The Montreal Canadiens will be taking a glass-half-full view of things into Friday night’s Stanley Cup final game, you have to think, and they were hoping to be doing it in an arena filled to 50 per cent capacity. Too. Down two games to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the hopeful Canadiens will host games 3 and 4 at the Bell Centre tomorrow and Monday. The team had asked the Quebec government for permission to allow as many as 10,500 fans in the building, but after discussions with provincial public health officials, that request was denied, and so Montreal’s efforts to even the series will be seen by the same number of fans, 3,500, that cheered the deciding game of their semi-final win over the Vegas Golden Knights last week.
Depicted here, a Stanley Cup final of a whole other era, in a whole other Montreal arena: these fans are watching the opening game of the NHL’s 1947 championship series, which saw the Canadiens host the Toronto Maple Leafs on a Tuesday night in April of that year. The crowd at the Forum was overflowing on the night, with 12,320 eager fans on hand to witness Montreal down Toronto by a score of 6-0. Bill Durnan posted the shutout, with Buddy O’Connor scoring the winning goal. A good start for Montreal, but it was one that didn’t last: Toronto roared back to take the series, and the Cup, in six games.
(Images: Conrad Poirier, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)
Armand Mondou played on the left wing for the Montreal Canadiens for a dozen NHL seasons from 1928 through to 1940, winning a pair of Stanley Cups along the way, in 1930 and ’31.
Born in 1905 on a Tuesday of this date in Saint-David-d’Yamaska, Quebec, he was the first NHLer to take a penalty shot after the league added a new rule in 1934, 18 seasons into its early history. It happened on opening night that year, when the Canadiens were playing at Maple Leaf Gardens on the night of Saturday, November 10. In the third period Toronto’s Bill Thoms tripped Georges Mantha of Montreal as he broke in on Leaf goaltender George Hainsworth.
The rules for penalty-shooting were different in those years: ’34 through ’37, the puck was placed in a 10-foot circle located 38 feet from goal, just inside the blueline. As I’ve described before, in this post delineating the history of the penalty shot, the shooter couldn’t make contact with the puck outside the circle, either standing still in the circle and letting loose, or skating at the puck full tilt from farther back. The goaltender, meanwhile, had to stay where he was: he wasn’t allowed to advance more than a foot off his line.
That night in 1934, 29-year-old Armand Mondou was standing in on Montreal’s top line for Wildor Larochelle. Mondou had scored just five goals the year before, so it’s a little surprising that Canadiens’ coach Newsy Lalonde picked him to revenge Mantha’s fall, especially since he had a formidable scorer (and future Hall-of-Famer) in Aurèle Joliat on the bench that night. Mondou decided on a speedy approach for the league’s inaugural penalty shot. That’s according to Montreal’s Gazette: “Mondou, with a running start, and his bullet-like slap shot, made the play against Hainsworth.”
Toronto’s hometown Globe had its own view of the same scene: “The fans were quite interested, but Mondou’s shot was a dud. It never left the ice and Hainsworth stopped it with his usual nonchalance.”
According to the Gazette (interestingly), Hainsworth switched out his regular goaling stick for the penalty shot with “a lighter stick.” I’d like to know more about that, but I’ve yet to see another reference to this specialty tool.
The Leafs won the game, 2-1. The NHL’s first successful penalty shot came a week later, when Ralph Bowman of the St. Louis Eagles put a puck past Alec Connell of the Montreal Maroons.
The early months of 1955 were tumultuous ones for the Montreal Canadiens. In March, as the regular season was winding to an end, Maurice Richard’s suspension roiled the team and, soon enough, the city of Montreal. The Canadiens did get to the finals that spring, but without the Rocket they fell to the Detroit Red Wings, who won their second consecutive Stanley Cup. That was in April. To start May, the news from Montreal was that after 15 seasons and three Cup championships, coach Dick Irvin was moving out and on, to Chicago, where he hoped to resurrect the Black Hawks.
