These have been trying months for sports fans in Detroit. The Pistons bombed, the Tigers sagged, the Lions fired their coach and last week, as the Red Wings of the National Hockey League faced powerful Chicago, Coach Sid Abel seemed to be losing his mind. Standing on the red carpet of the Wings' dressing room in Olympia Stadium, Abel told his players that they "must" defeat the Black Hawks. It was like telling Zolton Ferency to go out and clobber Governor Romney. The man who made that challenge had witnessed, during the season, some epic Detroit futility: for the first time in the club's 41-year history the Red Wings had reached midseason without winning a game on the road.
They still hadn't by last weekend, but they did impudently come from behind to take the Chicago victory that Abel had ordered. Added to two previous victories in the week on home ice, that made a three-game streak and assured the worst road team the league's best home record. Fans who recalled the dominant Red Wings of 1948 to 1957 found the team's split personality more confusing than amusing, but for the gremlin-haunted, fifth-place Wings themselves the streak was glorious. "At last maybe we're hot," said Abel. "I just hope it's not too late."
Too late to move up to fourth and thus into the Stanley Cup playoffs, that is. The goal is still distant, but only a month ago it seemed impossible of achievement. One morning, for example, Abel was so angry that he had his players out on the ice of Chicago Stadium at 8 o'clock, skating when they should have been sleeping. Beaten the night before by the Black Hawks, Detroit found itself occupying the place in the standings the NHL usually reserves for New York or Boston—last. Abel's disposition grew worse a few hours later. At the Chicago airport, the Red Wings were informed that fog had grounded their return flight to Detroit. Silently Abel herded his players aboard a chartered bus that was to take them home, 250 miles across the state of Michigan. Before it departed he stepped into the narrow aisle. "Look," he said at last, "I know there are some guys on this team who don't like me, and after four hours of riding in this weather somebody is going to feel like taking a punch. Well, all I want to say is this: You want a rumble, let's have it now before we get started."
"Yeah," shouted someone from the back, and everyone broke out in spontaneous, unrestrained laughter. Strategically, tactically, psychologically, Sid Abel was striving to get his Red Wings flying right. Now, in mid-January, Abel is a little happier but not much closer to a winning formula.
"I've tried everything," he says, "but I've never gone through a season quite like this before."
Few teams have. Like every other club, the Red Wings expect their share of bruises, sprains, stitches and even a few-broken bones. But until Paul Henderson, the crew-cut left wing who was leading the team in scoring, started coughing violently every time he stepped on the ice, nobody around Olympia Stadium anticipated the exotic ailment tracheitis. "I coughed all the time," said Henderson. "I even wore a surgical mask in games to warm the air I was breathing." Finally the Red Wings shipped him to Arizona so that the hot desert sun would bake the inflammation from his windpipe.
After a week it did. And Detroit was awaiting Henderson's return when Bert Marshall, a 205-pound defenseman, charged into the corner with docile Pit Martin of Boston, whom he outweighs by 40 pounds. Marshall came away with another new one for the Red Wings—a collapsed lung. "It doesn't hurt," said Marshall. "I just can't breathe, that's all."
For a year Abel had been worrying about his lack of big-league defensemen, and he was constantly on the telephone to Baz Bastien, coach of the Red Wings' Pittsburgh farm team, bringing up and sending down defenders in an effort to slow the barrage of shots on Goalie Roger Crozier. Suddenly Crozier couldn't even stop the easy ones and tumbled into the worst slump of his brief career. "It got to be so bad that there were nights when I was just petrified, terrified to go out there," Crozier remembers.
Finally Abel was forced to bench Crozier. And through it all the Detroit forwards were not scoring. Six players had scored 20 or more goals for the Red Wings during the 1965-66 season, but when Henderson came back from Arizona, having missed nearly half of Detroit's games, he was still the team's leading scorer with nine goals. Andy Bathgate, who had been the league's most valuable player for 1958-59, slid all the way out of the NHL and down to Pittsburgh.
Back on big-league ice last week, as Detroit defeated Boston, Montreal and then league-leading Chicago, in turn, at Olympia, Bathgate looked like the sweet-skating, magical stick handler that he can be. As mysteriously as Crozier had lost his touch in goal, he regained it. Then there was Howie Young, once a pugnacious alcoholic, but now dried out, 30 pounds slimmer and a defenseman who gave the Wings urgently needed muscle and puck-clearing savvy. It was Young who inspired the Wings to victory over Montreal. Against Chicago, mighty Gordie Howe and wily Dean Prentice proved to be the difference. Howe scored the 699th and 700th goals of his 21-year career, while Prentice got his 249th and 250th goals.
"We're going on the road hot," crowed Abel. "Let's stay that way." Alas, the Wings lost their 16th road game two nights later to the Canadiens 4-3, blowing a two-goal lead personally achieved by Howe.
But back home again last Sunday night, Andy Bathgate started the scoring as the Wings made it four victories in five games with a 3-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Maybe it wasn't too late after all—if only they could win one on the road.