hart beat

They Were The Champions: Montreal’s 1930-31 championship lines up outside for the Forum. Back row, from left: Trainer Ed Dufour, Gord Fraser, Sylvio Mantha, Marty Burke, coach Cecil Hart, Battleship Leduc, Nick Wasnie, Armand Mondou, Jimmy McKenna. Front, from left: Pit Lepine, Georges Mantha, George Hainsworth, Aurèle Joliat, Howie Morenz, Wildor Larochelle.

They used to say that Cecil Hart had never played, that all his hockey savvy and successes came without the benefit of actually having plied with pucks, on skates. That’s not quite true: Hart, who was born in Bedford, Quebec, on a Wednesday of this date in 1883, did indeed play, inlcluding some senior hockey in Montreal. It is the case that Hart’s truly singular suite of achievements in hockey did occur when he wasn’t wearing skates, near benches, or in offices of business.

He was the NHL’s first — and still only? — Jewish coach, and a direct descendent of Aaron Blake, one of the first Jewish settlers in Canada, who made his home in Trois-Rivières in 1761. Cecil’s father was David A. Hart, Aaron’s great-grandson, a distinguished physician and surgeon and the man who, in 1923, donated the NHL’s first trophy recognizing individual excellence.

Back to Cecil. Away from the sporting world, he was an insurance broker — though he seems never to have been too far away from the sporting life. Baseball was, apparently, his first love. He was a pitcher and a shortstop as well as an ace organizer: in 1897, at the age of 14, he started a team, the Stars, that would soon come to dominate Montreal’s amateur leagues, while featuring rosters that included Art Ross and the Cleghorn brothers, Sprague and Odie.

Hart was coach and manager, scorekeeper, publicist, travel agent for the team, which eventually added a hockey program. Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, was still a newspaperman in Montreal when he first met Hart in 1906. “Cecil thought more of his Stars than of his right hand,” he recalled later.

It was Hart who, in 1921, brokered the agreement whereby Leo Dandurand and partners Joe Cattarinich and Leo Letourneau bought the Montreal Canadiens after the team went on the market following George Kennedy’s death. Dandurand and Cattarinich were in Cleveland at the time, watching horses race: Hart was the one who offered $11,000 on their behalf — about $156,000 in 2020 coinage — to get the deal done.

Cecil Hart, ca. the early 1930s.

Hart was a director of the Canadiens in 1923 when he sealed another historic Montreal bargain, travelling to Stratford, Ontario, to sign a hurtling 20-year-old named Howie Morenz to a Canadiens contract.

Hart would, in 1926, succeed Dandurand as coach of the Canadiens, but not before he spent a year building Montreal’s other NHL team, the one that would eventually be named the Maroons, when they first got their franchise in 1924. Hart only stayed a year, and so he wasn’t in the room where it happened when, after just their second season, the Maroons won the Stanley Cup, but the foundation of that championship team was very much of his making: he was the man who’d brought on Clint Benedict and Punch Broadbent, Dunc Munro, Reg Noble, and coach Eddie Gerard.

Hart’s first stint as coach of the Canadiens lasted six seasons, during which his teams won two Stanley Cups, in 1930 and ’31. He left the team in 1932 after a disagreement with Leo Dandurand. In 1936, he returned to the Montreal bench on the condition that the team bring back Howie Morenz. They did that, of course; that was also the year that Morenz died at the age of 37.

Hart coached in parts of another two seasons before Canadiens president Ernest Savard deposed him in early 1939. Savard insisted that he hadn’t fired his coach; Hart was merely being granted “a leave of absence” while team secretary Jules Dugal took over as coach. Hart’s record of 196 regular-season wins remains fifth-best on the list of Canadiens coaches; he’s eighth in points percentage. His teams won another 16 games in the playoffs, wherein his winning percentage stands at .486, 13th in team history.

Cecil Hart died in July of 1940. He was 56.

