After the Montreal Canadians had swept the Stanley Cup final from the Boston Bruins in the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] four games, Boston general manager Harry Sinden said, "We beat Philadephia, we're on a par with them, but we're not on a par with Montreal. But we aren't going to sit still."
Those are brave words, the only words to be expected from someone who must, in October, begin another pursuit of the awewome Canadians. Sitting, standing, or running in pace, however, Sinden is going to have a tough time producing a team that can compete on even terms with Montreal.
The Canadians have dominated the National Hockey League before, and from 1956 to 1960 they won the Stanley Cup five straight times. In 1960, they wiped out Chicago and Toronto without losing a game. But in those days, the NHL was a six-team league, and played to 95 per cent capacity. Today, although possibly not tomorrow, there are 18 teams and countless empty seats.
NHL officials privately are very much concerned about the Canadians' domination. It does not fill seats, or help to sell the product to television, when one knows in October who will be the champion 93, or 94, games later, in May.
Even in Montreal, victory has been accompanied by apathy. The conductor of a sports call-in show reports that nobody wants to discuss the Canadians, except when they lose. A team losing 10 of 94 games obviously has not generated much conversation.
The Montreal Forum seats 16,544 and there is room for 2,500 standees. Yet, during a stretch of eight games this season, there were unfilled seats. The smallest crowd of all appeared for a playoff game against St. Louis.
If even Montrealers don't care, who does? Perfection may be admired, but folks in many cities don't care to see it at the expense of the local favorites.
And how is Montreal to be overcome? The only practical way to improve a team is through the amateur draft, yet clubs keep passing their draft choices to the Canadiens in exchange for fringe players.
In this year's draft, on June 14, Montreal has two picks in the first round, one in the second and four in the third.
"Things are getting tougher," laughed general manager Sam Pollock, and he wasn't kidding.In one recent draft, in 1974, the Canadiens had five selection in the first round. That was the year they grabbed Doug Risebrough, Rick Chartraw and Mario Tremblay.
There will be an intraleague draft this year, which means the Canadiens after protecting 18 players, will lose one, presumably to Detroit, which has first pick.
Coach Stanley Bowman doesn't consider it a problem, saying, "Once you're past 13 or 14, that's the toughest part. And it's really just a forced-trade situations. You don't leave anybody around you want."
So the Canadiens will slip the Colorado Rockies their 19th and 20th players for a 1981 first-round pick, and Detroit will get No. 21 and nobody will notice much difference on the Montreal team of 1977-78.
Even if the Canadiens weren't reinforcing the club each year with younger talent, there are few signs of age. Jim Roberts is 37, but despite his inspirational play he is not a vital cog. Yvan Cournoyer is 33, but he didn't even appear in the playoffs, Jacques Lemaire and Serge Savard age 31, but they showed no signs of aging.
Guy Lafleur, hockey's brightest star, is 25. Steve Shutt, the 60-goal scorer, is 24. Larry Robinson, the No. 1 defenseman, will be 26 June 2. Goal-tender Ken Dryden is 29. Doug Jarvis, one of the great checkers, is 22.
The key to Montreal's success is its incredible defense, with Robinson, Savard and Guy Lapointe ranking among the six best in the NHL. They are so effective at clearing the area in front of Dryden that he is rarely called upon for peak effort.
"We play a sound defensive game," Dryden said, talking quietly while his teammates slopped themselves in champagne. "Guy Lapointe is an inspirational player, and Larry Robinson and Serge Savard make very few mistakes. If I leave a rebound in front, they clear it away. It's tough for anybody to get past them."
In its last 27 playoff games, Montreal has allowed 47 goals.That is not only hard to beat, it is impossible to beat. Of those 27 games, the Canadiens have lost three, all to the New York Islanders. Well, are the Islanders the heirs apparent?
"The islanders concentrate on defense," Bowman said. "If they get the breaks, they can beat you. But if they try to pick up the tempo after you get ahead of them, they can't do it."
In four games with the Washington Capitals this season, the Islanders settled for three ties and a somewhat lucky one-goal victory. That pretty well illustrates Bowman's point.