There was plenty of speculation in Montreal, of course, on the matter of who might take Irvin’s place. Canadiens Managing Director Frank Selke was quick to rule out a couple of candidates with experience on the Montreal blueline: Ken Reardon, who was already ensconced in the organization’s front office, was thought to be a GM-in-waiting, while Butch Bouchard still hoped to play another season or two. Former Leaf great Charlie Conacher had experience coaching in Chicago, and when he was seen chatting with Selke, the rumour was quick to spread that he was the man. Another defenceman on the Canadiens roster, Tom Johnson, told a reporter that while he’d heard the names of former Canadiens Leroy Goldsworthy and Toe Blake bandied about, he didn’t think either man would end up in the job: he suspected the new man would be a Quebecer. So maybe Roger Léger, yet another former Canadien (and one more defender), who was coach of Shawinigan in the Quebec league? Billy Reay was mentioned, too, though he was from Winnipeg, an erstwhile Canadien now coaching the Victoria Cougars in the WHL.
By the end May, Maurice Richard was weighing in. No disrespect to his old teammates Léger and Reay, but the Rocket felt — or knew — that it would be his former linemate, Blake, who should be taking charge. “I think Blake is the best of the three men, as he can handle men both on and off the ice,” Richard told reporters on a visit to Timmins, Ontario, to receive an award. “He should get the job over Reay or Léger, although they both have done good jobs.”
Blake, who was 42 that spring, and a son of Coniston, Ontario, which is now p[art of Sudbury, had been coaching previously in Montreal’s farm system, notably with the Valleyfield Braves of Quebec’s Senior League. As predicted by the Rocket, he was appointed to the job of Canadiens coach 11 days later, on a Wednesday of this date in 1955.
“I am stepping into a big pair of shoes in taking over from Dick Irvin,” Blake said told the press that day. “I have always considered him the best in the league, and with the help of Mr. Selke and Mr. Reardon and the players, we will continue to keep Canadiens hockey name on top. The team won’t let the fans down. I am not going to promise the Stanley Cup, but we will continue as a great fighting club.”
Blake’s first game in charge came that October, when Montreal beat Toronto 2-0 in the opening game of the 1955-56 season. The Stanley Cup that Blake’s Canadiens won the following spring was the first of five in a row, of course, as Blake steered Montreal to eight championships in the 13 years he remained at the helm before retiring in 1968 and handing over to Claude Ruel.
(Image, from the late 1960s: Antoine Desilets, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)
“Morenz was small,” I wrote between hardcovers in Puckstruck, page 141, “five foot nine, 165 pounds. His skates were small, one of his teammates remembered later, and so too were his wingers. Howie’s linemates, in fact, were even more diminutive than he was: Aurèle Joliat, five-seven, 136 pounds, on the left, while to the right it was Johnny Gagnon, nicknamed the Black Cat for his speed and his coiffure, five-five, 140 pounds. This miniature man, with his tiny skates, his micro sidekicks — just thinking about the three of them, you start to squint.”
Widen your eyes, if you would, then, for Gagnon, whose birthday falls today: born in Chicoutimi on a Saturday of this date in 1905, he was a Canadien for ten years through the 1930s, which means that he was in on Montreal’s 1931 Stanley Cup. He also saw duty, briefly, for the Boston Bruins and New York Americans. Goalswise, he had his best year, notching 20, the season of Morenz’s untimely death, 1936-37.
Gagnon went on, later, to serve as a scout for the New York Rangers. He died in 1984 at the age of 78.
Back to the ’30s and his gig as a flyweight partner to Howie Morenz. Here’s Harold C. Burr, writing in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in January of 1931 about the Stratford Streak’s wingers and the rivalry (possibly exaggerated) around what they displaced:
Joliat and Gagnon are two of the lightest men in hockey. Their skates are not the light regulation aluminum blades, for fear they would go right up into the rafter some night, so rumor has it. But that’s likely an exaggeration. You know how newspapers are.
