For this relief much thanks.
Frank Mahovlich returned to the ninth grade and borrowed a phrase from Shakespeare in an attempt to convey what he thought the 500th goal of his National Hockey League career had meant not only to himself but to all the Montreal Canadiens. As a matter of record, Mahovlich's goal, a shanked shot that dribbled aimlessly into the net from 25 feet out, beat the Vancouver Canucks last Wednesday night and clinched the East Division championship for the Canadiens, thus leaving the preseason favorites—New York and Boston—to battle for the runner-up position. But more important, as Mahovlich realized, the championship provided the Canadiens with at least temporary relief from the pressures and the tensions of having to satisfy the most demanding collection of critics in hockey—Canada's 5½ million Frenchmen.
"Only now will the people let us up," said Henri Richard (see cover), the 37-year-old captain of the team. "How many games have we lost this year? Nine. And each loss...it has been a disaster. All the time it has been pressure. And now there will be even more pressure in the playoffs. If you finish first and do not win the Stanley Cup, these people...they forget you finished in first place. Remember, when you are the Canadiens you cannot make excuses."
Montreal should need no excuses when the grueling chase for Lord Stanley's $48.67 cup begins next week. Only the Bruins and the Rangers seem capable of stopping the Canadiens, and one of them will be eliminated after their mono a memo matchup in the opening round. Stated simply, the Canadiens have the best goaltender (Ken Dryden) and the best group of defensemen (Jacques Laperriere, Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard) in the game; and in Mahovlich, his gangling brother Peter, Jacques Lemaire, Yvan Cournoyer, Guy Lafleur, Marc Tardif and Chuck Lefley, among others, they have more than enough firepower to storm the Bastille.
The Montreal bench, meanwhile, is stocked with talented rookies, particularly Goalies Michel Plasse and Wayne Thomas, Defenseman Larry Robinson and Wings Murray Wilson and Steve Shutt, who play like the Drydens and the Laperrieres and the Mahovliches whenever Coach Scotty Bowman finds time to use them. For instance, when Dryden suffered his annual back injury and had to sit out for almost six weeks, Thomas, 25, moved down from his seat in the stands and lost only one of eight starts, whereupon Plasse, 24, stepped in and was undefeated in seven games.
Impressed? Hold on a minute. Down east on the farm at Halifax, Nova Scotia shrewd Sam Pollock, the general manager of the Canadiens, has assembled a team comprised of the best young talent outside the NHL. Indeed, Goaltender Bunny Larocque, 20, Center Dave Gardner, 20, and Wings Chuck Arnason, 21, and Yvon Lambert, 22, are only a few of the Montreal minor-leaguers who should be playing regularly in the NHL instead of toiling for Halifax. Next year they all undoubtedly will graduate to the bench in Montreal.
Dryden best assessed the future of the young Canadiens one day when someone asked him if this might be the year that the Rangers finally will win the Stanley Cup. After contemplating the question, Dryden coolly answered: "If they don't win the cup this year, it probably will be a long time before they do."
Nevertheless, despite their impressive personnel strengths and the lordly manner in which they have dominated the NHL this year, the Canadiens' road to their 11th Stanley Cup in the last 17 years will not be one big ego trip. For Montreal, it never is. Henri Richard worries about tradition. Wayne Thomas worries that his talents are being eroded by his constant inactivity. Guy Lafleur worries that the Canadiens will not come close to the $90,000-a-year salary the Quebec Nordiques of the World Hockey Association have offered him to switch leagues next season. Scotty Bowman worries about statistics and whether 44-year-old Jacques Plante will be a miracle man for the Bruins in the playoffs. Sam Pollock worries about everything that Richard and Thomas and Lafleur and Bowman are worrying about—and some other things, too.
The English press in Montreal worries that two stories a day on the Canadiens may be one too many. And the two French morning tabloids worry that six pages a day on Le Club de Hockey Canadien may be four pages too few. Don't the people have a right to know when and where Rejean Houle's son Sylvain is being baptized? "Oui," says Montréal Marin. Doesn't Frank Mahovlich's 500th goal deserve a 10-picture spread, including even a shot of the goal judge who turned on the historic red light? "Oui," says le Journal de Montréal.
