Was it all in the mind or was a sharp new wave of anti-American sentiment actually sweeping through Montreal early last week? Canadian customs inspectors at the airport seemed to be double-checking the identification and baggage of visitors from the United States. One had the impression that change clerks were carefully authenticating U.S. dollars before paying the 7.5-cent conversion premium, that the mini-midi-maxi French girls at Chez Bourgetel suddenly were not speaking their very good English anymore, that waiters were spilling an unusual amount of onion soup into American laps.
If all this was so, there could be only one reason: the four U.S.-based teams in the National Hockey League's East Division had better records than the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens were down there in fifth place, three points out of fourth—and fifth place, of course, means you are kaput for the Stanley Cup playoffs. "I cannot imagine," said Jean Beliveau, the Montreal captain, "a Stanley Cup without the Canadiens playing in it." Beliveau, the classic hockey player, has led Montreal to the cup the last two seasons, four of the last five and nine of the last 14.
But the plight of Canadian hockey was not merely a provincial matter. It had become a national emergency. The Toronto Maple Leafs already have been all but eliminated from the playoffs. If Montreal does not make them it will be the first time in hockey history that a team from Canada has not competed for the cup. "If we fail," Beliveau said, "we will hear about it from everyone in Canada."
Confronted with this crisis, Montreal rallied brilliantly last week behind its two most valuable men—Beliveau and hardrock John Ferguson—and moved within a point of the fourth-place Detroit Red Wings. "It used to be that we always were playing for first place," Beliveau said,' 'but this year it will be tougher to get into the playoffs than it will be to win the Stanley Cup."
The Canadiens would not be in such distress if Beliveau had been able to play like the old Beliveau all season and Ferguson had not missed almost half the schedule because of injuries and a six game suspension. Jean and John represent the absolute extremes of hockey players. Beliveau, now 38 years old, is tall and strong, an effortless skater, a precise shooter, an adroit playmaker, a persistent checker. He is the complete hockey player—and the silent leader of the Canadiens. Ferguson skates with great effort but he gets there, and when he does he usually stops himself by running into one of the enemy. He is the Canadiens' cop, the bodyguard for the smaller players on the Montreal team. He is the Canadiens' noisy leader.
When Ferguson plays, the fleet Montreal forwards skate recklessly, knowing he is around to protect them. When he does not play, these same forwards look as though they are out for a quiet afternoon of public skating.
"I sat in the press box one night," Ferguson said, "and watched one of our forwards get belted to the ice. Three other Canadiens were standing around but they never made a move." What did Ferguson do? "I picked up my chair and threw it," he said. So far this year he has broken his thumbs and cracked a bone below his right eye.
For Beliveau it has been an equally frustrating season. There he is, the greatest winner in hockey history, with 10 regular-season championships and those nine Stanley Cups. Now he wants to do what basketball's Bill Russell did last year: lead his team into the playoffs and win the last championship. Like Russell, Beliveau will not say it will be his last championship, but those who know him expect that No. 4 will be retired at the end of the season.
Typically, Beliveau blamed himself for most of the Canadiens' recent problems.
"If I had played my game all the time," he said, "maybe the others would have played better. When I pass the puck, I pass it a split second too late. When I shoot it, I shoot it a split second too late. That is what happens when you are 38 years old."
Jean started the season strongly but then cracked a bone in his ankle early in December. He missed a month of the schedule and when he did return he could skate only 45 seconds of a two-minute shift. "I had no wind, no resistance," he said. "Each night I hoped I would jump on the ice and feel that I could skate the whole game. But it never happened."
As the fifth-place Canadiens returned home last week after a four-game losing stretch, Beliveau had only 12 goals on the year. "That does not matter anymore," he said. "We have 13 games left, and we all have to start playing like Canadiens again."
They did that night as Montreal beat the New York Rangers 5-3. The Canadiens forechecked persistently, and Ferguson, roaming the ice, hit everyone he encountered. It was a costly victory, though, for Serge Savard, the Canadiens' most versatile player, broke his leg in the third period.
"I would give the two points back to have Serge for the rest of the season," Beliveau said.
At practice Thursday, Coach Claude Ruel talked about Savard's injury. "We Canadiens," he said, "can give no excuses. When Savard gets hurt we got to bring up someone just like him. When Beliveau got hurt we had to have another Beliveau ready. Same with Fergy. Now, you tell me, where are there hockey players like these men?"
The Canadiens flew to St. Louis Friday afternoon for a Saturday matinee with the Blues. "This is a big game," Beliveau said at dinner. "If we lose we get in a bad frame of mind." Beliveau thought it might be the most important regular-season game he would ever play.
After dinner Jean looked into the lounge of the restaurant. Jo Plummer was singing That's Life: "Each time I find myself flat on my face I pick myself up and get back in the race...." He smiled, then walked outside.
On Saturday Jean scored after 78 seconds of play, beating Glenn Hall with a perfect forehand drive on a two-on-one break. Still, after two periods the score was tied 2-2. Early in the third period Ferguson busted in toward the goal and deflected a pass from Bob Rousseau. It proved to be the winning score. After that the Canadiens turned on the power and won easily 6-2. "The biggest period of the year," Beliveau said. "We're right there again. No question about it."
After Sunday's 3-3 tie with Toronto the Canadiens headed west for games with Los Angeles and Oakland. Realizing the importance of the trip, the Montreal management moved the players out of their regular Oakland motel and into a hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco. Waiters are advised not to spill any soup on John Ferguson.