for them or bad. As it turned out, the long layoff had dulled the sharp, competitive edge that had carried the Habs victoriously through the 70-game regular season. Even with the presumed advantage of playing on its own ice, Montreal turned the 13-to-5 odds topsyturvy by dropping the first two games to the fired-up Red Wings.
The hottest man on the ice in those games was Roger Crozier, the Detroit goaltender. A little fellow, Crozier looks vastly more like an amiable clerk than a hard-nosed goalie, but his deftness and courage as he stood up to and deflected 100-mile-an-hour slap shots had Montreal fans gasping and Montreal players dismayed. His saves—33 of them in that first game alone—were often spectacular, and, though they failed to earn ultimate victory for his team, they earned Roger the Conn Smythe Trophy (worth $1,000 and a Ford Mustang) as the outstanding player in the series.
The 24-year-old Crozier has one advantage over his opponents. He is the only goalie who holds the stick with his left hand and catches the puck with his right. In the heat of play this can be very confusing to a shooter accustomed to right-handed goalies. In the first game only two Canadiens, Ralph Backstrom and Terry Harper, were able to overcome this hazard, while three Red Wings scored on Gump Worsley.
And it was much the same in the second game, which Detroit won 5-2, a fact that enraged Montreal's easily riled Coach Toe Blake. Blake's explanation: "We were plain lousy." But Crozier was plain great.
Shattered and shamed by two losses on their own ice, the Canadiens now had to go to Detroit's Olympia Stadium in uneasy consciousness of the fact that in two years they had won only two games on the Red Wing ice.
It turned out, however, that they won two more before the series returned to Montreal. While the Red Wings unaccountably abandoned the hard-hitting tactics that had won them six of the eight previous playoff games against Chicago and Montreal, the Canadiens snapped back into their old form as the fastest skating team in hockey. The brilliance of Montreal's Jean Beliveau and Henri Richard returned. Whenever a Detroit player had possession of the puck, a Montreal defender was unshakably with him all over the ice. And though Crozier played his usual fine game, Montreal Goalie Worsley outshone him. In the final minute of the third game's first period Canadien Captain Jean Beliveau, now indisputably the finest center in pro hockey, reached out his stick and snatched the puck from Alex Delvecchio, then slithered his way to the goal, faked Crozier out of position and shot the puck home. The Montrealers won that one 4-2.
It became apparent in this game that two of the Detroit stars, Veterans Gordie Howe and Delvecchio, were not playing with their customary skill. Howe scored but one goal in the series, thanks to superb guarding by Canadien Left Wing Gilles Tremblay. That one goal was made when Tremblay was not on the ice. Howe seemed slow, and Delvecchio was neither making plays nor forechecking with his usual diligence. Gordie, once the greatest all-round player in the NHL, will surely score 25 goals or more next season, but he is no longer the Howe of old. After 20 years in the league, and at age 38, there is no reason to expect him to be.
A somewhat younger Detroit disappointment was Bryan Watson, known during the semifinals as Superpest because of the way he had clung so effectively to Bobby Hull of the Black Hawks. In the second game of the finals Watson effectively teased John Ferguson, physical star of Montreal's sweep against the Maple Leafs, into an elbowing penalty that cost Ferguson two minutes in the box. While he rested there, the Red Wings, trailing 1-0, tied the score. But in the second period three Canadiens—Dickie Duff, Jean Guy Talbot and Henri Richard—took runs at Watson and, it seemed, were more intent on defusing Superpest than beating Detroit. They lost the game but defeated young Bryan, who was thereafter not' nearly so effective as he had been.
In game three Coach Blake brought 27-year-old Right Wing Leon Rochefort up from Quebec, where he had played all season, to replace Claude Larose, a fellow who does not back-check and of whom Blake has said, "Sometimes that boy won't listen to common sense." Rochefort played extremely well. Not a great offensive threat perhaps, but he covered his wing at all times and made few mistakes.
Norm Ullman put the Red Wings ahead 1-0 in the first period of this game with an unassisted goal, but Toe Blake was infuriated because he claimed (and some less partial observers agreed) that Bruce McGregor of the Wings was in the goalie's crease on the play. But Referee John Ashley ruled the goal good.
In the fourth game Detroit came close to disaster. Under Canadien pressure, Crozier made a couple of his more extraordinary saves, then was jammed against a net post by his teammate, Leo Boivin, and Montreal's Bobby Rousseau. The goalie's left knee was wrenched and his left ankle twisted. Unable to rise unassisted, he was lifted up and helped off the ice, his left leg dragging. He was replaced for the remainder of the game by Hank Bassen, who had played in fewer than seven full games all season. It appeared then that Crozier might be out for the rest of the playoffs, and with Crozier gone the Red Wings seemed to develop an excess of caution. They went 13 minutes without a shot at the Montreal goal, but in the next game Crozier was back in the nets, and the Wings were shooting once again.
In that same fatal fourth game Gordie Howe got penalized for tripping Jean Beliveau against the boards. Howe protested the penalty vehemently, even to the point of jostling Referee Art Skov, who might have imposed a 10-minute penalty but refrained. Punishment enough was the fact that, with Howe out of action, the Canadiens tied the score at 1-1, when Beliveau deflected J. C. Tremblay's blue line shot over Bassen, who never had a chance. Ralph Backstrom made it a 2-1 victory with a backhand shot, and Montreal returned to home ice with the series tied. In the period before, Backstrom had been benched because Blake did not think he had been guarding Ullman sufficiently well. "It's funny," he said, "how you can go from champ to chump in five seconds."
Thereafter the Canadiens were simply unbeatable. After that two-loss start they made it four in a row, and the desperation of Detroit was seen clearly in the fifth game, when in the first period Coach Sid Abel tried out eight different line combinations, none of which worked too well. The result was a resounding 5-1 victory for Montreal and a clear intimation that those first two Detroit victories were flukes. The Canadiens, fielding almost exactly the same team that won the cup last year, skated brilliantly. Their three centers flew over the ice, and when they are like that no team can beat them. Granted, they were forced into an overtime period when an aroused Detroit overcame a 2-0 lead in the final game to tic it up, but then Richard made his disputed goal and the cup was Montreal's for the second year in a row and for the 13th time since the formation of the National Hockey League in 1917.
The Canadiens chartered a train to take them back to Montreal and, while Coach Blake locked himself in a room with team executives, the players made the night riotous with champagne, whiskey and beer. "Toe is a strict man with us," explained J. C. Tremblay, whose virtuosity in this series made him a prime contender for the Smythe trophy, "and he doesn't like to see all this, so he stays away and lets us have our fun."
At the Montreal station there was a mob of greeters, but the players quickly pushed their way through so that they could go to Henri Richard's bar for "breakfast and bloodies." (A bloody is a combination of beer and tomato juice and is recommended for none but hockey players.) Toe Blake owns a bar, too, and the Canadiens contemplated spending most of the next day there.
This was Toe's seventh Stanley Cup and, since he is not a man to take the worries of competition lightly, he is considering retirement. So, for that matter, is Detroit's Coach Sid Abel, but, with the league expansion impending and a dearth of competent and experienced coaches about, both may yet be talked into sticking around for a while. If so, you can be sure Stanley Cup play will be lively for at least another season or two.