About the Author
Pat Hickey has chronicled the Montreal Canadiens' exploits over the past 25 years for the Montreal Gazette. He covered his first Canadiens game in 1968 for the now-defunct Montreal Star.
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The Good Ol' Days
When a player joins the Canadiens for the first time, he talks about how proud he is to be part of the most successful franchise in NHL history. He might have grown up cheering for the Maple Leafs, the Rangers, or the Oilers, but he talks about the thrill of putting on the iconic sweater with the CH logo for the first time.
You overlook the fact the kid probably wasn't born when the Canadiens won the last of their record 24 Stanley Cups.
The Canadiens haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1993. This is a long-standing cause for concern among the team's large and devoted fan base, particularly the partisans of a certain age who remember when Lord Stanley's gift to hockey took up semipermanent residence in Montreal.
The Canadiens won the Cup fives times in the 1950s, five times in the 1960s, and six times in the 1970s. When legendary Mayor Jean Drapeau announced that "the parade would follow the usual route," nobody had to be reminded that a cavalcade of convertibles would transport the players and the Cup from City Hall and head west on Ste. Catherine Street before finally arriving at the Montreal Forum.
Those decades were filled with magic names — — Richard, Béliveau, Lafleur, Robinson, Savard, Plante, Dryden. Twenty-seven players from those three eras would be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and you can also find coaches Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman enshrined there along with general managers Frank Selke and Sam Pollock and owner Hartland Molson.
Those were simpler times, and everything fell into place for the Canadiens in that golden era.
For starters, the odds of winning the Cup were better because there were fewer teams competing for the Cup.
Seven of those Cups were won when the NHL consisted of six teams, and there were only two rounds of playoffs. There were never more than 18 teams in the Bowman era of the 1970s, and a successful playoff run meant winning 12 games, four fewer than today.
There was no amateur draft when the Canadiens began their run. Teams were assigned territorial rights, and they developed players through junior and amateur senior teams, which they owned. Montreal had access to most of the top youngsters in Quebec and also developed players on junior teams in Peterborough, Ontario, and Regina.
Jean Béliveau played for the Quebec Aces, a team in the Quebec Senior League. The Canadiens owned his professional rights but Béliveau was happy to remain in Quebec. The Aces were nominally an amateur team although he was well compensated for his efforts. The Canadiens solved the problem by buying the entire league and changing its designation to that of a professional league.
There was no salary cap in those days, but the players didn't make a lot of money either.
"You had to find something to do to tide you over in the summer," recalled Hall of Famer Dickie Moore, who owned a Dairy Queen franchise before launching a million-dollar business renting tools, heavy equipment, and construction trailers.
Bobby Rousseau was a golf professional, and it wasn't unusual to find your favorite player working on the back of a Molson beer truck.
Maurice (Rocket) Richard made $50,000 in his best season. That was good money in the 1950s, but if you combined Richard's total earnings with the Canadiens, it would be less than the current NHL minimum wage of $650,000.
The draft was introduced in 1963, but the effects of the draft didn't catch up to the Canadiens until the 1980s. When the league expanded from six to 12 teams in 1969, Sam Pollock had a stockpile of players under contract, and he sent these players and some aging NHLers to the expansion teams in return for draft picks.
Those deals allowed Montreal to pick Guy Lafleur with the first overall pick in 1971; Steve Shutt at No. 4 in 1972, Bob Gainey with the eighth pick in 1973, and Doug Risebrough at No. 7 in 1974.
The draft has not been as productive for the Canadiens since they selected Doug Wickenheiser with the first overall pick in 1980. In the intervening years, the Canadiens have had only nine top-10 draft picks.
Current general manager Marc Bergevin has stressed the importance of building through the draft, but he has also noted that it isn't easy when 20 or so teams are picking ahead of you.
In 2001, the Canadiens missed the playoffs for the third consecutive year, and my son Simon, who was nine at the time, asked: "How come the Canadiens always suck?"
