It was 25 years ago, on a Monday of this date in 1996, that Montreal’s Canadiens took a final turn on the ice of the famous Forum. They beat the Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1, for the record, though the game itself was truly the undercard for the pre- and post-game ceremonies by which Canadiens bade farewell to the arena that was their home for 72 years and some 3,500 games. A crowd of former Canadiens was on hand that night, including 20 Hall-of-Famers. Guy Lafleur and Jean Béliveau were on hand for the game’s ceremonial opening face-off, and when Maurice Richard joined them at centre ice, the crowd stood and cheered for ten glorious minutes.
I was there that night, high up at the north end, Section 601, with the overflow press, near where they used to keep the ghosts. I won’t say that I was there under false pretenses, though it’s true that I may have stretched those same pretenses to accommodate my powerful need to witness and distill the history unfolding … I mean, Émile Bouchard was out there on the ice, for Gump Worsley’s sake — and of course Gump was there, too. Both Butches Bouchard, in fact, father and son!! Mahovliches, major and minor! Lach and Reardon and Moore, Henri Richard, Savard and Lapointe, Ferguson, Shutt, Dryden, Cournoyer! It was unbelievable.
I was freelancing for The Financial Post in those years, reporting for the paper’s arts section from several non-fiscal sectors — that is, I wrote book and movie reviews, travel features. The Post didn’t need me covering a hockey game, even a historic one, but I was able to convince my editor that the auction on the day after that Forum finale was enough of a business story to demand my presence. The Canadiens didn’t mind accommodating me — or if they did, they didn’t mention it. (The feature I filed is here.)
Ezra Soiferman was at the Forum that night, too, and he was toiling harder than I was. It may be that we passed one another in the halls as the old arena’s time as the home of the Habs expired; it’s possible. A Montreal filmmaker and photographer, he attended the game as a guest of Forum anthem-singer André Ouellet.
Soiferman took some 250 images as he wandered the arena that night. It wasn’t until 2016 that he collected some of them into a book, which he published privately to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Canadiens’ departure for the Molson (now Bell) Centre. Other than the cover image, below, and a photo of a Guy Lafleur greeting Ouellet, there’s nary a hockey player in it: this particular album is filled with last glimpses of fans and ushers, custodians and purveyors of chiens chauds, security guards, corridors, stairwells, seats, doorways, escalators, grey girders, and — yes — urinals. It’s an odd, honest, altogether charming chronicle of a venerable old arena on one night at the end of an era.
The building was in a bedlam the moment the red light flashed. The crowd stood up, clapping hands and roaring acclaim. Programs were showered don on the ice. The Rocket’s teammates on the bench dropped sticks and gloves and stood up an applauded. The organ played “Il A Gagne Ses Epaulettes.” The Rocket himself leaped high in the air and landed on Jean Béliveau, who had fed him the pass that set up the goal.
* Dink Carroll, The Gazette, October 21, 1957
It was on a Saturday of this date in 1957 that Maurice Richard became the first player in NHL history to score 500 goals. The Chicago Black Hawks were in at the Montreal Forum that night, and the rink was packed with 14, 405 fans, as the biggest — and most expectant — crowd of the young season awaited the Rocket’s record-breaking goal.
Fifteen minutes and 52 seconds into the first period was when Dickie Moore passed to Béliveau’s at the side of the Chicago net and he found Richard in the slot, about 15 feet out. The Rocket beat Chicago goaltender Glenn Hall with a slapshot; Carroll said it whizzed. Once the bedlam subsided, Montreal went on to beat Chicago 3-1.
“That mark of 500 threatens to stand up as long as the Babe’s record of 60 home runs in a single season,” Carroll would venture in his Gazettedispatch. Ruth’s monument was, by then, 30 years old, and had another four years to run before Roger Maris got around to hitting his 61. Carroll was just a little off: Gordie Howe scored his 500th NHL in March of 1962, just over six months after Maris did his record-breaking deed.
