Our blog returns today after a couple of weeks off as we begin to cover the stretch run in the 1967-68 hockey season. Since our last report, the playoff picture has become clearer, at least in the Eastern Division, as Toronto and Detroit seem to have fallen off the face of the earth, And in the Western section, the Flyers continue to lead as the Blues, North Stars and Kings and Penguins jockey for position behind them.
Also today, we’ll answer a question we’ve been getting recently – how did the Montreal Canadiens manage to let two fine French-Canadian boys get away to the New York Rangers. We have the answer, directly from the man who was responsible for one of the slickest heists in Quebec hockey history.
For those of you who are new to our little corner of the internet, Here’s what we do here. We tell the story of the 1967-68 hockey season as if we were there. We report the stories in real time, trying to recreate the writing style and vernacular of the time. We do try and remove as much of the inappropriate slang used in those days 50 years ago, leaving enough to give the reader a flavour of how things were described and reported “back in the day.”
Two Who Got Away
A look at the National Hockey League scoring race today shows a pair of New York Rangers challenging for the lead. Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle, with 70 and 68 points respectively, are right on the heels of Chicago Black Hawks superstars Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull. These two young stars are primarily responsible for the rise of the Rangers to a solid third-place standing in the NHL’s Eastern Division, a scant point in arrears of Chicago.
When talking to the two young Rangers, one thing becomes evident – their French-Canadian heritage. That begs the question – how did these two very fine hockey players escape the clutches of the Montreal Canadiens. As one would suspect, there’s a story there.
Yvon Prud’homme is a roads clerk at the City of Montreal. At least, that’s the position that enables him to earn a living. But Mr. Prud’homme’s passion is hockey and he spends most of his non-working waking moments as a part-time scout for the New York Rangers. He’s constantly making the rounds to local rinks, hoping to root out talented young boys for the Rangers.
Prud’homme told the New York Times how he discovered New York’s two newest superstars back in the mid-1950s.
“During the 1955-56 season, I was coaching a senior team in Montreal and one of my players, Roger Picard – his brother Noel plays for St. Louis now – he told me about a boy named Rod Gilbert who was playing for Roussin College. Up here, a college is really a high school.
“One day he brought Rod to practice with him. Rod was not yet 15, but he was 178 pounds and, at 5 feet 9 inches, a little bull. He had a lot of ability, he was a good skater, a good shooter and he always had his head up. He knew how to play the game. I was a coach, but I was also a scout for the Rangers.
“He was nobody’s player – no NHL team had signed him. The next season I coached a Junior B team, Champetre, and Rod was with me. That summer, when he was 15 on July 1, I went to his house on St. Jean Baptiste Street in Pointe aux Trembles, 10 miles east of Montreal, and signed him.
“After I signed him, he told me ‘I have another hockey player I want you to sign because he’s better than myself.’ He meant Jean Ratelle. They played at Roussin, but Jean missed most of the season with a broken thumb. The scouts had not seen him. We went to Ratelle’s house on Marseille Street in Montreal.”
Of course, that’s not the entire story. In the Province of Quebec, the Montreal Canadiens have exclusive NHL rights to every hockey playing boy within a 50-mile radius of Montreal. Prud’homme knew that if the Rangers could, with permission of Canadiens, sponsor his Junior B team, they would automatically become New York property.
The Canadiens organization was unaware of either Gilbert or Ratelle, and gave Ranger general manager Murray (Muzz) Patrick to sponsor the team, making all Champetre players Ranger property. The whole process cost New York about $1,500, a paltry sum to pay for two players who now are among the NHL’s best.
Since it’s every Quebec boy’s dream to play for Canadiens, it was Prud’homme’s job to convince Ratelle and Gilbert that a career with New York was a better path to follow:
“I told them personally that in pro hockey, only the dollars count. All the teams play well. At the time, Montreal had the dominant team with so many great players. I told them that they would make a better salary faster with the Rangers, that they would make the big step faster.
“After a season with my Champetre team I suggested to Patrick that Gilbert was ready for Junior A hockey, and he made the Guelph team in the Ontario Hockey Association. The next season Ratelle went to Guelph with him and they were together again.”