This chapter is a history lesson for Simon and the generation of Canadiens fans who roll their eyes when their fathers and grandfathers talk about the parade of Hall of Fame players who forged three unforgettable dynasties.
The Flying '50s
Two key personnel changes — one on the ice and one behind the bench — helped produce the team known as the Flying Frenchmen.
The key addition on the ice was Jean Béliveau whose résumé would include 10 Stanley Cup victories spread over three decades. Béliveau was reluctantly wrested away from the Quebec Aces senior team in 1953 and joined a high-powered offense that included Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, Dickie Moore, and Henri (Pocket Rocket) Richard.
The change behind the bench involved Hector (Toe) Blake, who had once been the Rocket's linemate. He replaced Dick Irvin in 1955 and promptly led Montreal to the first of five consecutive Stanley Cups. He retired in 1968 after winning a record eighth Cup.
Irvin won his third Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1953 and took the team to the final in each of the next two seasons. But General Manager Frank Selke was not a fan of Irvin's coaching philosophy. While the Canadiens had one of the greatest collections of highly skilled players in NHL history, Irvin emphasized toughness that bordered on goonery. Some believed that Irvin's style contributed to one of the major blots on the team's history — the Richard Riot.
On March 13, 1955, Hal Laycoe high-sticked Richard, opening a cut on his face. Richard responded by throwing several haymakers in Laycoe's direction. When linesman Cliff Thompson tried to intervene, Richard punched him.
Richard wasn't a first-time offender, and he had several previous run-ins with NHL president Clarence Campbell. The incident gave Campbell an opportunity to teach Richard a lesson, and he suspended the Canadiens star for the three remaining games in the regular season as well as the entire playoffs.
Montreal fans viewed Campbell's reaction as unfair, and he made what proved to be a bad decision when he attended the Canadiens game against the Detroit Red Wings on March 17. Campbell was pelted with vegetables and punched by a fan. After someone set off a smoke bomb following the first period, the game was forfeited to the Red Wings.
As fans poured out of the Forum, a riot erupted. The crowd surged down Ste. Catherine Street to the downtown core, breaking windows and looting stores. Police officers who tried to quell the disturbance were pelted with rocks and garbage.
In the aftermath of the riot, Selke decided a coaching change was in order. Blake, who had been coaching a variety of Canadiens' farm teams since a broken ankle ended his NHL career in 1948, was summoned to Montreal. While Blake was no shrinking violet when it came to challenging authority, Selke figured that he could serve as a moderating influence on Richard, who had once been described as "two sticks of dynamite searching for a match."
It was the second time Blake had been called on to bolster Richard. In 1943, Irvin put Blake at left wing on a line with Elmer Lach at centre and Richard on the right side. He thought the bilingual Blake would be able to complement the French-speaking Richard and the English-speaking Lach. The result was the Punch Line, which was the dominant line in the late 1940s. In their five seasons together, Lach won two scoring titles and Richard became the first player to score 50 goals in a season.
Even without Richard, the Canadiens had enough talent to reach the final of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 1955, losing to Detroit in a seven-game final. The suspension weighed heavily on Richard as he watched from the sidelines. He felt a responsibility for the loss. He apologized to Montreal fans and said he was determined to win the Cup the following season.
Richard made good on that promise. The Canadiens won the Cup in 1956 to begin a string of five consecutive championship seasons. How dominant were those teams? The Canadiens won 10 playoff series in that run and never went to a seventh game. Only two of the series went to six games and Montreal swept Chicago and Toronto to complete the run in 1960. During the streak, the Canadiens won 40 playoff games and lost only nine.
The Canadiens had so much firepower that the NHL was forced to change its rules regarding power plays. In that era, players were required to serve the full two minutes following a minor penalty, and a team could score more than once on a single power play.
The sentiment to change the rule grew after Béliveau scored three times during a single power play.
