Never a sport hospitable to the meek or the timid, hockey this week embarks upon a season that is likely to be the roughest in years. This sense of impending violence radiates out from the National Hockey League's top teams, Montreal and Boston. Rarely has a campaign offered two clubs so strong in appeal, so different in style, so indifferent to considerations of health and well-being as Les Canadiens and the Bruins. Claude Ruel, the Montreal coach, proposes that the great and durable Canadien dynasty teach yet another lesson in hockey, if not in decorum, to the Bruin bullyboys. It was Ruel, of course, who directed the Canadiens last year to a narrow divisional championship over Boston and victory in a brilliant, bitter Stanley Cup series. For his part, Harry Sinden, coach of the Bruins, believes that the French can be fractured, or at least contused, sufficiently to be beaten.
Reverberations of the Montreal-Boston dispute have touched all the other teams. None has the speed, the players or, indeed, the push of history to emulate exactly the racehorse Montreal style, yet none can afford to be cowed by the Bruins. What has developed, therefore, is a general toughening up, and a mood of swift, heavy retribution for an opponent's misdeeds. Boston is the particular lightning rod for violence: in an unusually fierce exhibition season the Bruins' own Ted Green—once called Terrible Teddy for his pugnacity—was stick-whipped over the head by St. Louis' Wayne Maki, suffered a skull fracture and, after two brain operations, faces a long convalescence.
Three teams—Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Minnesota—have pointedly added players of the policeman type, and Oakland has been experimenting with a former boxer named Pierre Farmer. ("I don't know if he can skate, but he can fight," says General Manager Frank Selke Jr.) "We have an image," says Harry Sinden, "and we don't try to discourage it. I won't say we're as bad as the papers say we are, but we can be pretty bad."
"It's almost psychological warfare," says Los Angeles' Hal Laycoe, one of four new coaches in the NHL this year. "Every time you read a story about a Boston player, it's how he's going to intimidate the opposition—so the other clubs are going after the guys who won't be intimidated. Just by coincidence, we've come up with three dandies."
Ruel, who has one of the better cops in John Ferguson but on the whole a team that would rather skate and shoot than widen the denture gap, is getting a little teed off about Boston's notoriety. "My players tell me, 'Let him talk, we will just beat them.' " Ruel says. "All this stuff about Boston being so rough, it is a lot of baloney. You know, it is in the corners where you gotta be tough, and we are just as tough as Boston in the corners. It's just that when the Canadiens hit somebody, nobody talks about it. Boston is a good, rough team, but my guys aren't exactly angels, either."
Three weeks ago Montreal and Boston met in a preseason game for the first time since Jean Beliveau fired the goal in second overtime which guillotined Boston in the cup playoffs, and the game ended in a near-riot with both benches empty and the ice littered with gloves and sticks. The winner: Canadiens 4-1. The teams meet for the first time during the regular season on Nov. 1 in Montreal.
Elsewhere there is much to intrigue the fans. Emile Francis has strengthened a good New York team which could make a dash for the flag. In Detroit, becoming more immortal by the moment, Gordie Howe begins his 24th season. In Chicago, Bobby Hull picks up his curved stick and takes aim at his own amazing goal-scoring record of 58. In the West champion St. Louis must prove that it can win without Goalie Glenn Hall—and Oakland, Minnesota and Los Angeles all must be granted some chance for a pennant. Scouting reports on all the teams begin overleaf; on page 44 may be found the personal testimony of Phil Esposito, Boston's scoring champion, on how to carve out room at the top.