Seven weeks ago an old man who, the records say, is 38 skated onto the ice at Montreal's Forum. He was dressed in the red, royal blue and white uniform of the Montreal Canadiens, who were playing the Boston Bruins in the opening game of the National Hockey League season for both teams. He was the oldest man on his team, the oldest man on the ice, the oldest man in his league and, so far as hockey fans are concerned, the oldest man anywhere.
At 14:16 of the first period, with the game scoreless, he took a pass and—zip! Once again Joseph Henri Maurice (The Rocket) Richard had scored a goal. At that moment, for the romantics, at least, the new season began.
This Thursday, November 26, the same Maurice Richard, his 23-year-old brother Henri and a cast of 14 other Canadiens, including that critter in concealment, Goalie Jacques Plante of the face mask, begin an 11-day seven-game prowl of the league which could very well sweep them away from their five NHL opponents.
The Canadiens will play Boston, Toronto, Chicago and New York once each and the ambitious second-place Detroit Red Wings three times. Should these teams in these games be unable to stay the Canadiens, then the remainder of this 1959-60 hockey season will be nothing but monotonously familiar.
The Canadiens, who last year won an unprecedented fourth consecutive Stanley Cup, scooted through 15 games without defeat and increased their league lead to six points before they went a-prowling. They even seemed a trifle sharper than they were last year when they made such easy work of the 70-game schedule by winning 39, tying 13 and losing only 18. This year they lost but two of their first 20, and their output of 72 goals was scattered among 16 different skaters, which should give you a fair idea of their almost bottomless depth. Goalie Jacques Plante surrendered an average of only 1.85 goals per game while his playmates were scoring 3.60.
The principal burden of stopping the Canadiens in these 11 days rests squarely on Detroit, for two of their three games against the Canadiens will be played on the Red Wings' home ice, Olympia Stadium. For most teams, playing at home is a decided advantage, but the Canadiens have not been beaten in Detroit in their last nine outings. The Wings, however, are just hitting their best stride, and they are hardly the same team which finished last a season ago. Their goalie, Terry Sawchuk, has recorded three shutouts, and in the last of these, against the New York Rangers, he whisked aside 50 shots. Good old Gordie Howe, now mushing through his 14th NHL season, punched home 12 goals and assisted on 12 others in the first month and a half of play; Alex Delvecchio and Norm Ullman have also played superbly (seven and six goals apiece), and Defensemen Red Kelly and Marcel Pronovost are giving Sawchuk plenty of assistance in front of the Detroit net.
The surprise team last season, the Toronto Maple Leafs, are still taking themselves quite seriously this year. Coach Punch Imlach set a schedule for them at the beginning of the season which called for 20 points in the standings in their first 20 games. Well, of their first 19 they won nine (getting 18 points) and tied five others (adding 5 more points), and this put them well ahead of Imlach's timetable. The Leafs have three good scorers in George Armstrong, Bob Pulford and Bert Olmstead, and they have gotten exceptional mileage from Johnny Wilson (six goals and four assists), who is actually functioning primarily as a spare.
The strangest team in the league this year is the Boston Bruins. They have bounded up and down, getting as high as second in the standings but then losing four in a row and dipping to fourth. Their "Ukrainian line" of Vic Stasiuk, Johnny Bucyk and Bronco Horvath was the highest-scoring line in the league (32 goals in 18 games), even though Bucyk was lost to them for two weeks when old man Richard checked him into the Boston boards and dislocated his right shoulder. Bronco Horvath startled everyone by becoming the league's leading goal-getter. Bronco is a very slow and awkward skater and not too rugged a checker. But he's scoring. My, how he's scoring. He had 17 goals in his first 20 games, and if he were a baseball player they'd be saying he was 20 games ahead of Babe Ruth's record. Bronco has analyzed his unexpected success.
"I believe," he said the other day, "that if a fellow keeps his shots close to the ice he can beat any goalie in the league. I keep shooting low because I figure that most goalies are quicker with their hands than with their feet. Naturally, I have a book on goalies which tells me their weaknesses, but I also know they have a book on me. I would say that so far this year I've just been in the right spot at the right time. I've been hitting the corners. The thing I hope is that every goaler and every defense-man will concentrate on me. If they do that it'll be just fine, because their minds won't be on the rest of the club. Hockey is a money game, and if our opponents try to stick with me then someone else will do the scoring and we'll get the money.
"I said to myself before the season began," he continued, "that if I got 20 goals I would be happy and if I got 30 goals I'd be very happy." Well, he'll probably get 40 goals and that should make the good people of Boston slaphappy, to say the least.
The fifth-and sixth-place teams in the league, the Rangers and the Chicago Black Hawks, just haven't been able to get themselves untracked. New York's management replaced Coach Phil Watson, who had aggravated a duodenal ulcer on the job, with Alfie Pike, in hopes that the shakeup might get the club going. Pike's first move was to shuffle Andy Bathgate between wing and center, with the hope of getting a few more shots from Andy's stick. Bathgate, who had 40 goals last year, could get but three in his first 17 games. In two games under Pike, Andy poked in three goals, and if that continues, it could make a big difference to the Rangers' lethargic attack. What Pike still has to do, however, is improve the Rangers' backchecking, and particularly their defense in front of the cage.
The Black Hawks won their opening game and then couldn't win another for five weeks. Recently, they showed a little spark, winning a couple and tying another. Eddie Litzenberger, who seemed to be skating on sand early this season, is getting more shots away now, and that could help the Hawks, who finished third last season.
In any case Montreal had better be at its best in these 11 days because the rest of the league is getting a bit tired of cutting figure eights while Richard and his companions score goals. Still, don't be surprised if the Canadiens skate serenely away from everyone once again.
SURPRISE LEADING SCORER OF LEAGUE, BRONCO HORVATH OF BRUINS (SECOND FROM LEFT), DEFTLY GUIDES PUCK PAST CAGE
MONTREAL'S DEPTH IS PERSONIFIED BY FOURTH ("KIDDIE") LINE OF RALPH BACKSTROM (22), BILL HICKE (21), AB McDONALD (23)