It happened on November 5, 1955, and the Canadiens were trailing Boston 2–0 when Cal Gardner was sent off as the first period ended. It became a two-man advantage when Hal Laycoe was penalized 16 seconds into the second period.
The Bruins were faced with the unenviable task of defending against a power-play unit that consisted of five future Hall of Famers. Norris Trophy winners Doug Harvey and Tom Johnson were at the points; Béliveau, Maurice Richard, and Bert Olmstead were up front.
Forty-two seconds into the period, Béliveau took Olmstead's pass from the corner and redirected it behind Bruins goaltender Terry Sawchuk for his first goal of the evening. He converted another pass from Olmstead at 1:06, and Gardner and Laycoe were still in the penalty box when Béliveau completed his hat trick at 1:26 with Olmstead again setting up the play.
Béliveau needed only 44 seconds to string together the fastest hat trick in Canadiens history, with all three markers coming during the same power play. The only NHL player to score three goals in a shorter span was Chicago's Bill Mosienko, who scored three even-strength goals in 21 seconds against the New York Rangers on March 23, 1952.
Béliveau added a fourth goal at even strength to complete Montreal's 4–2 victory.
In Andy O'Brien's book, Fire-Wagon Hockey, Béliveau recalled that he was disappointed with his play going into the Boston game. Through the first dozen games, he had scored only three goals.
"I don't think I was ever so discouraged as I was at the start of the 1955–56 season," Béliveau said. "I must have hit fifteen goal posts before Toe Blake told me to start shooting at the net, rather than at a particular spot, until I broke my slump. Sure enough, a couple did, and I did all right."
Béliveau's hat trick wasn't the only time the Canadiens cashed in big on the power play that season. On seven other occasions, the Canadiens scored twice during a single power play.
At the end of the season, the league considered a change that would allow a player to leave the penalty box after a goal was scored. Frank Selke argued that the rule specifically targeted the Canadiens. He noted that there had been no complaints in previous seasons when Detroit and Chicago scored multiple goals during a power play. Selke's plea fell on deaf ears. The new rule was passed after a 5–1 vote with Montreal casting the lone dissenting vote.
The Swinging '60s
Charlie Fleischer, a comedian and actor best known as the voice of Roger Rabbit, is credited with first saying: "If you remember the '60s, you weren't really there."
But the Canadiens created many memorable moments in a decade that was defined by the rivalry between the Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Canadiens won the Stanley Cup five times and the Maple Leafs won it four times.
The Canadiens became Béliveau's team in the 1960s. After Rocket Richard retired in 1960, Doug Harvey became captain, but he was traded to the New York Rangers a year later after he became involved in the failed attempt to form a players' union. Béliveau would wear the C until he retired in 1971.
Toe Blake was behind the bench for four of the Cup wins in the 1960s with Claude Ruel guiding the 1969 team.
This was a decade of change. Hall of Famer Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion had his nose out of joint because he wasn't offered the captain's job. He felt he had earned the job because he showed his dedication to the team by battling through numerous injuries. He retired to coach the Quebec Aces but returned to the NHL two years later with the Rangers.
The Canadiens prospered with Béliveau, Henri Richard, Claude Provost, J.C. Tremblay, Jacques Laperriere, tough guy John Ferguson, and the goaltending triumverate of Lorne (Gump) Worsley, Charlie Hodge, and Rogie Vachon. The latter years of the decade provided a glimpse of the future as Hall of Famers Serge Savard and Yvan Cournoyer made their NHL debuts.
Blake, who would retire after winning his record eighth Stanley Cup, drove his players to greatness, but he was occasionally shortsighted when evaluating talent.
For example, he never recognized Red Berenson's potential, dismissing him because he played college hockey at the University of Michigan. Berenson had a similar experience after he was traded to the Rangers but emerged as one of the first stars of the expansion era with the St. Louis Blues. He was part of the Canadian team that beat the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series, and he later turned to coaching, winning the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL's coach of the year in 1981 with the Blues before beginning a 33-year career as head coach at Michigan.
