It was Kentucky Derby Day and people in Montreal naturally wanted to talk horses with that noted thoroughbred owner, Gerry Cheevers. No matter that illness had prevented Cheevers' colt, Royal Ski, from running in the Derby. Reporters, TV men and other interested parties wanted to know who Cheevers thought would win the Derby. And what if it were a muddy track, Gerry? And how would Royal Ski do if he could run, Gerry? Cheevers fielded the questions for a while, then gently declined to discuss the race any longer. "Hey," he pleaded, puffing on a sequoia-sized cigar, "doesn't anybody realize we're here to play a hockey game?"
Unfortunately for Cheevers, who also tends goal for the Boston Bruins, the Montreal Canadiens realized it only too well. On Kentucky Derby night, to the amusement of a crowd of 17,311 in the Montreal Forum, the Canadiens practically blasted Cheevers out of the nets in the opening game of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals. The 7-3 shellacking by the Canadiens was a rude comedown for Cheevers, who had lived up to his reputation as a "money goalie" in the Bruins' sweep of favored Philadelphia in the semifinals. And it put Royal Ski's unfortunate owner in the singular position of coming up empty in two classic sporting events on the same day.
For Montreal, the romp was a welcome pick-me-up. The Canadiens had a 60-8-12 record in the regular season, best in NHL history, only to play sluggishly against the New York Islanders in a semifinal series that unexpectedly lasted six games. The gritty Islanders had pretty much silenced Montreal's big guns, Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt, and while neither of them scored in the opener against the Bruins, their teammates had no trouble beating Cheevers with two goals apiece by Mario Tremblay and Yvon Lambert and one each by Doug Risebrough, Jacques Lemaire and Rick Chartraw. In the face of this barrage, the beleaguered Cheevers could find no comfort in the fact that he had received little protection from his defensemen.
"When you give up seven goals, you're not sharp," he said. "The Canadiens came in so fast you didn't have time to breathe. Our defensemen? There was room for improvement for us all over the ice—starting in goal."
Montreal's goalie, Ken Dryden, was dependable, if not sensational, and this was enough to cheer the Canadiens. In the regular season Dryden teamed with backup Goalie Bunny Larocque for an NHL-leading 2.09 goals-against average, but he was hot and cold during the Islander series. This raised fears in Montreal that the Bruins might have an edge with Cheevers, who has never had Dryden's glittering stats, but whose clutch performances helped the Bruins to Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972. Then Cheevers bolted to the WHA for three-plus seasons before returning to the Bruins last year. This season he had a so-so 3.04 goals-against average, but was practically impenetrable as the Bruins won 10 of their last 11 games to overtake Buffalo for the Adams Division championship. In the subsequent sweep of Philadelphia, Cheevers was brilliant, yielding but one goal in the last 174 minutes—the equivalent of nearly three full games.
"With Gerry, statistics just don't mean anything," says Boston Coach Don Cherry. "If we're leading 6-0, he'll let in two, three easy ones. But if we're winning 2-1, look out. There's no goaltender tougher than he is."
"I feel funny about the talk about me being a clutch goaltender," says Cheevers. "It makes it sound like I'm not playing hard the rest of the time. But I'm fairly emotional, and I suppose the adrenaline gets going during playoffs."
Whatever happens in the rest of the series, the contrasts between Dryden and Cheevers make their Stanley Cup showdown a compelling one. The handsome 6'4" Dryden comes across more like a lawyer than a hockey player—actually he is both—and he is analytical and circumspect in even the most casual conversation. On road trips he enjoys nothing more than ordering from room service and curling up with a weighty tome. To ease the Stanley Cup pressures, he was reading a book last weekend that dealt with population migration in the "very delicate savannahs" of East Africa. There is a sobriety about Dryden even on the ice. Using his height and reach to advantage, he stands before the net in the stolid manner of a palace guard.
Cheevers is a different kettle of fish. He flashes a big bankroll, which the frugal Dryden would never do, and enjoys playing gin with the boys—at such moments, that is, when his nose is not buried in the Daily Racing Form, which is hand-delivered to him in the Bruin locker room. At 36, seven years older than Dryden, Cheevers has a widening bald patch and a paunchiness that has prompted masseurs to mistake him for, among other things, a cabdriver. He clowns at practice, too, which was of some concern when he backed up the Los Angeles Kings' Rogie Vachon for Team Canada in last fall's Canada Cup tournament.
"When is Cheevers going to get serious?" demanded Montreal's Scotty Bowman, Team Canada's head coach.
"At game time," replied Cherry.
