For hockey's old-line teams it was the biggest week of the season and for the fans an unmistakable and refreshing signal that the times they are a-changing. It was the first week in which the East teams tested one another with few distractions from the expansion clubs: and, when it ended, these things could be said:
•The champion Montreal Canadiens, still the class of the league, are hurting and finding it increasingly difficult to get "up" for every game—against teams invariably up for them and perhaps can be taken: they are most unlikely to breeze out ahead.
•The contending Boston Bruins have abruptly changed their style. Bleeding a little too freely from the sword they lived by, they have mended their manners a good deal—and are playing first-rate hockey.
•Despite a rough week the Chicago Black Hawks can again be a powerful force in the race—and they, too, have an entirely new look. Suddenly they have defense, youth and Bobby Hull, too.
•The New York Rangers have fulfilled their preseason promise and are turning on their share of the fans in Jets-Mets-Knicksville.
Of all the week's lessons probably the happiest was that New York was wholeheartedly in the race. Never in December had Madison Square Garden fans been so agreeably embarrassed, being obliged to idolize both the Knicks and the Rangers. Gone was the feeling that the Rangers would melt away, as in the past, at the first whiff of adversity. Inspired by youngsters like Walt Tkaczuk (pronounced tay-chuck) and Brad Bark, both second-year men, rookies Billy Fairbairn and Finnish-born Juha Widing; steadied along by veteran performers like Goalie Eddie Giacomin and Forwards Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield, the Rangers had taken first place in the East on Nov. 8. They hadn't got there by any break in the schedule, either; if anything, their early-season route was slightly rockier than the Canadiens'.
That these new Rangers can tough it out in a way the old Rangers newer could was evident on Wednesday night when the Black Hawks came to town. Chicago got two quick goals from Bobby Hull (making his first New York appearance of the year after ending that holdout) and his brother Dennis. In the second period the Rangers swarmed in on the Hawks' young goalie, Tony Esposito, but for many minutes could not crack him. And hen in less than three minutes they turned the game around. Hadfield found himself at goalmouth with the puck on us stick—and a tiny space between Esposito's right kneepad and the goalpost. It was space enough for Vic.
A mere minute and 19 seconds later Billy Fairbairn picked up a rebound 20 feet from Esposito and laced it past him. With the score tied and the capacity crowd of 17,250 in happy hysterics, Ratelle led a rush and poked one past Esposito from in close. Elapsed tune between goals No. 1 and No. 3: two minutes 36 seconds.
In the third period the Rangers were tied but by no means humiliated, for to even it up 3-3 Bobby Hull had to put on one of his muscle-beach acts. Rambling behind the New York net with the puck, he outwrestled one Ranger, a second Ranger, a third Ranger and still had enough strength and presence to Hip the disk out to Chico Maki, who fired it past Giacomin.
What really mattered in New York was that novel ability to score in bursts. "They can score on you so fast it's too last." said Montreal Coach Claude Ruel. "New York's strength," said Oakland's Fred Glover, "goes beyond those young players. They have 'em, all right, but they also have the kind of old heads who respond to the youngsters."
"If you want to stay around." said 37-year-old Donnie Marshall, an honest workman who has been around playing center in New York and Montreal for 15 years, "you really don't have much choice. A few years ago the coach might come up to you and say, hey, you'd better get off your can and start playing or we'll replace you. Well, down deep inside you knew there wasn't anything to it because they didn't have anybody to replace you with. It's not that way anymore."
Of the 15 regular players Emile Francis inherited when he took over as general manager in October, 1964, only five remain. Under Francis the team has gradually become so much bigger, stronger, faster and deeper that the older fans cannot quite believe what they are seeing. And it takes a fan with some age on him to have experienced New York's last pennant: that was in 1942.
Tkaczuk and Fairbairn skate with Dave Balon on what is, at the moment, the strongest goal-scoring line in the NHL, while the Ratelle-Hadfield-Rod Gilbert line—last year's best New York combination—is beginning to accelerate after a slow start. Park, the chunky, scrappy defenseman, is already a superstar in the eyes of his excitable admirers; and Giacomin is a calm, resourceful man in goal. "I have newer seen Giacomin play a bad game," said Leo Boivin, Minnesota's veteran defenseman. "And I'm amazed at what he can do with the puck to help his team. Make a shot on Eddie and he'll do more than just make the save. He'll shoot it right back out like a defenseman."
The ultimate credit for New York's rise, however, must go to Francis, who says, "The secret about being competitive is being competitive within your own organization; it's as simple as that. You've got to keep everybody—players, coaches, scouts—just a little bit scared to let down. When you finally get that, you've got yourself an organization that won't let down anywhere, least of all on the ice. A few years ago some of the top clubs didn't even have the courtesy to return our telephone calls. They figured, what does New York have that we want, anyhow? Well, let me tell you, now they always call back."
Bell Telephone's stock was climbing Sunday night as New York poured it on Montreal 6-3 in the Garden to take a four-point lead over the Canadiens in the East standings and extend its undefeated streak to 13 games. In their glee the Ranger partisans were not particularly concerned that Montreal was minus some vital men—Jean Beliveau and Claude Provost were injured; Jacques Laperriere and the top cop, John Ferguson, temporarily suspended—or that the Rangers faced back-to-hack games in midweek with Boston, which had pulled even with Montreal in second place. The Rangers were moving: the touch was still there, including two beautiful goals in 48 seconds to break a 2-2 third-period deadlock.
When it was over Francis told newsmen, "I have only one quote for you guys: 'How sweet it is.' "