Trophy Case: The original David A. Hart Trophy, first presented in 1924. At that time it was suggested that if a player won the Hart three times it would be his to keep, a scenario by which Howie Morenz would have acquired it for his mantelpiece in 1932. While that proviso seems to have been forgotten along the way, the original trophy was retired in 1960 to the Hockey Hall of Fame and replaced by a new one, re-named the Hart Memorial Trophy.

 

 

all the roadrunning

A birthday today for former Montreal Canadiens captain Yvan Cournoyer, so here’s to him. Born in Drummmdville, Quebec, on a Monday of this same date in 1943, the man they called The Roadrunner is 77 today.

Cournoyer made his debut with Montreal in 1963 and played a total of 16 seasons on the right wing, winning 10 Stanley Cups along the way. His pile of 863 regular-season points is the sixth-largest in team history, and he scored another 127 in playoff games. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1973 for post-season merit. Cournoyer had begun that season, of course, playing with Team Canada, among whom he was the first member to hug Paul Henderson after he scored that final goal of his in Moscow.

(Image: Antoine Desilets, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec)

a savardian spin

The One And Only Three: Montreal’s mighty blueline trinity outside the Forum in 1977, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, and Guy Lapointe. Watch this space tomorrow for a Q&A with Savard on the English-language publication of Forever Canadien, Philippe Cantin’s biography of Montreal’s former number 18. (Image: © Paul-Henri Talbot, La Presse, courtesy of Serge Savard)

montreal’s original canadien

Canadien No. 1: Jack Laviolette’s likeness is enshrined along with other famous Canadiens in the lobby of the Bell Centre.

Born in Belleville, Ontario, on a Thursday of this date in 1879, Jack Laviolette became the very first Montreal Canadien in December of 1909, after Ambrose O’Brien founded the team in room 129 of the city’s Windsor Hotel and handed the 30-year-old defenceman the keys to the kingdom as captain and manager. One of Laviolette’s first signings was his old friend, teammate, and future fellow Hall-of-Famer Didier Pitre. While there was a famous court case over that, the two did eventually line up together that inaugural year, alongside the likes of Skinner Poulin, Art Bernier, and Newsy Lalonde, all of them garbed in the blue-and-white sweater shown here. (Canadiens went bleu-blanc-et-rouge the following year.)

An April report from Radio-Canada noted the recent unearthing of a fascinating photograph from that era. It shows the café that Laviolette owned at the time in Montreal’s Saint-Henri neighbourhood and is apparently annotated in Laviolette’s own hand: “This is wer [sic] I made the first Canadian hockey club.” (You can find reporter Olivier Tremblay’s report, in French, here.)

I’m not clear on what happened to Jack’s Café, which occupied a corner at rue Notre-Dame Ouest and chemin de la Côte-Saint-Paul, but it’s worth noting that Laviolette was still in the hospitality business in 1917, which turned out to be his final year in professional hockey. That year was the NHL’s first, of course, and even as Laviolette was suiting up that December for duty with Canadiens, he was taking over the management of the Joffre Café, in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, just east of where the Olympic Stadium looms today.

Laviolette, who was a distinguished lacrosse player, too, in his time, and a renowned racer of fast cars, saw his sporting career come to an end in May of 1918 after he was involved in a traffic accident near the latter café, and surgeons had to amputate his right leg below the knee. There was talk that fall of Laviolette succeeding Lalonde as coach of the Canadiens, but it didn’t work out. Jack Laviolette died in 1960 at the age of 80. He was inducted into the Hall of hockey Fame in 1963.

big moe

Ken Mosdell made his name in the NHL of he late 1940s as a defensive centreman, though later he blossomed into a bit of a goalscorer. Either way, his value to the Montreal Canadiens was never in doubt. Born in Montreal on a Thursday of this date in 1922, Mosdell played 15 NHL seasons, most of them with Canadiens, though he skated for the Brooklyn Americans, too, and the Chicago Black Hawks. He won four Stanley Cups with Montreal. In 1953-54, he was the centre voted to the NHL’s First All-Star Team, alongside Detroit wingers Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Big Moe, his teammates called him in Montreal, where he was honoured at the Forum for his service on Ken Mosdell Night in 1955. Ahead of a game against the New York Rangers, teammate Elmer Lach (he was out of the line-up) did a turn around the ice in a gleaming new Oldsmobile 98 before handing Mosdell the keys. Canadiens won the game 10-2, with Boom-Boom Geoffrion scoring five goals. Mosdell couldn’t buy so much as an assist on the night. He died in 2006 at the age of 83.