For all his rollicking ways, Cheevers is fiercely competitive when play begins. He uses his stick liberally on foes, routinely chopping down anybody who intrudes on the crease. Exhibiting more confidence in his skating ability than most goalies—he played left wing for a short time as an amateur in his native Toronto—Cheevers ventures far out of goal to narrow the angle on opponents' shots. "You've got to blitz the big shooters, or they'll blow it by you," he says. Cheevers also roams daringly far afield to clear the puck, becoming, in effect, part of his club's offense.
"Gerry gets burned sometimes, but not as often as you think," says Boston General Manager Harry Sinden. "What seems like a gamble to you and me is not a gamble to him. He doesn't make a play unless the odds are with him. And he's the same with horses. He doesn't do anything there either, unless the odds are with him."
Cheevers' first experience with thoroughbreds was walking hots and working as a pari-mutuel clerk at tracks in Ontario. That hooked him, and five years ago he began putting his hockey winnings into his own stable, the Four and Thirty (Cheevers wears No. 30, his friend Bobby Orr wore No. 4). He combed horse-sale catalogs, and before the 1975 Keeneland fall sale put a question mark alongside the description of a yearling that his trainer, John (Butch) Lenzini, wound up buying for $20,500. The horse was Royal Ski, who last year earned $309,704, becoming the leading money-winner among 2-year-olds. The sum included $86,046 for winning the Laurel (Md.) Futurity on Oct. 30. That evening, in the Montreal Forum, Cheevers played spectacularly as Boston handed the Canadiens their only regular-season home loss, 4-3. Returning to Boston, he shared his good fortune by renting a bus and taking his teammates and their wives to see the musical Grease. Cheevers dressed for the occasion in tails—and tennis shoes.
In January Cheevers arranged to syndicate a one-third interest in Royal Ski for $1 million, retaining the other two-thirds for himself. But the horse contracted a severe virus, and when it appeared he would not be ready for any of the Triple Crown races, Cheevers voluntarily dissolved the syndicate rather than sell a "faulty product." Out a cool million, Cheevers hopes to start rebuilding Royal Ski's market value in major stakes this summer. "I'm disappointed about not being in the Derby," said Cheevers, who watched the race on TV just before leaving for the Forum, "but I'm cocky and arrogant enough to think I'll get another shot someday."
It was Cheevers' team, not his horse, that figured to be out of the running by last weekend. The Bruins, after all, were a faceless club with little of the flair of the Orr-Esposito teams of the immediate past. But flair matters little to Cherry, a pugnacious sort who carries in his wallet a picture of his bullterrier Blue but none of his wife Rose and their two children. Cherry kept the team plugging and, after polishing off the Flyers, the Bruins had to cool their skates while mighty Montreal struggled to oust the feisty Islanders.
Facing elimination in the Forum, New York upset the Canadiens 4-3 in overtime Tuesday night to force a sixth game back on Long Island. Montreal had not lost two straight in more than a year, but now, tantalizingly, the Canadiens suddenly seemed a mite vulnerable. They were riddled with injuries, and Lafleur appeared tired. And could it be that success had, in a sense, spoiled Ken Dryden? Protected during the regular season by the NHL's best defensive corps, Dryden had known more inactivity than adversity; for want of pucks to stop, he had spent a lot of time leaning on his stick and reading the Forum's tickertape message board. Feeling the need to reassure his goalie, Bowman huddled with Dryden at the team's motel.
"People were getting on Kenny just because he hadn't come through for us this one time," Bowman said. "I wanted him to know he didn't owe us anything. I told him the odds on his having another off game were astronomical."
As though by Bowmanian fiat, the discomforts that Dryden had suffered were now visited on other goalies. The first was the Islanders' Chico Resch, who mishandled Bob Gainey's seemingly harmless flip shot and watched the puck roll into the net only seven seconds into the game. Resch settled down, but Dryden was clearly on top of his game again, and there was no more scoring for the next 49 minutes. Then, midway through the third period, Gainey caught Resch out of position for another soft goal—a play on which an obvious offsides by Montreal's Murray Wilson was overlooked by the officials. A shot by New York's Denis Potvin slipped by Dryden in the waning seconds, but the 2-1 win sent Montreal into the finals.
The second discomfited goaltender of the week was Cheevers. Though Cheevers' performance in the Bruins' 7-3 loss was worse than any of Dryden's against the Islanders, it is, remember, the nature of money goalies to be unconcerned by goals-against figures. "What difference does it make if the score is 2-0 or 18-3?" Cheevers said after the game. "A loss is a loss. All I know is that I'm going to have to make some adjustments if we're going to beat Montreal."
The task is probably no harder than beating Seattle Slew. But it may not be any easier, either.