Still, Richard was first, and for that — and because he was the Rocket, and this was Montreal — one of his rewards was to be immortalized in wax. This was later, 1965, when Tussaud’s Ville Marie Wax Museum opened at the downtown corner of Ste. Catherine West and Drummond, 12 blocks or so from the Forum. Glenn Hall was rewarded, too, as a supporting actor, though for him it may have felt more like penance, all the more so if he ever saw the display, above, as it would later appear to paying customers.
Richard himself dropped by the Museum before it opened to check himself out. He’d donated the uniform and skates his doppelganger; I don’t know where Hall’s gear came from. Fashioned in London from photographs by Josephine Tussaud, a descendant of the original Madame, waxy Richard got some final adjustments before meeting the public. Joining him and Hall in the museum were scenes featuring an array of the faux and famous, including Abraham Lincoln (at his assassination), Jesus (partaking of the Last Supper), Joan of Arc (at the stake), and Brigitte Bardot (just out of the shower).
“The class of hockey,” winger Wayne Cashman of the Boston Bruins called Montreal’s Guy Lafleur in the late 1970s, when the two teams weren’t exactly kindred spirits. “Guy Lafleur is Guy Lafleur,” added Bruins’ coach Don Cherry, around that same time: “the greatest hockey player in the world today, bar none.” Anything to add, other Bruins’ winger John Wensink? “Guy Lafleur better have eyes in the back of his head, because I’m going to cut his ears off,” Wensink offered after a particularly spiteful encounter between the two teams in the playoffs for the 1977 Stanley Cup. Lafleur was supposed to have aimed a slapshot at Bruins’ defenceman Mike Milbury, causing Boston goalie Gerry Cheevers to chase after him and … but no. Whatever he did or didn’t do back then, today is Lafleur’s birthday, so let’s stick with the superlatives. “Quick, decisive, confident,” is what teammate Ken Dryden wrote of Thurso, Quebec’s own Flower, who’s turning 69 today; “ever threatening, his jersey rippling, his hair streaming back the way no one else’s hair did.” That’s Lafleur’s statue above, photographed one November evening out where it guards the approaches to Montreal’s Bell Centre, on permanent duty with his fellow tricolore titans, Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, and Jean Béliveau.
(Image: Stephen Smith)
Buddy O’Connor was 25 when he finally made his NHL debut with the Canadiens, in November of 1941.
By then, he’d been starring for years with the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior League, and indeed on the night he premiered in the NHL in a game against Boston at the Forum, the rookies he was centering were his old Royals linemates, Pete Morin and Gerry Heffernan. The home team lost on the night, 3-1, to the defending Stanley Cup champions, but local hopes were boosted by the promise of O’Connor, who scored Montreal’s lone goal, and his mates. “The smart young forward line” rated a column unto itself in the Montreal Gazette in the days that followed, where it was noted that they’d been previously been known as the Royals’ Razzle-Dazzle Line, and wherein O’Connor explained how he liked to drive straight for opposing defencemen, rather than detour around them. “I try to go where the other defence is and any of their other players happen to be simply to keep ’em bunched,” he told Marc McNeil that night, “and leave Gerry and Pete free. Sometimes when I’m down there first I can keep the defence so busy watching me that they won’t notice the others, but I always know Pete and Gerry will be along presently to pick up any pass I can get out there. So I just do it by habit; I can depend upon my linemates. That’s all there is to it.”
McNeil also took down the jocular rebuke O’Connor got from Morin after he’d said his piece: “You shouldn’t have done it, Bud, giving away all our secrets. All these NHL clubs will get wised up to us right away, and we’ll be no good at all.”
Morin played just a single season with Canadiens before joining the RCAF’s war effort, while Heffernan stuck around for parts of three: in his last campaign, 1943-44, he scored 28 goals and 48 points, finishing up just six points shy of teammates O’Connor and Maurice Richard on the Montreal scoring rolls.
Born in Montreal on a Wednesday of this date in 1916, Buddy O’Connor lasted longer in the NHL than his linemates, and proved himself to be a consistent scorer in his six years with Canadiens. He helped the team win Stanley Cups in 1944 and 1946.