mr. geniality: a serious canadien, louis berlinguette survived the spanish flu that shut down the 1919 stanley cup

Coach and captain Newsy Lalonde got most of the goals the Montreal Canadiens scored in their pursuit of the 1919 Stanley Cup, five of the ten they recorded in the five games they played against the Seattle Metropolitans in another plaguestruck spring, before the series was abandoned. But give Louis Berlinguette his due: on March 24, in the third period of the third game of the never-ended finals, the 31-year-old left winger took a pass from teammate Didier Pitre and fired the puck past Seattle goaltender Hap Holmes.

Born in Sainte-Angélique, Quebec, on a Thursday of this date in 1887, Berlinguette and his teammates played two more torrid games that week. It was on the following Monday that the series was suspended before a sixth game made it to the ice: like his captain, Lalonde, teammates Joe Hall, Jack McDonald, and Billy Coutu, as well as team manager George Kennedy, Berlinguette was confined to his bed at the Georgian Hotel, suffering from symptoms of Spanish flu.

On the Wednesday, the Canadiens were reported to be “resting easily,” with Lalonde, Coutu, Kennedy, and Berlinguette said to be only “slightly ill.”

“Their temperatures were reported normal last night,” one wire report noted, “and the doctor expects them to be up in a few days.”

Another dispatch that appeared across the continent went like this:

Two great overtime games have taxed the vitality of the players to such an extent that they are in poor shape, indeed, to fight off the effects of such a disease as influenza.

However, the Canadiens are being given the very best of care, nurses and physicians being in attendance at all times on them and every other attention is being shown the stricken players.

By Thursday, another Canadien, forward Odie Cleghorn, had taken sick, and manager Kennedy’s condition was worsening. McDonald and Hall were in Providence Hospital, the latter with a temperature of 103.

Friday, Kennedy was feeling better, while Coutu and Berlinguette were reported to be out of bed. But Hall had developed pneumonia; his condition was “causing doctors much concern.” He didn’t improve. He died that Sunday, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, at the age of 38. Two days later, at his funeral in Vancouver, alongside Newsy Lalonde and Billy Coutu, Louis Berlinguette served as one of his pallbearers.

The news from Seattle on April 2, 1919, the day after the final game of the Stanley Cup finals was curtailed.

Didier Pitre and goaltender Georges Vézina had already, by then, taken a train back to Montreal. Jack McDonald’s brother had died in March, possibly of influenza, while serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Siberia; Jack’s recovery kept him in hospital in Seattle until mid-April. After the funeral, Lalonde and Cleghorn and Coutu Berlinguette caught the Montreal train in Vancouver and travelled together, though Coutu got off in Sault Ste. Marie and Berlinguette in Mattawa, his off-season home.

While the NHL was only in its second season in 1919, Louis Berlinguette was a veteran of the Canadiens’ line-up. He was in his seventh season with the team, after starting his pro career in 1909 with the Haileybury Comets. There he played, if only briefly, with Art Ross and Paddy Moran, before moving on to play for Galt and the Moncton Victorias. With both those teams he played for (but didn’t win) the Stanley Cup. He joined Canadiens in 1912. In the ensuing years, before the league expired in 1917, no skater played more games in the National Hockey Association than Berlinguette.

He did win the Stanley Cup on his third shot at it: along with his 1919 teammates Vézina, Bert Corbeau, Pitre, and Lalonde, Berlinguette was in the Canadiens’ line-up that defeated the Portland Rosebuds for the 1916 championship.

