On the eve of his second season as coach of the champion Canadiens, Claude Ruel was talking about the first: "There were a lot of people who thought the Canadiens would have a new coach after one or two months—they didn't think I could win the championship—and that is why for me it was a personal victory. There are people, even after we beat Boston for the league championship, they criticize me. I am more confident this time, but at the same time I am more scared."
Ruel knows he must win again to please the tough Canadien fans, and so he should. Through planning and some slick dealing behind closed doors, the Canadiens survived the June draft without losing a regular from last year's club. All the familiar stars are back: Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Jacques Lemaire, Yvan Cournoyer, Bobby Rousseau, Ralph Backstrom, Dickie Duff. Beliveau makes the Canadiens hard to beat in the money games. Lemaire scored 29 goals and played in every game but one. Little Cournoyer, now 25, become one of the NHL's big gunners by scoring 43 times. He also confounded critics who thought he would never become a two-way player.
Defensively, the Canadiens are as big and rangy and stingy as ever. Jacques Laperriere and Ted Harris are coming off excellent years. Serge Savard, only 23, won the Conn Smythe Award as the outstanding cup player. Once again Gump Worsley and Rogatien Vachon will split time in the nets.
These riches have not made the Canadiens complacent. As Ruel says, "If you get too much confidence in yourself, you're gonna have bad success."
The skull fracture suffered by Defenseman Ted Green in the exhibition season dramatizes Coach Harry Sinden's most serious problem, that of avoiding injuries. "Anytime you start cracking heads like Boston does," says the Blues' Lynn Patrick, former coach of the Bruins, "you're going to get people hurt." With Green's own head cracked, Sinden is reviewing a somber league statistic with all the more concern. It is in the category "Player/Games Lost by Clubs," and last year the Bruins lost 240. The next team on the most-injured list was St. Louis, with 135. The champion Canadiens logged 100.
"I'm not trying to alibi," says Sinden, "but that gives you a pretty good idea just how many guys we had racked up last year." In any case, Sinden says he is prepared to "live or die by the sword," and clearly he has no other choice.
Still, the preseason toll was alarmingly high. Besides Green the injured included the youthful superstar Bobby Orr, the daredevil center Derek Sanderson and another good defenseman, Don Awrey. If the Bruins open with these three absent or at less than their best, they will be in for some bad moments.
But barring medical catastrophe, the Bruins can again press Montreal, and if they can contrive to win some "big" games they could dethrone the Canadiens. Boston blew a must game with Montreal the next to last night of last season and won none of three overtime games in the cup semifinals.
"This is a dangerous year for us," says Sinden. "We could be awfully good or...."
NEW YORK RANGERS
In New York's year of improbable champions it is just conceivable that the Rangers can break through the Montreal-Boston axis to win their first NHL title in 28 years. Strictly on form, no, but with some luck, maybe. The Rangers are a little bigger, a little faster, a little meaner—and in Emile Francis they possess a master coach "We have," says Francis, "the finest crop of young players in 15 years." Francis boasts a lineup that already includes two superior young sophomores—Center Walt Tkaczuk and Defenseman Brad Park.
Among the little things Francis has added is some goal insurance. Last year his splendid iron man, Ed Giacomin, played more minutes (4,114) than any other goalie and by March was extremely weary. To spell him Francis has hired that legendary net-man Terry Sawchuk, and so should have the league's best combination.
Offensively, the high-scoring line of Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield returns, backed by a strong second unit of Tkaczuk, Dave Balon and Bob Nevin. All the smaller Rangers are glad to see rugged Orland Kurtenbach back in uniform after a year's absence caused by a back operation. Wise old Harry Howell, nearing the end of his defense career, was purchased by Oakland, but the Rangers are well supplied with defensive size and quality in Park, Jim Neilson, Arnie Brown and Rod Selling. The Rangers are young but, as Francis says, "old enough to know where the money is." Montreal and Boston have it, but New York being the town it is these days, the Rangers could steal it.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Jim Dorey checked into camp with sideburns curling under his jaw and his skates painted blue. Mike Walton's mop was so long he had to wear a friction-tape headband during scrimmages to keep it out of his eyes. Dave Keon got stranded on a fishing trip, reported three days late and drew a handshake instead of a fine. "There's something drastically wrong in camp this year," said 67-year-old Tommy Nayler, the assistant trainer. "I've been here three days and nobody has screamed at me, or fined me or anything. Something is wrong."