But it was after a 1947 trade took him to the New York Rangers that O’Connor truly flourished. In 1947-48, at the age of 31, O’Connor not only finished second in NHL scoring behind his old Montreal teammate Elmer Lach, but won both the Hart Trophy (as league MVP) and the Lady Byng (for high + gentlemanly achievement). Throughout his career, he was as rule-abiding as NHL players come, accumulating just 34 total minutes of punishment over the course of his 509 career regular-season games. He played two entire seasons without taking a single penalty, and in three more took just one in each. The season he got the Byng, edging out Toronto’s Syl Apps, O’Connor ran relatively amok, amassing eight whole minutes in 60 games.
O’Connor played three more years with the Rangers after that high-tide season. He served as team captain in 1949-50, just for a year, before he was succeeded by defenceman Frank Eddolls — replaced, one report had it, “because he wasn’t a holler guy.”
O’Connor died at the age of 61 in 1977, so his call to hockey’s Hall of Fame came posthumously. That was in 1988, when the Hall introduced what it called a Veterans Category, to see that players who’d been out of the game for more than 25 years weren’t entirely forgotten. O’Connor was the first be so recognized, and he ascended to hockey’s Pantheon in distinguished company, alongside Guy Lafleur, Brad Park, and Tony Esposito.
Ten other players would eventually be inducted as Veterans, including both Lionel and Roy Conacher, Harry Watson, and Clint Smith, before the Hall saw fit to nix the classification in 2000. “The board believes the category fully served its useful purpose and should now be eliminated,” Hall chairman Bill Hay said at the time. “It only makes sense to merge the veteran player category with the Player Category, since the player attributes criteria of the two categories are identical.”
In the new streamlined regime, a maximum of four players could be inducted each year. The current set-up, which we’ll see in action later this week, makes provision for a maximum of five men to be inducted as Players along with two women.
Is it time for the Hall to think about resurrecting the Veterans Category? The whole process of deciding who might be worthy of a place among the anointed is, has been, and ever more will be a vexed one, but it is true that there are deserving players from hockey’s remoter past — Claude Provost, for instance, Lorne Chabot, or John Ross Roach — who seem to be at an annual disadvantage merely because their careers ended long ago. To keep on forgetting them, and others, looks careless for an institution that’s supposed to be devoted to remembering the game’s best.
Rick MacLeish was the first Philadelphia Flyer to score 50 goals, a feat he achieved in 1972-73, when he was 22, and finished the season with 100 points, good enough for fourth in NHL scoring. The following year, when the Flyers won the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups, MacLeish led the league in playoff scoring.
A master of the wrist shot is a phrase you’ll see, occasionally, when you cast back to those days by way of old newspapers, which sometimes also reference his stylish finesse and magic wrists. They mention him, circa 1978, as the best pure skater on the club and the only man with a possible chance to win a skate-off down the ice with a streaking Montreal Canadien like Guy Lafleur. MacLeish, they now and then assert, looks like Edgar Allan Poe reincarnated and shares the American short story writer’s grim demeanor. “He is quiet and keeps to himself,” they’ve been know to suggest, “letting others do the talking while he dresses quickly and hurries home.”
“Rick displays so little emotion that his expression hardly ever changes.” That was Bobby Clarke, the Philadelphia captain, in ’78. “That and his easy skating style can give people the impression that Rick’s not putting out. Sometimes even we get on him about it in practice. But if you look at his statistics, particularly in the big games, you’ll know just how important Rick is to the club.”
MacLeish, who died on a Monday of this date in 2016 at the age of 66, was born and raised in Cannington, in middle Ontario, north of Sonya, east of Brock, not far from Lake Simcoe. The rink there, on Elliot Street, is named after him. He played 12 seasons with the Flyers in all, and turned out, too, briefly, for Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Detroit.
On the origins of his shot, he had this to say, in 1980: “There was a bridge over a little stream not far from our place and I used to go down there and fire pucks at the cement for hours. I used to play games with myself. You know, draw circles on the wall and try to see how many out of ten I could get in the circle. I got pretty good at it.”