Berlinguette was speedy on his skates, and know for his checking, which on at least one occasion earned him the epithet blanket: that’s what you’ll find if you fish into the archives. He wasn’t a prolific goalscorer: his best showing came in 1920-21, when he notched 12 goals and 21 points in 24 regular-season games, tying him for second in team scoring with Didier Pitre behind Newsy Lalonde.

A dowdy distinction that will always be his: in 1922, Berlinguette was responsible for the NHL’s very first automatic goal.

Canadiens were hosting the Hamilton Tigers at Mount Royal Arena on the night. In the first period, Hamilton defenceman Leo Reise swooped in and beat the Montreal defence in front of Vézina, “apparently destined for a certain goal,” as the Gazette saw it. Except, nu-uh:

Louis Berlinguette hurled his stick from the side, knocked the puck off Reise’s stick, and, in conformity with a rule passed four years ago, Tigers were awarded a goal by Referee [Cooper] Smeaton. This is the first time in the history of the NHL that such a ruling has been made.

Hamilton soon added another goal, but Berlinguette’s teammates eventually righted the ship: Newsy Lalonde and Odie Cleghorn, with a pair, saw to it that Montreal won the game, 3-2.

“He has been popular wherever he has played,” Montreal’s Gazette summed up in 1926, as Berlinguette’s playing days wound down. “Not a brilliant star, he was a hard-working, serious player who attended strictly to hockey, but with it always commanded the respect of players and crowd alike.”

Towards the end of his career, 1924-25, he spent a season with the fledgling Montreal Maroons, and the following year, his last in the NHL, he jumped to another expansion team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, where his old teammate Odie Cleghorn was the playing coach. While the Maroons’ Nels Stewart won the Hart Trophy that year as the league’s MVP, the Gazette acknowledged a nod to Berlinguette in the voting:

A striking tribute to his popularity was the action of one of the judges … who when filing his votes for the league’s most useful player, gave one for Berlinguette purely on his personality and the service he had rendered the Pittsburgh club on and off the ice through his geniality.

He signed on in the fall of 1926 as the playing coach of Les Castors de Quebec in the Can-Am League. He subsequently worked a whistle as an NHL referee, and later coached the Fredericton Millionaires in the New Brunswick Hockey League, though not for long. In 1930, he turned his efforts from hockey to work full-time for Ontario’s forestry service. Louis Berlinguette died in Noranda in 1959 at the age of 72.

Montreal’s 1918-19 Canadiens. Back row, left to right: Manager George Kennedy, Didier Pitre, Louis Berlinguette, Billy Coutu, Jack McDonald, trainer A. Ouimet. Front row, from left: Coach and captain Newsy Lalonde, Odie Cleghorn, Bert Corbeau, Joe Hall, Georges Vézina.

sylvio mantha: montreal’s coaching captain (and vice-versa)

Non-Playing Coach: After 13 Hall-of-Fame seasons with Montreal (and four games as a Boston Bruin), Sylvio Mantha went on to coach the Montreal QSHL, Concordia starting in the late 1930s.

Doug Harvey. Larry Robinson. Serge Savard. Guy Lapointe.

So no, maybe Sylvio Mantha’s name isn’t the first to skate to mind when the subject of Hall-of-Fame defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens arises, as it does. But let’s agree to agree: Mantha belongs in the conversation. Born in Montreal in 1902 on a Monday of — yes, well, this past Tuesday’s date, April 14, Mantha was a stalwart of the Montreal defence in the first decades of their NHL history, a key contributor to three Stanley Cup-winning campaigns, and a long-time Canadiens captain. He also coached the team … while he was still playing.

Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1960, Sylvio Mantha died at the age of 72 in 1974. Descriptions plucked live from contemporary newspaper accounts of his playing exploits use the words able and always steady (from earliest 1924); rugged and dangerous (1927); the only Italian playing the Canadian national game (an Atlanta paper, also from 1927); sturdy the Red Devils’ goal-getting defenceman  (both 1929).

