And so Guy Lafleur, like Georges Vezina and Howie Morenz and Toe Blake and Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau before him, arrives in MONTREAL to heed the locker-room commandment long ago borrowed from the poet John McCrae's In Flanders Field. Oh, those Canadiens! One day last June, Beliveau the Great announced his retirement; the very next day the Canadiens proclaimed that Lafleur, easily the most accomplished amateur player since Bobby Orr, was theirs.
With the addition of Lafleur, the arrival of the respected Scotty Bowman as coach and the season-long availability of Goaltender Ken Dryden (page 45), the Canadiens should displace the Boston Bruins as the East's best team. J. C. Tremblay and Jacques Laperriere anchor a taut defense, while 6'5" Peter Mahovlich, who developed into something of a star last year, and Henri Richard provide depth and power at center, Lafleur's position. Frank Mahovlich, Yvan Cournoyer and Jacques Lemaire are tested goal scorers on the wings.
When the 20-year-old Lafleur reported to training camp at the Montreal Forum, the Canadiens assigned him the locker-room seat that Beliveau, his hero, had always occupied. Then they gave him as wings for his line not two rookies, as usually happens, but Frank Mahovlich and Cournoyer. "That's my No. 1 line," Bowman said. Later, after watching Lafleur's accurate passes and quick, deadly shots, Bowman made one more move: he installed Guy at right point on the power play.
"Lafleur has only one problem," Bowman says. "He is a little weak on face-offs." So Lafleur practiced face-offs 15 minutes a day and in his first game with the Canadiens he beat Boston's Phil Esposito on the opening draw, chased the puck into the corner and passed it out to Frank Mahovlich for an easy goal. Lafleur is by instinct a playmaker first and a goal scorer second. "He makes such perfect passes," says Mahovlich, "that I hope he doesn't forget to shoot the puck himself sometimes."
Bowman, meanwhile, will stabilize the coaching position. Although Claude Ruel and Al MacNeil both coached the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in the last three years, they never were able to satisfy the players, the people of Quebec and the French and English press simultaneously. Bowman, who was well schooled by the Montreal organization before he turned the St. Louis Blues into the model for expansion franchises in all sports, recognizes the dilemma.
"My job," he says, "is to keep harmony. I always had harmony in St. Louis, but it was different there. In St. Louis you had to use a lot of coaching tactics to win. Here in Montreal you win because you have the players." The only thing that worries Bowman about the Canadiens is their tendency to play careless defensive hockey at times. "They know Dryden won the Stanley Cup for them last year," he says, "but they can't take it for granted that he will stop every puck shot at him. He might—but no goalie ever has."
Dryden's name still is a no-no in BOSTON, which has not yet recovered from the shock—or tragedy, if you are a Hub man—-of last spring when the Canadiens knocked the Bruins out of the Stanley Cup playoffs that they were supposed to win with ease. "Nobody remembers we were the best in the league during the season," Phil Esposito says. "Nobody remembers the 37 records we set. They just remember the Stanley Cup we didn't win."
The Boston management decided this summer that the Bruins better concentrate on defense and forget about adding new chapters to the record books. One could almost envision Esposito shadowing enemy forwards and Bobby Orr disdaining the rink-long rush. But then training camp started and, well, the Bruins were the same old Bruins.
"How can we change?" Esposito asked. "It's us." So Orr was rushing the puck as always, Esposito was firing away at goalies from everywhere but the balcony and the Bruins were either winning games 5-3 or losing them 7-4.
"We have to play that way," claims Derek Sanderson, who has added a beard to his mustache and mop and is sometimes called J.C. Superstar around Boston. "Let's face it. Without Orr and Esposito, we are just another hockey team. If they don't do it for us, we're in trouble. And they do it by scoring or creating goals."
But it is unlikely that either can duplicate last year's extraordinary performances. It behooves the Bruins to tighten their defenses. If they do not, they conceivably could drop as low as fourth. (It was only two years ago that the Canadiens plunged from first to fifth.) Both New York and Toronto emphasize defense over offense, and both have fine goaltending.
The truth about NEW YORK should emerge quickly, for the Rangers face a testing early schedule. They play Montreal twice, Boston twice, Toronto and Chicago in the first six games, and if they win four or more New York's scalpers probably will be selling Stanley Cup tickets in October.