“Henri Richard, the Pocket Rocket, doesn’t want to be a little gale in the wake of a rumbling hurricane. He wants to swirl through the National Hockey League under his own power, creating his own storms, if any, and reaping the respect of his rivals strictly on his own merits.”
That was the opening to a Vince Lunny cover story for Hockey Pictorial in March of 1956, towards the end of the younger Richard’s rookie season in the NHL. It didn’t take long, of course, for Henri, who died on Friday at the age of 84, to skate up a storm of his very own alongside Maurice, 14 years his elder. It was only two years later that Milt Dunnell took to Hockey Pictorial’s columns with Maurice’s take on how Henri was faring in the league. “The Rocket gives the opinion faster than he breaks over a blueline,” Dunnell wrote in April of 1958: ‘Henri is a better skater than I ever was. He’s a better stickhandler, he’s a better puck-carrier. Henri is a better hockey player.”
Rocket’s view wasn’t, perhaps, universal at the time — Canadiens’ coach Toe Blake, for one, wasn’t yet willing to declare Henri supreme among Richards. All these years later, the question of which brother was the more valuable player might well still start a debate that wouldn’t necessarily finish. What we do know is that Henri played 20 seasons with Montreal, amassing 1,175 points in 1,436 games, regular season and playoffs, winning an unmatched 11 Stanley Cups along the way. He captained the Canadiens from 1971 through to his retirement in 1975. The team retired his number, 16, that year; he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.
It’s true that Henri’s literary legacy doesn’t measure up to Maurice’s. A quick check of the bookshelf tells the tale: the elder Richard’s life and riotous times have been the focus of at least 12 books over the years, from Gerry Gosselin’s Monsieur Hockey (1950) to Jean-Marie Pellerin’s Maurice Richard: L’Idole d’un Peuple (1998) to The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard (2009) by Benoît Melançon. No-one (to date) has published Henri’s biography or devoted a volume to his place in hockey or Quebec history.
That’s not to say the younger Richard doesn’t figure in more general histories of the game. Stan Fischler’s 1971 Hab history The Flying Frenchmen, for instance, delves into the brothers’ relationship during Henri’s early days in the NHL and offers up this telling anecdote:
The Canadiens were in the midst of a workout when Henri rounded the net at full speed from one side and Maurice approached on the same track from the other direction. They collided violently and both fell to the ice unconscious. When they were finally revived, both were escorted to the first-aid room where Maurice needed 12 stitches to close his wound and his kid brother, six stitches.
Then, in a masterful understatement, Maurice intoned: “You’d better watch yourself. Henri. You might get hurt.”
Henri rates a chapter in Michael Ulmer’s Canadiens Captains (1996). And he’s a voice throughout Dick Irvin the Younger’s 1991 oral history, The Habs. That’s where you’ll find Henri doing his best to explain his infamous 1971 outburst wherein he called Al MacNeil the worst coach he’d ever played for:
“I didn’t really mean it, but it came out because I was mad. Al was a good guy. But I was just mad, and they made a lot of things about that in all the papers. Even Guy Lafleur, in his book. He said I said to MacNeil that he shouldn’t coach the Canadiens because he didn’t speak French, and all that shit. I never said that in my life.”
Trent Frayne’s Henri essay in his 1968 anthology of hockey profiles, It’s Easy, All You Have To Do is Win is worth seeking out. While you’re arranging that, maybe settle in with the inimitable Frayne’s 1958 Maclean’s Henri profile, which is archived here.
So far as odes and obituaries published in the days since Henri’s death, recommended readings would start with this piece by Dave Stubbs at NHL.com, which includes reflections from Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer.
If you missed Friday’s broadcast of CBC Radio’s As It Happens, you can download the March 6 podcast here (and should) to listen to Carol Off’s conversation with Henri’s Canadiens teammate Ken Dryden. It gets going at the 37.40 mark.
On Saturday night, Hockey Night in Canada opened with Ron MacLean’s conversation with Dick Irvin, which includes his thoughts on the origins of the nickname Pocket Rocket. There’s tape of that here, and worth your attention, if you didn’t catch it on the night.