In 1942, six years after Mantha’s last spin through the NHL, a Montreal writer fondly defied any true Canadiens’ fan to forget “the weaving rushes of Sylvio Mantha, who skated with his legs wide apart and couldn’t be shoved off balance — or off the puck.” For much of his career, his brother Georges, younger by five years, played with him in Montreal,  sometimes on defence, sometimes as a forward.

Other stuff you maybe once knew about Sylvio Mantha but then, perhaps, unaccountably, let slip from memory? Here you go:

•••

He was not, despite what you may have read in reputable published histories of the Canadiens, the first native-born Montrealer to play for the team. Preceding him in the team’s pre-NHL days were local products Joseph Seguin and Alphonse Jetté, among others. Post-1917, Montrealers Sprague and Odie Cleghorn were both already with the team when Mantha arrived in the winter of 1923.

•••

He was 20 when he made his NHL debut in Toronto that December. Alongside another rookie, he proved himself immediately. Here’s what the Montreal Gazette had to say in the aftermath of that 2-1 loss to the St. Patricks:

The newcomers to professional hockey, “Howie” Morenz of Stratford and Mantha of Montreal, made good. Morenz fitted right into the Canadien machine, and the manager [Leo Dandurand] thinks so well of his ability that he started him at centre in place of Odie Cleghorn. Mantha was used for about thirty minutes on the defence, and his showing indicates that he will be a star in a short time.

Mantha scored his first NHL goal a little over a month later, on another visit to Toronto that ended in another 2-1 Montreal loss. From Toronto’s Globe:

Mantha went at top speed throughout. It was the best game that he ever played, amateur or professional, and such a veteran as Sprague Cleghorn was enthusiastic. Mantha is a fast skater and a clever stick handler. He scored Canadiens’ only goal after outguessing the whole St. Patricks’ team. He has the weight and ability to be one of the stars of the circuit.

•••

Playing, as he did, in a ruthless and an often outrightly violent hockey age, Mantha wasn’t known for his coarse play in the way that, say, Sprague Cleghorn was, or Billy Coutu, another chaotic Montreal defenceman. But looking him up, I find that Mantha did lose tend his temper, good sense, and freedom on a fairly regular basis, to the extent that (a) referee Art Ross penalized and summarily fined him $15 for swinging his stick at Cy Denneny’s head during a 1924 game against the Ottawa Senators and (b) by the end of the 1929-30 season, he stood third in the NHL in accumulated penalty minutes, back of Ottawa’s Joe Lamb and Eddie Shore of Boston. So there’s that.

•••

He scored the very first goal at the brand-new Boston Garden.

This was in November of 1928. Saturday the 17th saw the Garden inaugurated with a featherweight boxing bout, Honey Boy Dick Finnegan getting the decision over Andre Routis. Then on Tuesday the 20th Canadiens were in to take on the Bruins in front of a crowd of 17,000, the largest ever to see a hockey game in Boston up to that time, fans (reported the local Globe) “filling every inch of standing space and almost bulging out onto the ice.”

The game was goalless through to the last moments of the second period. From the Montreal Gazette:

Mantha did it all alone. He skated down the centre lane with Pete Lepine, understudy for the great Howie Morenz, flanking him on the right. At the defence Mantha swung to the right and as Captain Lionel Hitchman, of the Bruins, went to check him, cut loose a hard shot for the right side of the cage. It bounded off the pads of Cecil Thompson into the side of the net.

No-one else scored in the third, so that was it, Mantha 1, Bruins 0.

•••

The inimitable Jean Béliveau served the longest stretch as captain of the NHL Canadiens, 10 seasons. Next in the longevity line are Saku Koivu and Sylvio Mantha, each of whom led the team through nine campaigns. Mantha’s tenure began in 1926, when he succeeded Billy Coutu, and he carried on from there, through 1932, when goaltender George Hainsworth took a turn for a year. Mantha was back at it in 1933.

