It is a rather large locker room, with an unusually high ceiling and walls that are painted a soft, pale blue—French blue. The benches against the wall are red, a rich blood red—Montreal Canadiens red. Despite the size of the room, when the door is closed it is not necessary to shout to be heard in the farthest corner. But when the Canadiens lose a hockey game, or play less than their best in winning, Coach Hector (Toe) Blake closes the door and shouts. And when he does the walls of The Forum shudder, the music stops at the discoth√®que La Licorne and ships roll uneasily in Montreal Harbour.
Toe Blake's shout is down a decibel or two these days, for his Canadiens have been on the hottest streak in the 51-year history of the National Hockey League, losing only two and tying two of their last 26 games. They jumped from last place to first in just five weeks and by now have left Chicago, Boston and New York far behind to jostle with one another for the remaining East Division playoff positions. As they climbed up the standings, the Canadiens won 12 games in a row before losing to the Rangers in New York on February 4. They were off on another tear of eight straight when those same Rangers took their giant-killing act to Montreal last Saturday and hung a 6-1 defeat on the Frenchmen.
"The Canadiens are in a class by themselves," sighed Chicago Coach Billy Reay, after Montreal had demolished his Black Hawks 6-0 on nationwide television. "Nobody is going to catch them now. Why, they've got guys on their Houston farm club who could play for me right now."
But only last Christmas, when the Canadiens were still last, it was being suggested that they might finish out of the playoffs for the first time in 20 years—that the Canadien dynasty might be crumbling. In Blake's 11 years as coach Montreal had won eight NHL championships and seven Stanley Cups. Only once had a Blake-coached team finished lower than second—and that was third, in 1963.
"The turning point," says Blake of this season's flip-flop, "came in a game at Toronto. We were down by two goals with five minutes to go and came back to tie 2-2. Before that the club died when it got behind. They quit. Now they come back."
The experts now say that the Canadiens were bound to start winning, that they had the talent all along, that Jackie Kennedy could have coached them from her ski slope in the Laurentians last week. But that theory underrates Blake. Although the cast has changed during Blake's 12 years, his formula for winning has not. You may-hear that the Canadiens win on pride and bench strength; and it is true that they have both. But an essential ingredient of success year after year has been this: the Canadiens are simply-scared out of their long Johns by the thought of losing before the watery blue eyes of Toe Blake.
Blake drives himself as he drives his players. In all his years as coach he has never asked for more than a one-year contract, reasoning that job insecurity-helps keep him on his mettle. "I'm not out for security," he says, "I'm out to win. I get scared when we lose. I can't stand it. In 1955 I was bloody well scared half to death to take over this team. It had too many good players that year, and I had played with several of them. How was I to know how they would react to me as their coach? I get more tense and nervous every year. It is making me bitter. People say, 'Calm down, Toe, calm down,' but I can't calm down. If the day ever comes when I can swallow defeat, I will quit."
If this were not enough of a goad, consider the Forum fans. They are as skeptical as they are knowing and ardent, and they regard losing as a crime. They come to the Forum dressed in black—black suits, black dresses, black shoes, black topcoats and black furs—as if to a funeral, your funeral if you are an inept Canadien. "Lose a game at home," says Winger John Ferguson, "and you just don't feel like going out afterward. It's a case of preferring not to see them and of their preferring not to see you."
Early this season, damaged by injuries to Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard and Yvan Cournoyer, the team could not put the puck in the net, although the defense, with rookie Rogatien Vachon and Gump Worsley alternating in goal, was the best in the East Division. The Canadiens would win a game, lose one, lose another and then tie. For Blake this was unbearable.
He blasted players and sports writers and skirmished with fans in Los Angeles and Boston. There came a game in Detroit in which Worsley—then one of the league leaders with a 1.82 average despite Montreal's slump—was having a bad time. When the Red Wings scored twice early in the third period to take a 6-4 lead, Blake blew up and ordered Gump to the showers. Toe had never done anything like that before. Worsley is short, stubby and phlegmatic—the picture of your friendly neighborhood fireplug—but when Blake pulled him in front of 14,000 people, he, too, erupted. As he reached the Montreal bench he hurled his stick and gloves against the boards, then stomped through the runway to the locker room. The sports writers rapped Blake hard for what they considered an act humiliating to a fine goaltender, but he insisted that he had been right. "I was mad," he said. "I wanted him mad, too. And if he ever lets them in like that again, I'll yank him again."
One might guess that the walls of the Forum locker room are painted a pale blue to soften the hate that certainly must be there. But there is no hate; on the contrary, there is a strong bond between Blake and his players. The Canadiens can talk over their troubles with him, and he has never believed it necessary to run a bed check. And even in this jet age Blake puts the team on trains whenever he can. "The best you can get on a plane is a three-handed poker game," he says. "That's no good."
Blake's mood improved after that pivotal Toronto tie on Dec. 27, 1967 and became even better with the return of Beliveau, Ferguson and Cournoyer to good health. Now his primary concern is keeping the players working and happy—but always working. "I'd like to see everybody get all the game time they want," he says, "but that's pretty hard. So I play the men who are going the best."
Henri Richard, one of the few Canadiens remaining from Blake's powerhouse teams of the '50s, still has some of his old speed and all of his playmaking brilliance, but his knees are battered and unreliable. The Pocket Rocket has been sidelined three times by knee injuries this year. During his absences a rookie center, Jacques Lemaire, stepped in with such a hard shot and so much ice presence that Blake benched Henri for a time. Henri sulked and quit the team for a week.
Lemaire, meanwhile, became the darling of the Forum fans; in fact, it seemed that the public-address announcer's frequent recital of "Le but du Canadien: Jacques Lemaire" drew more cheers than had goals by Richard or even the team's superstar, Beliveau.
From exile Richard sent word that "I'd rather collect garbage than sit on the bench." That remark prompted gags about work awaiting him in garbage-littered New York, but it failed to impress Blake. After a week of sitting around home Henri conferred with Blake, was reinstated, and is now playing his best hockey of the season. The fact that he and Lemaire are now splitting time on the ice is just one indication of Montreal's continuing remarkable depth.
The point at which one begins to measure that depth, of course, is just beneath the crown of Blake's fedora. He is convinced that you can win them all. He is the only coach in the NHL who believes he can win the league championship every year—and he is outraged when he fails.
"All I know," he says, "is that I have a job here as long as I win."