le pompier: he does everything strong

1970-71 O-Pee-Chee #177 Guy Lapointe“His father was a fire captain” is a phrase you sometimes see in biographies of Guy Lapointe, who’s 66 now, usually right before a mention that he was all set to become a policeman before hockey claimed him. Tonight, just before the Montreal Canadiens raise Lapointe’s number 5 to the rafters of the Bell Centre, a few notes on his career might be in order. For example:

Growing up, in Montreal, his favourite player was Jean Béliveau. He only started playing hockey at the age of 13, and never dreamed of playing for the Canadiens: he didn’t think he was good enough. When he was invited to his first Montreal training camp, his dad had to browbeat him to go. He thought his chances of making the team were zero.

When he turned professional, he spoke not a word of English, according to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Teammates laughed at him, until he threw one of them over the boards. The first time he sat in the Montreal dressing room, getting ready to play his first game, he could hardly tie his skates, due to nerves and the excitement of looking at Béliveau across the way. His first year in the NHL, Montreal won the Stanley Cup. It was unbelievable.

That’s what he said, not me. Also him: from the moment you’re a Hab, you learn about winning. You can’t accept even a single loss.

He was a dominant force, says the Hall, and to be reckoned with. He was one of The Big Three, obviously, with Larry Robinson and Serge Savard.

Youthful inconsistency is a phrase you sometimes come across regarding his play before he graduated to the Habs. Less obtrusive were words applied to his style in 1973, compared to Bobby Orr and Brad Park. “He’s strong,” said Béliveau. “Not just when he shoots, but in everything he does. He does everything strong.”

In 1973, just before the Canadiens won another Cup, he was the undisputed choice for the Conn Smythe Trophy, according to The Gazette in Montreal. Coach Scotty Bowman thought so, as did his counterpart from Chicago, Billy Reay. Lapointe was the one to pick the team up when they floundered, I guess, plus he was playing the powerplay and the penalty-kill and also scoring and, too, in the dressing room, he charged up his mates with some spicy invective.

But then Yvan Cournoyer won the Smythe instead — Le Chinois. I don’t know what happened.

Lapointe’s nicknames included Pointu and Le Pompier. He does a lot of swearing in Ken Dryden’s The Game (1983). He did 20 push-ups every night and another 20 when he woke up in the morning, while also playing a regular game of handball, fast. He was almost always the last player to leave the ice at practice. In The Game, Dryden alludes to this while also pinpointing personal burdens that may have affected Lapointe’s game before adding this:

… when the slate is clean and it is just him and the game, Pointu plays with the unrestrained joy of a boy on a river, uncomplicating the game for all of us.

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les méprisables

hatersYes, that’s right, the Montreal Canadiens are looking good, sitting up atop the Eastern Conference, even if they did lose last night in a shootout to Ottawa. Cheers to you, Brandon Prust! Way to play, Alex Galchenyuk! Great going, Lars Eller! And yet as natural as it is to cherish the Habs and their success, there are those who take a dimmer view. Art McDonald, for one. Instead of toasting the team’s health and happiness, he might be one to note that today is the day, back in 1910, that Les Canadiens lost by a score of 15-3 to the Haileybury Hockey Club. As he did, in fact, in his comprehensive 1988 Montreal Canadiens Haters Calendar, dedicated “to those who believe there are only two teams in hockey — their favourite team and whoever is playing the Montreal Canadiens.”

With an anti-Hab barb for each day of the year, the calendar does its best to bring down even the sunniest supporter.

February 20: Birthdate of Gilles Lupien, the worst Canadiens’ player of recent years. (1954)

June 14: Canadiens pass up Mike Bossy in the NHL draft. (1977)

July 15: Canadians laugh at a ridiculous Grecian Formula ad featuring ex-Canadien Rocket Richard. (1981)

September 14: North America adopts the Gregorian Calendar, featuring February 29 in leap years. Canadiens are winless on this date. (1752)

An accountant who described himself as a former Montrealer transplanted to Halifax, McDonald professed to have spent 500 hours compiling his record of the team’s ignominy. “It’s been a labour of love,” he told The Hockey News in 1987.

As for that loss to Haileybury, it came during the Canadiens inaugural season, when they played in the short-lived National Hockey Association. They finished last in the seven-team league, McDonald would be glad for you to know. As the Canadiens’ own historical website observes, Montreal met Haileybury twice, noting a 9-5 win at the beginning of February while conveniently leaving out the subsequent 15-3 smothering. Didier Pitre skated for the Habs that year, and Newsy Lalonde, too, who ended up leading the league in scoring. Neither man was on hand in Haileybury, though. “On the French team,” a witness reported, “no player starred.” Jack Laviolette did his best but “was unable to pull off any spectacular skating stunts being too closely watched.” Still, the score was tied 3-3 at the half before the local team ran wild. They weren’t a bad bunch, with Art Ross at point and Skene Ronan playing cover. Alex Currie scored six goals that night and Nick Bawlf another five. And Art Throop. He may not have appeared on the score-sheet, said our reporter, but “also played a great game.”

gaineytown

“It is a great temptation to say too much about Bob Gainey.” That was Ken Dryden, in The Game (1983), just before he launched into the quite-a-lot he had to say about Gainey and his place as a player on those sublime Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s. He’s right, Dryden: the temptation is great, especially now that Gainey has left the team that he captained, coached, managed, and — at the last — special-advised. That was his role until Thursday — special adviser to general manager Pierre Gauthier — when the man he was counselling was fired.  Gainey wasn’t, Montreal owner Geoff Molson went out of his way to explain: his departure was by “mutual agreement.”

It’s sobering time for those of us who loved the quiet honesty of Gainey’s game as a player, his — this is Dryden again — “relentless, almost palpable will.” I was going to lament the link to those ’70s Habs that was breaking, given what Molson told his Thursday press conference: “We felt that the direction of the club needed to change from a hockey standpoint.” Except that the man Molson has brought in as his new special adviser in the search for the next GM is Serge Savard. And who was the man not named Patrick Roy that Hockey Night in Canada was touting last night as a possible (if apparently unwilling) candidate for the job? Scotty Bowman. Jacques Lemaire’s name has been tossing in the media, too, and before it’s all over Dryden’s will at least to have been dismissed. Gilles Lupien, anyone? Rick Chartraw? Continue reading