One more? That would be Michael Farber’s Richard tribute at TSN, which you can find over this way.
(Top image: John Taylor, about 1960, silver salts on film, gelatin silver process, MP-1999.5.5032.4, © McCord Museum)
If it’s odes you’re seeking on Bob Gainey’s birthday, we’ve got those here and here. As Peterborough, Ontario’s own Hall-of-Fame right winger turns 65, maybe a short disquisition on how he exemplifies our hometown’s (his and mine) hard-working decency? This way.
In 1979, famously, the great Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov rated Gainey “the best player in the world in the technical skills of the game.” When Michael Farber, then of Montreal’s Gazette, asked Gainey about this and more the following year, he got (by no surprise) thoughtful answers. “No way am I the best player in the world when you look at talent and pure ability and finesse,” Gainey said. “The one thing about hockey is that the goal of the game is goals, and I don’t score that many. But the other thing about hockey is that it’s a team sport, and if you make the team better, if you make it a more viable thing, then you also are performing an important role. People say, Bob Gainey, he’s so unselfish. Well, maybe that’s partially true, but I also know that by being unselfish, I’m personally gaining more as a member of a team. Only inside a team could I have gained so much.”
Through the 1970s, this team, it’s worth recalling, counted on Ken Dryden in goal, and featured Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe, and Serge Savard on defence. Up front: Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Dougs Jarvis and Risebrough. Montreal had won four successive Stanley Cups at the time of Farber’s writing, and Gainey was the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP.
“How valuable is Gainey?” Farber asked. “Consider him and Lafleur (which most pop sociologists do like so: Lafleur and his élan represent the French-Canadian; Gainey and his no-nonsense over-achieving, the English-Canadian. Incidentally, lunch with Lafleur includes a $15 bottle of wine; lunch with Gainey comes with two draft beers.) In games without Lafleur during the past two seasons, the Canadiens are 9-3-2. Without Gainey, the Canadiens are 6-5-5.”
At 26, in his sixth NHL campaign, Gainey had had his first 20-goal season the previous year, 1978-79. Compared to Lafleur or Shutt, it’s true, he didn’t score that many, though he would reach the 20-goal mark again in three of his remaining nine seasons with Montreal. Talking to Farber, he said, “It’s like writing a letter. Some nights, the hand flows freely, other days, it’s just scratches and scrawls. I’m not a good offensive player. I don’t have good timing. I’m not one of the guys who usually ends up at the right spot, or who can knock the puck down in the air with a stick.”
Steve Shutt, one of those guys: “Of course you like to have a guy who scores 50 goals a year, but you want to have a guy who stops 50 goals a year. Bob does that. There are a lot of defensive forwards in the league, but he is the only one who controls a game.”
No more will Canadiens play in Montreal this season: it’s all over there for another year. The team does have one last road game, in Toronto on Saturday, but at the Bell Centre, it’s all over, now, but the raw, animal moaning.
Amid the disappointment of a inferior year, the team did find some achievement to celebrate this week, and there was silverware to go with. Brendan Gallagher was named winner of this year’s Molson Cup, team’s de facto Player of the Year award, as measured by three-star selections.
Paul Byron got the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy, by which local media celebrate a player whose exploits have gone otherwise unsung — or, as the team phrases it, the member of the team who played a dominant role during the regular season without earning any particular honour.
The Molson dates back to 1973, when Ken Dryden won it. Since then, it’s been awarded to many likely achievers (Guy Lafleur and Carey Price, seven times each one) along with some others who qualify as lesser lights — Wayne Thomas, Steve Penney, Cristobal Huet.
Named for the venerable newspaperman who worked his words in both Montreal-Matinand Le Journal de Montreal, the Beauchamp was established in the 1981-82 season, when Doug Jarvis was the inaugural winner. Others who followed him have included the quietly contributing likes of Craig Ludwig, Lyle Odelein, Jan Bulis, and Steve Begin.