It seems, though, that the little fellows are jealous of their weight, each scheming to be the lighter. Joliat is the taller and looks the heavier. But Gagnon doesn’t take anything for granted in hockey, which is ordinarily a wise precept. One night in Montreal the gamecocks almost came to blows over the question. Joliat shook his gauntleted fist under the Gagnon nose, stopping to get the low altitude, and Gagnon just spluttered back in French.
“Jump on the scales!” taunted Joliat, his volatile nature uppermost.
“Do it yourself!” screamed Johnny.
So it was arranged. It was a simple question to settle beyond further dispute. The athletes were naked. Possibly there was one more soapsud on Joliat than on Gagnon, but Gagnon wore a drop of perspiration to make up for it. Johnny was first on the scales.
“One hundred and thirty-nine pounds,” intoned the voice of the weigher.
A slight sneer mantled Joliat’s lean bronze face as he lithely took Gagnon’s place.
“One hundred and thirty-six,” cried the voice of the weigher once more.
Johnny Gagnon just gave a stricken gasp and ever since hearing those fatal figures has been trying to lose the three pounds that keep him [sic] for hockey fame. For, after all, it’s quite a distinction to be the smallest man in a game where beef is at a premium. “He’s fast — and heavy,” has been the description of the ideal forward ever since hockey was born in zero prairie weather and grew up in the little crossroads towns.”
“When we’re skating and shooting the way we can, it doesn’t matter whether they put bulldozers out there against us. We’ll just go around them.”
That was Montreal captain Henri Richard on another Monday, in another playoffs, as his Canadiens skated at the Forum ahead of a Stanley Cup semi-final against the Philadelphia Flyers to start the week of April 16, 1973. That’s Richard laid out third from the bottom in this team stretch, I think. Alternate captain Yvan Cournoyer is nearest the camera, with Steve Shutt next in line. Goaltender Ken Dryden is sprawled to the right of the night, beside (possibly) Guy Lapointe and one of the back-ups, Michel Plasse or Wayne Thomas.
“We’ve been too tight so far,” Richard told reporters that day. “We have to loosen up to get going at our best.” Two nights earlier on this same Forum ice, the Canadiens had lost the first game of the series, 5-4 in overtime, with Rick MacLeish scoring the decisive goal for Philadelphia. The day after this practice, on Tuesday, April 17, Larry Robinson scored Montreal’s winner in a 4-3 OT win that tied the series.
Montreal would go on to dismiss the Flyers in five games. In the finals that followed that year, Montreal dispensed with the Chicago Black Hawks in six games to claim their 18th Stanley Cup.
(Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)
It was on a Saturday, 21 years ago today, that Maurice Richard died at Montreal’s Hôtel Dieu Hospital at the age of 78. “When he’s worked up,” long-time Canadiens GM Frank Selke once said, “his eyes gleam like headlights. Not a glow, but a piercing intensity. Goalies have said he’s like a motorcar coming on you at night. He is terrifying. He is the greatest hockey player that ever lived. I can contradict myself by saying that 10 or 15 do the mechanics of play better. But it’s results that count. Others play well, build up, eventually get a goal. He is like a flash of lightning. It’s a fine summer day, suddenly.”
(Image: “Maurice Richard et deux jeunes enfants, vers 1957,” Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM94, Ed-33A)
Halte là, halte là, halte là, les Canadiens, sont là. Les Canadiens, les Canadiens sont là! Forget all your last-night troubles, Montreal fans, and join me in the streets of 1978 when, on a Friday of this date, another edition of the team was celebrating a 21st Stanley Cup championship with a few hundred thousand of their closest fans.
“You never get tired of winning,” Canadiens captain Yvan Cournoyer mused on that day. “Especially when you face a reception like the one we’re getting. Each parade is better than the one before.” Cournoyer, incredibly, was processing through the streets of Montreal for the ninth time with the Cup. That’s him here, above, alongside Serge Savard outside the Forum; below, they ride through Montreal with a crew of fans and the coveted Cup.
(Top image: Réjean Martel, Archives de la Ville de Montréal; below, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)