The series between Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens should have ranked as one of the great grudges in hockey history. Not up to former Toronto owner Conn Smythe’s refusal to speak to Boston owner Art Ross for 12 years, perhaps, but certainly in the same league as Smythe’s five-year silent treatment toward Detroit owner Jack Adams. In the case of this particular grudge, 11 years to the very day had passed since the two teams last met in the National Hockey League playoffs; on that distant May 2, Toronto had severely slighted its opposition by denying Montreal the chance to show off the Stanley Cup at Expo. What this year’s opening game produced, however, was less a classic than a long yawn that eventually closed 5-3 on the dead Leafs. And it seemed the people of Montreal expected no better, as there was still space for more than 2.000 spectators in the Forum. Outside in the streets, scalpers stared at handfuls of tickets as if they were one number off in the lottery and loudspeakers barked a carney plea of good seats still available. But there were few takers. Nobody seemed about to be fooled yet again: After all. how could you have a grudge match when it wasn’t even the same game anymore?
The key year. 1967, was not only the last great year for unity, but also for hockey.
The game had a child’s simplicity to it: six teams only, and the four best made it into the playoffs. This year, in the most absurd example of owners’ greed to be found in professional sport, 12 of the 18 NHL teams made it to the playoffs, and four of those select teams were not capable of winning even as many games as they lost. One playoff team, the Colorado Rockies, won fewer than one out of every four played. In theory, the Rockies—name one player and you, too. can make the team—could have fought through 24 post-season games and emerged—as they once dared to call it— hockey’s “champions of the world.”
It was sadly ironic that on the very day Montreal won its second straight game over Toronto, Team Canada ’78 (made up of players whose pathetic teams didn’t advance in the playoffs) was being humiliated 5-0 by the Czechoslovakian team in the real world championship being held in Prague. From the time Montreal ended its regular season the team could have flown to Prague, restored a little pride in Canadian hockey and returned home in plenty of time to play whatever team deserved to
meet the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup finals. But no, the Canadiens were forced first against lowly Detroit, then against Toronto—and you could hardly fault Montrealers for viewing the series with utter contempt. The Canadiens had, after all, finished fully 37 points higher than the Leafs in the standings, and while Montreal
had been winning
six Stanley Cups since
1967, Toronto had been building a winter version of the football Argonauts: Losers you can depend on. The Leafs hadn’t won a single game in Montreal since March 24, 1976.
The most remarkable thing was that Toronto was still in the playoffs. Against the vastly superior and more exciting New York Islanders, the Leafs had struck a solid victory for all that is ill with hockey. For those who had knelt before crossed sticks and prayed nightly that the Fred Shero School of Boring Hockey had closed with the Philadelphia Flyers’ last Stanley Cup three years ago, the 1977-78 Maple Leafs had been a reminder from the devil. The Leafs had a brand-new coach. Roger Neilson, a man who seemed convinced ice hockey was a derivative of table hockey, not vice versa, with about as much joy to it as folding handkerchiefs. As an example to the others, Erroll Thompson, a fleet Leaf player who seemed to believe hockey was a mere game to be enjoyed, was traded by the team for Dan Maloney, a lanternjawed forward who hones his skates with peanut butter and who believes the object of the game is to see who can keep the puck quiet against the boards longest.
In the end Toronto produced a team not
much better than it had been the year before under coach Red Kelly. But it was different; hockey for the new Leafs was far less a joyful, surprising game than it was the “hockey” of U.S. marines in the Second World War—a euphemism for human waste. Fortunately for true hockey fans, they went further than before in the playoffs because of the feats of the only two Toronto players who represent the unpredictable nature of the game: Mike Palmateer and lan Turnbull. Since Palmateer is a goaltender, he is, by hockey’s common law, excusable in anything he does short of showing up nude for practice (though even that has been done by Gilles Gratton, late of the New York Rangers). As for Turnbull, however, he and Neilson have been said to be at odds all season on just how the game is played, and it may well be that in the playoffs Turnbull went completely out of Neilson’s control. Neilson did the only sensible thing he could in the second game; he replaced Tiger Williams, who’d been high-sticking air pockets for two games, and moved Turnbull, a defenceman, up to play forward.
In Montreal, the Toronto game plan— to hit and slow things down to the point that the opposition falls asleep—fell apart. They can hit all they want, said Canadiens’ captain Yvan Cournoyer, “but we won’t be there.” The Lfeafs, who for some reason have not a single francophone on their roster, could only gasp in frustration as the likesof Guy Lafleurand Cournoyer pulled away with their wind. Cournoyer was quick to concede that there was always a little extra satisfaction in beating Toronto, and Ken Dryden—the Montreal goaltender who assisted playwright Rick Salutin with his hockey-political play. Les Canadiens—tried to explain it further. “I have no idea what it was like before,” says Dryden. “but since I have been here the rivalry has become more intense. Particularly given that Toronto has come up with a better team as well as ‘that other aspect.’ ” That other aspect is, of course, the Parti Québécois victory.
In the end. whatever harm was done by Toronto stealing the Stanley Cup from Montreal during Expo ’67 might unwittingly be repaired by this year’s Leafs. Even if by some bad fortune Montreal lost, Quebec would still realize that if there’s one thing the rest of the country desperately needs it is a constant reminder of how Canada’s national game is supposed to be played.
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