Two years later, at the age of 33, he was still captain of the Canadiens and playing a regular shift when the new owner of the team, Ernest Savard, named him coach, too. Think of that. Think of Shea Weber taking over from Claude Julien behind the Montreal bench, except for, he wouldn’t be behind the bench, he’d be on it, and out over the boards, onto the ice. It wouldn’t happen today, but it did in earlier NHL days, with some frequency: in 1935-36, in fact, with veteran defenceman Red Dutton steering the ship for the New York Americans, two of the league’s eight teams had playing coaches.

Opening night 1935 was a festive affair, with Canadiens entertaining the New York Rangers at the Forum. Mantha was front and centre during pre-game ceremonies that saw loyal fans representing the Millionaires Club present the team with (1) a floral horseshoe and (2) a floral hockey stick. The captain and new coach received the gift of (3) a handsome leather travelling bag.

The season that unfolded thereafter wasn’t quite so fulfilling for anyone involved with the team. After losing to the Rangers, the Canadiens continued to struggle, ending up dead last in the NHL, far adrift from the playoffs. This very month in ’36, the Gazette was suggesting that Mantha would probably be back as coach, though he maybe wouldn’t continue to play.

In fact, when Savard announced that he was bringing in a new coach in Cecil Hart, the word was that Mantha would be welcomed back as a player, if he wanted to play. Hart, of course, wasn’t so new as all that: he’d coached the team for years, going back to 1926, and presided over their 1930 and ’31 Stanley Cup triumphs.

•••

Many happy returns, ca. 1937.

Mantha did go to camp in the fall of 1936, but he couldn’t crack the opening-night line-up when the new season rolled around in November. As well as bringing Howie Morenz back into the Forum fold, the Canadiens had acquired a big-name defenceman in the off-season in a deal with the Boston Bruins. Babe Siebert was two years younger than 35-year-old Mantha, and had been named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team for 1935-36. He not only supplanted Mantha on the defence, he succeeded him as captain.

That November, after 13 years, Sylvio Mantha’s Canadien career came to an end when he was released outright. His career as a Boston Bruin got going the following February, when Art Ross signed him to fill in for Eddie Shore, out for the season with an injured back. He was a good fit, by all accounts, but Mantha’s stay in Boston only lasted four games before a cracked elbow put a full stop on his season and his playing career.

Mantha did subsequently do some refereeing, including in the NHL, but it was as a coach that he concentrated most of his post-playing hockey efforts, starting in the fall of 1937 with the Montreal Concordia of the QSHL and junior teams in Verdun and St. Jerome.

 

16

He wasn’t the first Canadien to bear the number 16 on his sweater in the NHL, just the last: a few months after a 39-year-old Henri Richard retired in 1975, the number he’d worn for all 20 of his magnificent seasons in the league was raised to the rafters of the Montreal Forum in his honour. In December of ’75, Richard, who died today at the age of 84, was joined at a pre-game ceremony to mark the occasion by former Hab greats (from the left) Elmer Lach, Butch Bouchard, and Toe Blake. Lach wore number 16 for 12 seasons before the Pocketful Rocket made the team as a 19-year-old in 1955. Blake was a 16, too, when he played for Canadiens, though only for a single season, whereafter he switched to 6. (Bouchard was briefly numbered 17 before he settled his more familiar 3.) Right winger Gus Rivers is generally named as the man who first wore 16 for Montreal, though maybe it was just for a game or two when he first came to the team in 1930: for most of his short stint with Canadiens he had 15. A total of 26 players wore 16 before Richard’s greatness took it out of circulation, including Jean Pusie, Gizzy Hart, Red Goupille, and goaltender Paul Bibeault. To date, Montreal has honoured 18 numbers (including Lach’s 16, in 2009), but in 1975, Richard’s 16 was just the fourth in team history to be raised aloft, following Howie Morenz’s 7, brother Maurice’s 9, and Jean Béliveau’s 4.