"When you play in Montreal," Henri Richard said between sips of coffee, "you are never just a hockey player." Silver-haired and well-scarred, Richard probably will retire if the Canadiens win the cup. "I want to go out the way Jean Beliveau did—skating around the ice with the cup," he said. If he joins the Rocket in retirement, Montreal will be without a Richard for the first time in 32 years. "My oldest boy, Gilles, is 15 and doesn't want to play the game. He knows he doesn't have it. I told him once, 'Keep your stick on the ice.' He told me, 'I don't want to be like you,' and that was the end of it. I think Denis, who is 13, will be a good player someday. But it's not important. They are first in their schools and I was always the last. Best in sport, last in school. That was me. Maybe it is better to have it the other way."
Richard is a volatile leader. Two years ago in the playoffs he launched an all-out verbal assault on Coach Al MacNeil, calling him the "worst coach I have ever played for." The blast aroused the Canadiens, and they rallied to upset Chicago for the cup as Richard himself scored the winning goal in the final game. Richard acted again last Thanksgiving when reports of dissension on the Canadiens began to appear in the Montreal papers. Some players suggested that journalists be banned from the Montreal dressing room for a lengthy period after each game. Richard, however, insisted that the writers should be allowed immediate access to the dressing room.
"What are you, sleeping with them?" asked one irate teammate.
Incensed by this insubordination, Richard got up, walked over to the player and gave him a Godfatherly slap across the face. Case closed.
"The kids today, they are so different," Richard said. "When I joined the Canadiens I didn't say a word for five years. My brother told me not to say anything, just listen. These kids, you tell them something and they tell you where to go." As he looks around at all the young players who covet his job, Richard thinks about retirement. "No one will have to tell me when to go. I'll know myself. I'll never hang on."
There are four briefcases lined against the wall in Sam Pollock's office. The three black bags are stuffed with legal trivia. The brown bag contains Pollock's game plan for winning probably seven or eight Stanley Cups in the next decade. "That's my personal stuff," Pollock said, implying that the contents have more value than whatever the Republicans found at Watergate.
"People build teams certain ways," Pollock said. "George Allen, of course, prefers to trade his draft choices for veteran players. Not me. I've always traded for futures—not pasts. We have rebuilt this team in the last five years, and I think the future looks pretty solid." No wonder. At the end of each season Pollock puts together several Care packages for the weaker teams in the NHL and then collects "future considerations"—that is hockey legalese for draft choices—in return. In the last five years Montreal has had a total of 14 first-round selections in the amateur draft, while California has had two and Los Angeles only one. And this year the Canadiens will make seven of the first 20 selections in the draft, including the No. 2 pick acquired from California three years ago.
"People criticize my tactics, sure," Pollock said. "They claim I take advantage of other general managers. That's not correct. If you take advantage of people, they won't deal with you again. Look, I've made countless deals with Minnesota, St. Louis, California, Los Angeles. So why do they keep coming back? Obviously I'm giving them something good in return."
Pollock plots many of his trades in the back seat of a chauffeured Lincoln or in front of some of the 100-odd paintings that hang in his house. "Traveling by car gives you time to relax and concentrate," he said. "I stopped flying after making 262 plane trips one year." Pollock specializes in collecting contemporary Canadian art, particularly works done by the Group of Seven. "I'm an art collector, not an investor," he emphasized. "I'm a fan of art. I prefer the Canadian paintings because they can be obtained for reasonable prices compared to European works. I mean, there are no Canadian paintings selling for $348,000."
Bald on top, bulging at the waist, extremely intense, the 47-year-old Pollock lives with a fear of defeat, yet when the Canadiens have lost in the past the pain has passed quickly. "Sam is a bit paranoid about hockey games," said one player. "When he comes into the room before a game against even the Islanders or the Seals he leaves us with the impression that this game tonight is for the Stanley Cup. Sam's teams have never been involved in an easy game, not in his mind, anyway." Or as Scotty Bowman says: "Sam is never nonchalant about anything in hockey."
Next month Pollock will probably trade Wayne Thomas to a noncontender in the West Division for "future considerations." Thomas is Montreal's No. 3 goaltender. His goals-against average for eight games is 2.25; Dryden's record for 53 games is 2.12.