This is a critical season for the building program of Emile Francis, the coach and general manager of the Rangers. Last year New York had its best record ever, but still finished behind Boston. Since then Francis has traded away his captain, Bob Nevin, who had invited his coach's wrath by missing a practice skate before a cup game, for the veteran right wing and power-play specialist Bobby Rousseau. And he has called up Pierre Jarry, a young wing who led the Central Hockey League in scoring.
The Rangers seem solid throughout. Eddie Giacomin, who turned in a good cup performance for a change, and Gilles Villemure are fresh from winning the Vezina Trophy. Rod Seiling has emerged as the team's No. 1 defenseman, and if Brad Park recovers from a poor season, the New York defense could rival Montreal's. Up front all the Rangers' scorers are of about the same caliber—good but not great. If one, say new captain Vic Hadfield, could crash through with 40 goals, he just might take his team to the top.
For almost two months last year TORONTO was hockey's worst team, worse even than the expansion clubs. "I blamed only myself," said Coach John McLellan, who admits that he did not expect to survive Christmas. "The players were using my system, and it just wasn't working. When the system doesn't work, you get rid of the coach—not the players." Jim Gregory, the Leafs' shrewd general manager, did neither. Instead, he acquired two players—crusty old Defenseman Bob Baun, whom the Leafs had lost in the 1967 expansion draft, and a sharp young goaltender, Bernie Parent.
Baun steadied Toronto's kiddie-korps defensemen, while Parent, who had patterned his style after Jacques Plante, combined with Plante to provide consistently strong work in goal. The result was impressive: the Leafs stopped falling.
Four Leafs—Dave Keon, Ron Ellis, Paul Henderson and Norm Ullman—scored more than half the team's goals. If they are hot again, if Baun's legs hold up and if Parent and Plante stay sharp, even Punch Imlach might wish he was back in Toronto.
With strong teams to fight for the playoff positions, what can the rest do? Well, Detroit, Vancouver and Buffalo might have a rousing battle for fifth, or if all prefer a shot at the No. 1 draft choice, for seventh. There is no real advantage to finishing sixth; one of the also-rans has beaten you; the other gets a better draft number.
General Manager Ned Harkness cleared house in DETROIT faster than you can say Gordie Howe, who has become one of the Wings' vice-presidents. There are only three players left from the roster Harkness inherited a year ago, one good one being Alex Delvecchio, who will be playing his 21st—and final—season.
The Wings have three new goalies, a so-called French line centered by little Marcel Dionne, whom they drafted after Montreal selected Lafleur, a Blue line composed of Red Berenson, Ab McDonald and Tim Ecclestone, all former St. Louis Blues, and hopefully some of the rah-rah spirit that stamped Harkness when he was coach at Cornell.
Punch Imlach of BUFFALO has posted a BEAT TORONTO sign over his desk, but that day is far away. Nevertheless, the Sabres have improved. Gilbert Perreault, rookie of the year with 38 goals, should be even better in his second season. "I proved I can do it on offense," he says. "Now I will improve on defense."
Goalie Roger Crozier spent the summer having doctors remove his gall bladder and appendix and work on his pancreas. "I feel fine now," says Crozier, who has been among the best goalies in the league when healthy. He teams with Dave Dryden, the older brother of you know who.
There will be a new gunner in the Buffalo lineup, Rick Martin—or as he was known in Montreal last season when he scored 71 goals for the Junior Canadiens, Ree-char Mah-tan. "If Martin comes through like Perreault did, I'll have the most exciting team in hockey," Imlach says. But Buffalo's weak defense may make the opposition look like the most exciting team in hockey every night.
Unlike Buffalo, VANCOUVER has a determined defense but practically no offense except for Rosaire Paiement, who scored 34 goals last season and was one of the most discussed players in trade talks all summer. Dale Tallon, 21, broke Orr's scoring records for rookie defense-men, and now the Canucks have drafted another defender with scoring potential, Jocelyn Guevremont.
"Jocelyn can shoot the puck four inches off the ice and put it two inches inside the post," General Manager Bud Poile was saying one night at an exhibition game moments before Guevremont, another product of the Junior Canadiens, did exactly that. Unfortunately, most of the Vancouver forwards have to be in the goal mouth to put the puck in. So the Canucks probably will finish seventh. And then Poile may be able to draft the next Guy Lafleur.
To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.
THE RANGERS REACH FOR THEIR GRAIL