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The champions who had no chance

With nothing to work with but an eager young wingman, a topnotch goalie, two high-scoring oldsters and some of the best rookies in the league, hopeless Montreal somehow managed to win the title

Bernie Geoffrion and Jean Beliveau have been winning hockey games and hockey championships for Montreal for a long time now. But the shots that they will tell their grandchildren about in years to come may well be those with which they beat the New York Rangers 2-1 at Madison Square Garden in the last game of the 1963-64 season. On the day of the game the Canadiens were leading the favored Chicago Black Hawks by only a single point for their 14th league championship. With Chicago playing Boston at the same time and virtually certain to pick up two vital points with a victory over the last-place Bruins, the Canadiens had little choice but to win. So win they did—by the grace of heaven, Beliveau and Geoffrion and the narrowest margin possible, a single goal.

Even if the last games had gone the other way and Montreal had finished up second by such a narrow margin, it would have stood as a major upset. For despite their lordly record of championships in the past, practically no one at the beginning of this season figured the Canadiens to finish better than fourth, and some thought they would do well even to make the playoffs. Last year the Canadiens wound up an inglorious third and were tossed out of the Stanley Cup playoffs before the final round. When the team mustered at training camp last fall all that was left of the old victorious outfit was a fat book of memories, a couple of has-beens, a flock of untried rookies, and some nondescript players acquired from New York. These last were the product of a deal whose major purpose was to get the skilled but temperamental goalie, Jacques Plante, out of Coach Toe Blake's hair.

In the first two months of the new season, the floundering rookies on the Montreal defense allowed 57 goals to get past them in 19 games. The old ladies of Quebec Province who bombard Coach Blake with a steady stream of fan mail began to change their tune. "Why," wrote one, "don't you quit, you bum?"

In that trying time, about the only thing that kept the Canadiens from dropping into the league cellar was the unexpected brilliance of Team Captain Beliveau, one of the finest centers ever to play hockey. In his great years Beliveau, who has the poise and grace and something of the attitude of a matador, could work his fans into a state of emotional frenzy (an ecstatic woman once paid him tribute by flinging her corset onto the ice during a game). Last season Beliveau, who had begun to show his 32 years, had one of his worst seasons, and at the end of it he seemed finished as a major force in big league hockey. "I think I retire," he said; and the fickle letter-writing ladies of Quebec added a hearty "and about time, too."

But Jean Beliveau, says Montreal Managing Director Frank Selke, "is a proud man. He didn't want to quit on a bad season, so we persuaded him to come back." Traditionally, Beliveau is a slow starter but, realizing that the weakened Canadiens would need him at his best early, he worked himself into fine fighting trim at training camp and started the season with a rush of goals and assists. His fast early-season pace kept the Canadiens alive.

Alive, but not much more. Then, toward the end of October, the faltering team had the luck of a man who staggers into an open manhole and finds a cache of stolen treasure. Gump Worsley injured his leg in a game in Toronto and Substitute Goalie Charlie Hodge was put in the net. Little 5-foot-6 Hodge, who looks like a mouse in thick padding, had often stood in for Plante. But, according to Coach Blake, "he could never overcome Plante's reputation. The closer Plante came to recovering, the more nervous Hodge got." Gump Worsley is no Plante and, as his substitute, young Hodge began stopping shots as never before. Blake assured him that as long as he continued to do so the job was his. "I felt," said the man who had earned the right to stand in front of pucks traveling 100 mph, "more relaxed then."

Meanwhile Blake's muscular defensemen, Terry Harper and Jacques Laperriere, were beginning to learn the wiles of opposing wingmen and turn their brutish young power to good use. Harper, at 6 feet 1 and 197 pounds, has the strength of a blocking back and the grace of a man floundering across a frozen lake in galoshes. By nature a shy fellow who abhors violence, he learned at last that if he were to make good in the NHL he would have to bump into people. "We kept waiting for the opposing wing-men to take advantage of his new aggressiveness," said Selke's son. Frank Jr. "But for some reason other players can't resist skating right at him. A very happy situation, I might add."

One of the happiest situations this year occurred when two Black Hawks broke in on the goal with only Harper to stop them. He did it by knocking them both down and skating off with the puck. With the situation in the Canadiens' goal and defense suddenly looking very bullish, the Montreal management was pleased to note a strange phenomenon developing in their forward line. Former Center Dave Balon had managed to score only 16 goals in his entire NHL career when Montreal got him from the Rangers in the Plante-Worsley deal. But he was a naturally aggressive player, and Blake was eager to have such a man around. "There are some players on this team who haven't hit anyone in years," the Canadiens' coach once snapped. Still, nothing spectacular was expected of Balon, and he was assigned the no-account jobs—penalty killer and fill-in for wounded wing-men—that players of his station usually get. "If Balon had done just what we asked of him," noted Frank Selke Jr., "we would be fighting New York for fifth place now." But, put in at left wing for the first time in his life, Balon did much more than merely mix it up with the other teams" tough guys. Just as Hodge began stopping goals, Balon began shooting them and, as he did, Montreal's standing rose higher and higher.

Jean Beliveau, the washed-up has-been; Charlie Hodge, the substitute goalie who could never quite make it; Terry Harper, the rawboned rookie who didn't like to hurt people; Jacques Laperriere, the young man who turned up at training camp so fat and unfit that they had to drop him from the squad while he got back in shape; Dave Balon, a nobody from New York—these were the hopeless players for the hopeless team that ended by winning the championship. These, and of course the once great Boom-Boom Geoffrion, the handsomest, huskiest player in hockey and the darling of all Montreal. Like his teammate Beliveau, Geoffrion had seen better days and, like Beliveau, he had been ready to quit at the end of last season but, also like Beliveau, he hated the idea of leaving without one more significant boom. So they signed him for another year. The result: in critical moments Geoffrion let fly with a salvo of significant scores—nine goals that won games for the Canadiens. No other player in the league has been able to match it, and the old Boomer is once again crooning over the airwaves to his worshipful fans. You could have heard him just a few days ago over Canadian TV: "All I do the whole day through is dream of you," he sang to his fans, while a chorus chanted, "Boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom!"