A lot of things certainly are different—if not wrong—within the Toronto organization this year, from the faces at the top to the hotels on the road. Punch Imlach, who drove his players like a Marine drill instructor, is gone and so are President C. Stafford Smythe and Executive Vice-President Harold Ballard. Jim Gregory, 34, and Johnny McLellan, 41, are the new general manager and coach, respectively, and Imlachs they aren't. "I'm not going to imitate Punch in any way," says Gregory. "We're even shooting for Monday as a day off."
But even though the Leafs will be laughing more and grumbling less, one wonders how much better they can be. The team is fairly potent up front with Norm Ullman, Keon and Walton at center and Paul Henderson and Ron Ellis at two wing positions, but after that McLellan has to scuffle. The All-Star defenseman Tim Horton has retired (he says he would reconsider for a 100% boost in pay, to $80,000); three of the four starting defenders are kids of 22 or under.
And so once again the Leafs will fight Detroit and Chicago for fourth place.
DETROIT RED WINGS
There is a telephone at General Manager Sid Abel's seat in the Olympia Stadium press box, and often during games last year he used it—to give suggestions to Coach Bill Gadsby down behind the Red Wing bench. Even though Abel was not exactly being paid to coach the team, his advice did not bug Gadsby as much as that coming from Owner Bruce Norris, who was constantly on the phone to Abel from his private box. All this Big Brotherism failed to help the Wings, who missed the playoffs for the third straight year.
This year, Gadsby says, there will be no more phone calls. "I want to do it my way," he says. "If I hang myself out there on the ice, at least it will be with my own hand."
Nonetheless, it is doubtful that the front-office interference will stop unless the Red Wings start winning. The team's new hope is Carl Brewer, 30, an artful defenseman who walked out of a Maple Leaf camp four years ago rather than play for Punch Imlach. Playing alongside Bobby Baun, his old Toronto partner, Brewer could help forge a stronger rush from the Detroit end—which has been Detroit's biggest problem. "He's a real holler guy," says Abel. "For too long we've been a quiet team. Gordie [Howe] and Alex [Delvecchio] never say a word on the ice."
Still, what those two do will determine more than anything how high Detroit goes. Howe, 41, made his 23rd season a spectacular one with 44 goals, and Delvecchio had a typically good year (25). But if this is the year age finally catches up with them, nothing—not Frank Mahovlich or Brewer or Goalie Roy Edwards or Norris' second guesses—will keep the Wings out of the cellar.
CHICAGO BLACK HAWKS
When Bobby Hull scores an alltime record of 58 goals and you still finish last in the East, what do you do? The flip answer is "Raise ticket prices," which is exactly what Owner Bill Wirtz has done—to $8 on the main floor of Chicago Stadium. Hockey hunger is so great that the stadium is already a near sellout for the season, but doubts remain about the Hawks' defense and morale. Hull himself skipped training camp while renegotiating the four-year contract he signed after a bristling holdout last year. "Puppets and Bumsteads," he called the Hawk management, adding he felt he was not appreciated. Meanwhile, Center Pit Martin said Hull was appreciated all too much. "The Hawks have one star and one fairly big star, and the club seems set up to keep them happy," asserted Martin.
Amid the slanging, Coach Billy Reay at least has encouraging news about that "fairly big" star, Stan Mikita. The brilliant little center has recovered from a back injury that made him a defensive patsy last year. But even as Mikita mended, his valuable right wing, Kenny Wharram, suffered a heart attack and may be finished as a player.
Although Reay may have to juggle his forward lines, he knows the Hawks can score. His heaviest challenge is to stiffen the defense, which allowed 246 goals last year. The only really solid defensemen appear to be Pat Stapleton and Doug Mohns but Reay professes to see big-league quality in rookies Barry Long and Ray McKay. Montreal's young Tony Esposito was drafted in the hope he might surpass the so-so Goalies Denis Dejordy and Dave Dryden.