Blake also underestimated Hall of Famer Yvan Cournoyer.
"He didn't think I could play defense because I was small, and the only time I was on the ice was when we were on the power play," said Cournoyer. In his first four seasons under Blake, he scored 54 goals, and 41 of them were on the power play. "He was a good coach, but I was happy when Piton (Claude Ruel) took over and he let me play."
The transition went beyond the change in personnel. The league underwent a radical transformation in the 1967–68 season when it expanded from six to 12 teams.
Expansion turned Blake's world upside down, and, at 56, he elected to leave on his own terms. He said that he didn't need the pressure that came with the job.
For 13 years as a Hall of Fame player and 13 years as a coach, he had settled into a comfortable routine.
The Original Six teams were close enough that teams traveled by train. Players were often together for their entire careers and formed strong bonds.
"It was easy to motivate us because we hated the guys on the other team," the late Dollard St. Laurent once told me. "We'd play the Blackhawks at home on a Saturday night and then both teams would get on the same train to go to Chicago for a Sunday night game. Our cars were at different ends of the train, and we had staggered hours for breakfast so the teams never met."
Blake would kill time on the train by playing gin rummy with the Montreal Star's Red Fisher.
"He was my personal bank," said Fisher, a claim that was routinely dismissed by the competitive Blake.
Expansion brought plane rides to Minnesota, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and California. In the era before charter flights, this meant long, uncomfortable flights on commercial aircraft.
There was also one more round in the playoffs, but that was a mere annoyance for Blake, whose 1968 team went 12–1 in the playoffs. The Canadiens swept St. Louis in the final, but each game was decided by one goal. The coach of the Blues was Scotty Bowman, and the team's leading scorer was Red Berenson.
After he stopped coaching, Blake would remain with the team as a consultant, and he mentored Bowman, who would eclipse Blake's record in 2002, winning his ninth Stanley Cup with the Red Wings.
"I always admired Toe so much," he said in an interview announcing his own retirement after beating the Carolina Hurricanes. "What I might have admired most about him was that he won his last game as coach against us in 1968. I thought, 'What a neat way to go out. Most times coaches lose their last game and get fired. It's not easy to walk away when you win.'"
Blake left behind a great legacy and also set the table for what would be the most successful decade in franchise history.
The Canadiens ushered in a new decade with a Stanley Cup win in 1971 when goaltender Ken Dryden took time out from his law studies at McGill University to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs. The victory wasn't enough to save head coach Al MacNeil, who was a victim of the growing nationalism in Quebec. Because MacNeil didn't speak French, he was exiled to the Canadiens' farm team in his native Nova Scotia.
The Canadiens turned to Montreal native Scotty Bowman. His promising career as a player ended in junior hockey when Jean-Guy Talbot was chasing him on a breakaway and swung his stick in frustration. The result was a fractured skull and a five-inch gash in his head. Bowman played junior hockey for another two years, but he experienced numerous headaches and turned to coaching.
He enjoyed success in the Canadiens organization, winning a Memorial Cup with the Hull-Ottawa Junior Canadiens and then moving on to Peterborough.
He signed on as an assistant coach with the expansion team the St. Louis Blues in 1968 and became the head coach when Lynn Patrick stepped down early in the team's inaugural season.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "If These Walls Could Talk: Montreal Canadiens"
Copyright © 2018 Pat Hickey.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
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Table of Contents
1. The Good Ol' Days,
2. The Last Time,
3. Dashed Hopes,
4. Standing Out,
5. It's Only Money,
6. Playing with Pain,
7. Wheeling and Dealing,
8. Some Russian Tales,
11. The Tough Guys,
12. The Men Behind the Bench,
13. Habs Behaving Badly,
14. On the Job,
15. Life after Hockey,
A Few Words of Thanks,