 

henri richard, 1936—2020

 

(Top Image: “Henri Richard” by Aislin (alias Terry Mosher),  January 26, 1974, ink and felt pen on paper, M986.286.179, © McCord Museum)

pocket watch

Born in Montreal on a Saturday of this date in 1936, Henri Richard turns 84 today. He only ever played for the Montreal Canadiens during his 20-year NHL career, captaining the team while aiding in the winning of 11 Stanley Cups — or course he landed in hockey’s Hall of Fame. The man they came to call the Pocket Rocket was 14 years younger than his rocketing, riotous brother, Maurice.

The great Trent Frayne profiled the younger Richard in 1958, noting that while Henri bore “a certain facial resemblance to his brother — a long jawbone, an angular chin, and a small rather pinched mouth,” they had their own distinct sizes and hockey styles. Maurice stood a strapping 5’11,” Henri was four inches shorter, “along the lines of a middleweight fighter,” but still one of the smallest men in the league. Henri’s attributes on the ice, in Frayne’s appraisal, included extreme dexterity, a quick, hard wrist-shot, and some of the fastest skates in the NHL. “In fact,” Canadiens’ coach Toe Blake said, “he’s the fastest skater I’ve ever seen in hockey.” Frayne was surprised to hear that:

“Faster than Morenz?” his interviewer enquired with the surprise of one who had always heard the the late Howie Morenz of the Canadiens was hockey’s fastest.

“I didn’t see too much of Morenz,” parried Blake, who broke into the NHL with the old Montreal Maroons in 1934, three years before a broken leg ended Morenz’s career, “but from what I saw of him, yes, I’d have to say that young Richard is faster. Certainly there’s not a player in the league today he can’t pull away from — carrying the puck, too.”

(Image: Taken 27 December, 1958, Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505651)

no ordinary joe

Red Fisher said that Claude Provost was the Bob Gainey of his day. “He wasn’t as big, probably didn’t have as much skating talent, and maybe didn’t hit as hard as Gainey,” the Montreal Gazette’s longtime columnist enthused, “but he was terribly effective. He had to be to stop somebody like Bobby Hull the way he did … and he was definitely a better scorer than Gainey.”

The question of whether Provost deserves a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame may or may not be answered this coming Tuesday when a new class of inductees is named. Provost, who only ever played for the Montreal Canadiens during his 15-year NHL career, certainly has a bevy of Stanley Cup championships to endorse him: he helped the Habs win nine in his time. Renowned as a right winger for his prowess as a checker, he also led the Canadiens in goalscoring in 1961-62, when he scored 33 in a line-up that included Bernie Geoffrion and Jean Béliveau. In 1964-65, he was named to the First All-Star Team, ahead of a pretty good right winger from Detroit named Gordie Howie. Provost also won the first Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in 1968 in recognition of his dedication, sportsmanship, and perseverance.

After Provost’s death at the age of 50 in 1984, Tim Burke of the Montreal Gazette remembered him as “one of the best-liked guys ever who ever wore CH on his chest and the premier defensive forward of his time.” Toe Blake assigned him to shadow Bobby Hull whenever Montreal played Chicago during the 1960s, and he had some success in (to borrow Burke’s phrase) trussing up the explosive left winger. Provost wasn’t always convinced that he was winning that duel, though. “I used to have pretty good success in checking,” he said of Hull in 1964, “then I got caught twice and scored two goals. What am I supposed to do, sit on him?”

Henri Richard was his roommate in junior and throughout his Montreal career. “He had very little talent,” he said, fondly, “but he made up for everything with hard work. … He even became a goalscorer by just getting in front all the time. We used to kid him that more goals went in off his ass than his stick.” He’d anchor himself in the slot with a distinctive bow-legged stance, digging his skates into the ice so hard that, as Canadiens’ equipment manager Eddie Palchak recalled, “he needed his skates sharpened after every period.”

“That’s why we started calling him Cowboy Joe,” Richard said, “those bow legs of his. He was the perfect guy to room with. You couldn’t stay down in the dumps with him around. He was always fun and a great team man.”