As a reward for his work, Rangers have made Prud’homme director of all of their scouts in Quebec. He says he has recommended a couple of other young players to the Rangers, but with the new junior drafting rules, he declined to mention their names. He hasn’t given up his regular post with the City of Montreal just yet, but if these next two finds of his can come close to what Gilbert and Ratelle have become, the Rangers might just have to find a way to keep him working for them full time.
Soaring Habs Lead the Pack
As we begin the month of March, the Montreal Canadiens look to be the class of the NHL. Montreal now has 78 points, based on a 34-16-10 record, six points up on the second-place Chicago Black Hawks. The surprising New York Rangers and Boston Bruins are right behind Chicago, with 71 and 70 points. That leaves more established favourites like Toronto and Detroit on the outside looking in as we enter the season’s last month.
Philadelphia Flyers have led the Western Division for most of the season. As of today, their 26-25-9 record has them three points ahead of the Los Angeles Kings, who have 58. Minnesota is one point back of the Kings, with St. Louis holding the fourth and final playoff spot with 54 points. Pittsburgh Penguins still have playoff aspirations, trailing the Blues by only two. Only Oakland, with just 42 points, have any reason to have given up hope.
As teams head down the stretch, it’s now the time of the season to finalize rosters. Tomorrow night at midnight is the deadline for establishing rosters. Any players a team wants to call up from the minors, or bring in via trade must be on the roster by then.
In the past few years, this deadline has passed with little fanfare. The last significant trade made at this time of the year was the February 1964 deal between the Maple Leafs and New York Rangers that saw Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney move to Toronto in exchange for Bob Nevin, Dick Duff, Arnie Brown, Rod Seiling and Bill Collins.
That deal worked out in pretty much the way each team wanted. The acquisitions of Bathgate and McKenney enabled the Leafs to capture the 1964 Stanley Cup. In New York, Nevin, Brown and Seiling have all become integral parts of a club on the rise. It remains to be seen if such a deal is in the works this time around.
- Gale-force winds have ripped holes in the roof of the Spectrum arena in Philadelphia for the second time in two weeks. Philadelphia mayor James Tate personally inspected the roof of the building before ordering the facility closed indefinitely. Said Tate: “I have concluded that the Spectrum will be required to shut down until such time as the Property Department is satisfied it is safe. It is possible that the wind would lift up other sections of the covering and blow them away.”
- The closure forced the cancellation of a Philadelphia 76ers National Basketball Association game last night. The Philadelphia Flyers are scheduled to play at the Spectrum tomorrow afternoon in a nationally televised game against the Oakland Seals. There has been no word as of now as to where or when that game will be held.
- Toronto Maple Leafs general manager-coach Punch Imlach denies that his sale of 800 shares in Maple Leaf Gardens has anything to do with his club’s recent slump and slide out of a playoff position. The stock has fallen in recent days, closing at $29.50 yesterday, it’s lowest point this year. Imlach’s sale avoided the latest slide in the stock’s price. The Leafs coach did retain 200 shares in the company.
- Imlach’s move with the Gardens stock has resurrected rumours that he will leave the Toronto organization at the end of this season to head up the hockey operation of a prospective new Vancouver NHL franchise. He didn’t comment on that possibility.
- There are reports that Bobby Orr’s contract calls for a $50,000 bonus if the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup in either of his first two NHL seasons. Orr, who is recovering from knee surgery was asked to comment on the report, but didn’t shed a lot of light on the situation: “I really don’t know what’s in my contract. Honest. It would be nice if it was there, though.”
- Orr, by the way, is recovering nicely from that surgery on the left knee. Doctors have told him he will be given the okay to start skating again on March 11. Bruins hope to have him back by the Stanley Cup playoffs.
- The Canadian Amateur Hockey Association says that the home cities of the two Canadian national team squads will continue to be Winnipeg and Ottawa.
- Boston Bruins winger Tommy Williams has missed the past three games with a bruised kidney. Wayne Cashman was called up from Oklahoma City of the Central Professional Hockey League to replace Williams. He has played so well, the Bruins will be keeping him around for the rest of the season.