"Practices used to be enjoyable because I anticipated playing in a regular game," Thomas said. "When Ken got hurt, I was ready—and I think I played pretty well. Then I lost a game. Now I haven't played in about two months. And I hate practice. We have a lot of headhunters on this team, players who like to take 25-foot slap shots during workouts. All I am is their target. That's not practice for me."
Despite his recent inactivity, Thomas dreaded that he might be traded before the deadline three weeks ago. "Look, I'm not stupid," he said. "I want to get the money now. There's about $20,000 a man waiting for us when we win everything. I can always play next year."
Dale Hoganson, 23, has played only 24 games for Montreal. A solid defenseman, he would be a regular for at least 10 other NHL clubs. Instead he watches most nights in his civilian clothes. The Canadiens suspect he already has signed a three-year, $270,000 package contract with the Quebec Nordiques. After Mahovlich's goal won the East Division title last week, and the $4,000 that went with it. Hoganson burst into the dressing room to congratulate his teammates. "Thanks for the four," he said, "now get me 16 more."
Guy Lafleur, 21, was called Il est en Or—the Golden Boy—when he played his junior hockey for the Quebec Remparts. Now he is engaged to the daughter of one of the owners of the Quebec Nordiques. He says there is a 50-50 chance he will play for Quebec next year. "I drive there once or twice a week," he says. "It's only 90 minutes." By Cadillac, that is. Will the Canadiens match the Nordiques' offer? "I plead the fifth," Sam Pollock said. "I can't say anything about the WHA."
Alicia Bowman, 2, removed her Boston Bruins bib and kissed her father good night at precisely 7:34 p.m. At 7:35 p.m. Scotty Bowman started to watch the Boston-Minnesota game on television, and at 8 p.m. he turned on his Hitachi radio, adjusted the antenna and began to dial-hop between the broadcasts of the Philadelphia-Vancouver and the Atlanta-New York Rangers games. "A typical night at home," said Suella Bowman. "You will never find a guy who cares more about hockey," says Henri Richard. Or as one of Bowman's former players in St. Louis says: "Scotty Bowman loves hockey so much he wants to be reincarnated as a goalpost."
Bowman keeps a brown notebook in his pocket, and every two or three minutes he whips out the book and begins to quote statistics. "Richard's opposing centers have scored only five goals against him all year," he intoned. "Jimmy Roberts' wingers have scored only three goals against him. Frank Mahovlich has scored 13 goals at home and 23 on the road. Guy Lafleur has scored 17 goals at home and eight on the road. He also leads the club with seven game-winning goals. Ken Dryden has allowed 36 goals in the first period, 40 in the second, 39 in the third. Jacques Lemaire has scored 17 of his 40 goals in the third period." Then Bowman put the book away. "Statistics are for losers," he said. "Not those statistics, mind you, because they help me prepare the team for a game. They tell me something. The other statistics don't count. New York and Boston each has six players among the top 51 scorers in the league. We have only three. See what I mean?"
Bowman has irritated many of the Montreal players with his steadfast refusal to establish set lines and stick with them and also his instant decision to bench a player during a game. "I'm not here to win a popularity contest," he snapped. "There is no way I can keep 23 players informed about my every thought."
Bowman looked at his watch. "I haven't heard from Sam all day. He drove to a funeral in Boston this morning, and he's on his way back now. Usually we talk on the phone at night to compare notes again on what we discussed during the day. Since he hasn't called, I guess things are under control for now."
The discussion was about draft choices this year. Would the Canadiens, who could use a young center, draft Tom Lysiak from Medicine Hat, or Andre Savard from Quebec City? "Of course they will take Savard because he is a Frenchman," said a French-speaking television announcer. Claude Ruel, probably the best scout in hockey, shook his head. "We will take the best player available. Give me 12 Japanese forwards, and if they win the cup for the Montreal Canadiens, then that is all right."
There are 12 Frenchmen among the 23 players on the Montreal roster, giving them a majority which, despite its slimness, obviously pleases the French press. "The Canadiens may not be the Flying Frenchmen in 20 years," says Pierre Gobeil of Montréal Matin, "but they are now." Boston, New York and the other tough competitors can hardly feel relieved by that.