The stick rack hangs in the hallway leading to the showers, just around the corner from the door to the Detroit Red Wings' dressing room in Olympia Stadium. The hockey sticks, with 9 HOWE and 10 DELVECCHIO stenciled on the handles, are arranged on the rack in numerical order from the bottom up, which puts No. 27—Frank Mahovlich's stick—near the top. This seems appropriate enough, since Mahovlich is also near the top of the league in scoring. His 36 goals are only one shy of Chicago's perennial leader, Bobby Hull. What strikes you about the stick, however, is that Mahovlich's name is nowhere on it; instead, halfway down the shaft, in black India ink soaked into the wood, the stencil reads simply: 27 THE BIG M.
An easy form of identification, true, but also an ironic one, for Frank Mahovlich is the one player in the NHL who never had to be reminded of what was expected of him every time he reached for his stick. Don't forget that Mahovlich is only playing for Detroit today the way he was supposed to have been playing the past 11 years in Toronto. Forty goals from the Big M? Why, he could have worn snowshoes for skates and still given the Leafs 20 a year if he had really wanted to.
In 1953 scouts from almost every team in the NHL were up in Timmins, Ontario at one time or another trying to sign the big son of a gold miner from Croatia. The Leafs, who offered cash and a scholarship to St. Michael's College, finally succeeded—even though the Chicago Black Hawks had offered the elder Mahovlich a five-acre fruit farm on the Niagara peninsula. When Toronto brought Frank up four years later, he was preceded by advance billing unheard of at that time. Mahovlich, they said, had it all—and they were right. Speed, power, grace. A shot to shatter Herculite at 100 feet. A face—pale gray eyes, straight white teeth—for the Toronto Star Weekly. Frank Mahovlich could reach out and lift you from your seat, just like Rocket Richard had done in Montreal. His first year in the league he was Rookie of the Year, of course, outpolling none other than Bobby Hull of the Black Hawks. When he scored 22 goals the following year and took Boston apart in the Stanley Cup playoffs, somebody called him the Big M—and it stuck. At 23 Mahovlich challenged Richard's record of 50 goals in one season—and fell short by a mere two. A year later, in a suite in the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, the late owner of the Black Hawks, Jim Norris, made the most celebrated pitch in hockey history, offering the Leafs $1 million for Mahovlich. When Harold E. Ballard, a team executive, tentatively agreed, Norris reached into his pocket and peeled off 10 $100 bills as a binder. But the Leafs' brass backed off the next morning—even knowing that Mahovlich and George (Punch) Imlach, the team's coach and general manager, had already embarked on a collision course.
Fanned in the newspapers, the dispute grew in intensity, while Mahovlich's brief flashes of brilliance only seemed to make everything worse. Fans who at first thought Mahovlich to be shy and reserved became convinced he was lazy at heart as well as moody, self-centered and insolent. Mahovlich withdrew within himself and suffered two nervous breakdowns in three years. Last March, with both teams going nowhere in the standings, the Leafs traded Mahovlich, Pete Stemkowski, Garry Unger and the rights to Carl Brewer to Detroit for Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith. The heart of the trade was, of course, Mahovlich (295 goals in 11 years) for Ullman (298 in 13). In Detroit Mahovlich is the Cadillac, tooling alongside the old Rolls-Royce, Gordie Howe. More at ease in the Red Wings' freewheeling attack, the Big M is once again shooting for 50 goals.
February 24, 1969
"Frank fits in," says Gordie Howe, "and by finding the holes [cracks in the defense], he makes it easier for you to get the puck to him. Once he gets the puck he can carry it—and he knows how to handle himself in front of the net. I think if the fans in Toronto had given him a break and cheered him instead of booing him, the pressure might not have cooked the guy. Even though Frank looks so big and strong, I've noticed he really doesn't have that much stamina. He gets pretty tired near the end of a shift, and anyone can look bad when they're tired. In Toronto a lot of people probably thought Mahovlich was loafing when, in fact, he was really just tired."
Mahovlich has played with Howe from the start of the season, but only after the first four games did Alex Delvecchio become their regular center. The combination is closing in on NHL records for total goals and points scored by one line. The Montreal "Punch Line" of Toe Blake, Elmer Lach and Rocket Richard scored 105 goals in 1945—Howe, Delvecchio and Mahovlich have 84 with 18 games to go. In 1957 the Detroit combination of Howe, Ullman and Ted Lindsay amassed 226 points—Howe, Delvecchio and Mahovlich have 187. What makes the line almost impossible to stop is the fact that the opposition cannot concentrate on any one member; each man can skate, pass and shoot the puck. Howe and Delvecchio, though they are notorious roamers, have played together 17 years and they know each other's every move. Mahovlich, because of his Toronto background, is more of a positional player and his linemates usually find him approaching the attacking zone, skating the hole and looking for the puck.
"I'm relaxed here," Mahovlich said last week, pulling off his red jersey after a game. "I've never felt better in my life. They treat me well. I'm playing with two great players and I don't worry like I used to. I remember when I was traded, I was never so happy. It was as if some big weight had lifted from my shoulders. Don't get me wrong—I still like Toronto well enough; it's just that I can play better here, in Detroit."
Mahovlich has rented an apartment across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, where he enjoys his days off with his wife and two children. He has other interests besides hockey—art and music, to name a couple, and you will always find him in a bridge game on plane trips. At St. Michael's Mahovlich was a good student and even expressed interest in becoming an engineer or a teacher. In Toronto, however, nobody ever wanted to talk to Frank Mahovlich about anything but hockey, whether he was standing in the cold wind outside Maple Leaf Gardens or strolling to the neighborhood supermarket.
In Detroit Mahovlich will never face the pressure of being No. 1. Gordie Howe has taken care of that, thank you, and the Big M would have it no other way. "Sure, I'd like to score 50 goals," he admits. "Who wouldn't? I don't know if there's enough time left, though. I'm just sure of one thing: I like it here."
Bobby Baun, a Detroit defenseman who played with Mahovlich in Toronto, watched the Big M slip into a bright blue plaid sports jacket, place his stick back on the rack and walk out the door. "Eleven years," Baun said. "Eleven years I played with Frank Mahovlich in Toronto and I didn't say 22 words to the guy. I never could understand him. Nobody on the squad did, so it was easier to just stay away from him when we weren't on the ice. But now everything's different. Frank's a different person. He's never played like this before and I had never seen him relaxed. Just getting out of Toronto has made a world of difference in him. We talk all the time now. He's really a very interesting guy, you know."