The red-eyed little customs officer was singing Les Canadiens Sont L√† as the red-eyed Montreal Canadiens, who happened to be yelling the same tune, lined up for inspection shortly before four o'clock last Wednesday morning at Dorval Airport outside Montreal. "Monsieur, what do you have to declare?" the officer asked one of the Canadiens.
"Only the Stanley Cup, monsieur," the man answered. The customs officer had to think for a moment. "There is no problem," he said, smiling. "We'll just classify that as Canadian Goods Returned."
The classification could hardly have been more apt, for the cup seems to be Canadiens' goods, if not Canada's. But the route home was a long one this time, as proud and spirited Montreal had to rally furiously from two goals down to defeat the Chicago Black Hawks 3-2 in the seventh game of the finals at Chicago Stadium, thereby ending the longest season in pro team sports—221 days. "Nobody gave us a chance against Boston," said Jean Beliveau, the magnificent captain of the Canadiens who is considering announcing his retirement. "And nobody gave us a chance against Chicago. But when you play for the Canadiens, for the Montreal Canadiens, you know you always have a chance."
The cup series was a fine triumph by a team that only a year ago was in disgrace for failing to qualify for the playoffs and this year limped home in third place in the East a full 24 points behind the champion Boston Bruins. The Canadiens won the final game on two goals by Henri Richard, the famed Rocket Richard's silver-haired little brother. In addition to these spectacular shots, Henri got off another one, which was verbal. It came after the Canadiens lost the fifth game in Chicago and brought into the open the serious rift between Montreal Coach Al MacNeil and his players. Unfortunately, it also added to the civil unrest in the French-speaking populace of Quebec.
Richard called MacNeil "incompetent" and said he was "the worst coach I've ever played for." When the Anglo-Canadian MacNeil replaced French-Canadian Claude Ruel in December, he let it be known that he would shuffle his lines in every game until he found productive combinations. This tactic incenses his players, who prefer set lines. Still, the MacNeil plan worked well—as the Boston Bruins found out—and things did not get unseemly until MacNeil benched John Ferguson in the third period of a semifinal playoff game against Minnesota. Twice Ferguson got off the bench and slammed his stick against the boards. Then he stormed off to the Montreal dressing room before the end of the game.
In the fifth game of the final series against the Black Hawks, MacNeil tried 14 different line combinations during the first two periods, and then tried eight more in the third. In spite of all this the Canadiens were shut out, losing 2-0. While most of the Montreal players privately agreed with Richard's postgame statements, they deplored his timing. "Why couldn't he have waited until the series was over?" one of them asked. "This could ruin us." Or, as Bobby Hull of the Black Hawks said, "Why now? Henri should have more sense than to blow his cool this close to the end."
Among other things, Richard's explosion triggered a number of telephone threats on MacNeil's life. Four plainclothes detectives were assigned to guard the coach—they even went to church with him—and more than 30 plainclothesmen were scattered throughout the crowd at the Montreal Forum for the sixth game of the series. "This doesn't bother me," MacNeil said. "I'm trying to win hockey games—and the Stanley Cup."
Richard, meanwhile, confirmed that he was not misquoted and, in fact, said that his remarks had been "thought out for a long time." But even Henri admitted his timing was bad. "I should have kept my mouth shut until the cup was over," he said. "Now I'm so nervous. There's so much pressure—on me and the coach. We have to win."
After Richard scored what proved to be the cup-winning goal in the last game, the Canadiens poured off the bench to congratulate him. Then, when the game was over, Richard and MacNeil embraced at center ice. "I will be a very sad man if he is not the coach when we report to training camp in September," Richard said on the Canadiens' flight back to Montreal. "He is a good man."
L'Affaire Richard aside, the Canadiens really won the cup because of the play of two rookies—Goalie Ken Dryden and Forward Rejean Houle, or Hooley, as Bobby Hull's shadow was known in Chicago. "If it weren't for that Dryden," said Boston's Phil Esposito before the seventh game of the Montreal-Chicago series, "the Canadiens would have been on vacation five weeks ago."
Dryden entered the playoffs as the veteran of only six NHL games—all victories. Just up from the minors, he carried the Canadiens past the Bruins in the first round, played superbly against Minnesota in the second and then by thwarting the Black Hawks won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable of all the cup players. Ironically, according to the rules, Dryden still can win the Rookie of the Year award next season. "It's incredible," Dryden said on the Canadiens' champagne flight back home. "I never dreamed I'd be here this year."
Dryden's performance was typified by what he did during a four-minute stretch in the third period of the final game. Montreal was shorthanded throughout the stretch, but Dryden somehow made improbable saves on Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull and Eric Nesterenko, and then a killing stop on Jim Pappin.
In the first game Pappin had scored from just outside the crease to Dryden's right in the first minutes of a second overtime period to give the Hawks a 2-1 victory. Now he was in the same position again, with the puck in the middle of his stick. He shot. Dryden flicked out his right leg and the puck bounced into the corner of the rink. That one move seemed to destroy the Hawks.
Although Dryden is only 23 years old, he may not be the Canadiens' No. 1 goalie very long. In fact, he might play only a few more seasons of pro hockey. "I get out of law school next year," he says. "Maybe I'll be able to combine the two—hockey and law—but if I can't, I'll have to make a decision. I'll have to decide what's best for my future." Dryden's immediate future is in Washington, D.C., where he will spend this summer working as one of Ralph Nader's Raiders. "Now that should be really exciting," he says. Weren't the Stanley Cup playoffs exciting? "Sure," Dryden answers, "but when the game is over, everything is over."
While Dryden continually repulsed the Chicago shooters, Rejean Houle harassed Bobby Hull so effectively that throughout the seven-game series Hull scored only one goal while the teams were playing at equal strength. "Stopping Hull was the key to stopping the Hawks," Defenseman J. C. Tremblay said after the final game. "When Bobby scores a lot, it seems all the other Hawks score a lot. And when he doesn't score much, they don't score much."
Houle, whose nickname is "Peanuts," admittedly hooked, cross-checked, tripped and held Hull, but he did it so discreetly that officials penalized him only five times during the series. "Hull could handle me like he handles his stick," said Houle, who spotted Bobby about 30 pounds, "but he is very fair, thank God."
The Canadiens' return to Montreal, while triumphant, was not as boisterous as might have been expected, mostly because the players were aware that Beliveau had pretty much decided to retire. "He shouldn't leave now," argued Tremblay. "Sure, he's almost 40, but did he play like a 40-year-old man in the cup? No. We ought to tell him he's only 30 so he'll stay around and play with us for 10 more years." Houle said: "We had six or seven rookies in the lineup for these playoffs. Before every game we'd get tight, but we would look over at Beliveau and then we would relax. Having him on your side really meant that everything would be all right somehow."
Beliveau and Richard now have played on 10 victorious Stanley Cup teams, more than any other players. "This one was the greatest," Beliveau said. "We weren't supposed to win. Oh, we could have quit. We could have quit that night Boston led us 5-1, but we didn't and we won. We could have quit when Chicago had us two down and led 2-0 after the first period in the third game. But we didn't. We never do."
So Beliveau is a winner again, and the Stanley Cup, after staying in Boston for a year, is back in Montreal. "The Stanley Cup," said Jean Beliveau, "always should be in Montreal."