Further back in Canadiens history? The Montreal branch of Mappin and Webb, jewelers and silversmiths, does seem to have donated trophies on the Molson model in the 1920s with a notion of recognizing local excellence. Details are sketchy, but the lost, lamented Maroons seem have embraced this more than Canadiens. Babe Siebert won the Maroons’ Mappin and Webb Trophy as team MVP in 1928, while Jimmy Ward was the man for the Maroons in 1931.
The only instance of Canadiens awarding a Mappin and Webb Trophy that I can trace is at the end of the 1927-28 season. Ahead of their last regular-season game at the Forum, before they went out and whupped Ottawa 4-0, Canadiens paraded the year’s haul of hardware — and pets.
NHL President Frank Calder handed over the O’Brien Cup, still the prize in those years for the NHL team finishing first overall. As the league’s top goaltender, George Hainsworth collected his second consecutive Vézina Memorial Trophy. In reporting that Howie Morenz got the Mappin and Webb, the Gazette noted that it specifically recognized his MVPlaying during the team’s homegames.
Also, that the crowd at the Forum was pleased to see Morenz acknowledged, giving him “a stirring ovation.” La Patrie: “une immense acclamation salua ce geste.”
The fans had further tributes to offer. In those earliest NHL decades, the die-hardest of the Canadiens’ faithful occupied the 50-cent seats in the upper gallery of the Forum’s north-end. They were, largely, French-speaking and working-class, and they proudly identified as the Millionaires.
Apart from devotedly hailing their heroes, these fans often rewarded the Montreal players, as they did on this night in 1928. George Hainsworth was the pre-game recipient of four-leaf clover, described in the papers as both “massive” and “metallic.”
Better yet was what the fans had in store for Morenz’s linemate Aurèle Joliat.
He, delightfully, was presented with a black cat, on a string. The Gazettereported that giftand giftee “immediately got into a scratching battle.” La Patrie said nothing of that, describing the cat (in translation) as “big” with“nice, smooth fur,” an altogether “beautiful beast.” Also: “Joliat, a little surprised at the gift at first, accepted it with good humor and offered to take good care of it.”
I’d be glad to know (a) the cat’s name, as well as (b) what became of it and (c) did anyone think that making such a fuss over a black cat boded ill for the team’s playoffs run? Please get in touch if you have leads. I can confirm that while Canadiens did pass on a bye to the semi-finals, they were eliminated there in two games by the Maroons, who in turn failed to beat the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals.
One last stop on a tour of in-house recognitions of old might take us to October of 1942. Canadiens had gone 11 years without a championship at that point, and would be waiting another two seasons before they found themselves raising the Cup again. Still, Dick Irvin’s players were apparently feeling loose and confident enough as their pre-season wound down to take a poll among themselves to predict at least some of what was to come in the campaign ahead.
This was, I think, an enterprise cooked up by a newspaperman (Dink Carroll, possibly) from the Gazette, where the results were published. The consensus among the players was that they’d finish the season with 56 points. Most of them, 10, thought that this would be good enough for third place in the six-team NHL, while four predicted they’d finish second. Just one was bold enough to say they’d come in first. (As it turned out, Canadiens finished the 50-game schedule with 50 points, good enough for fourth place and the last playoff spot.)
Individually, 11 of 15 players voted that goaltender Paul Bibeault would be the team’s outstanding player. (Winger Joe Benoit, with two, came second.) Bibeault did end up playing in all 50 games, finishing with a record of 19-19-12, which was good enough (I guess), though among his NHL peers, the only statistical categories he led at season’s end were the ones headed Most Losses(he tied with Toronto’s Turk Broda) and Goals Against.
Also in their pre-season poll, the players decided that Gordie Drillon, newly acquired from the Leafs, would lead the team in goals, with 23, followed by Benoit (22) and captain Toe Blake (21). (In fact, Benoit got 30, Drillon 28, and Blake 23.)
The players voted Jack Portland and Elmer Lach as the fastest skaters among them. Benoit was deemed best stickhandler, while Buddy O’Connor was the best puck-carrier. Rating penalty-killers, they couldn’t decide between Charlie Sands and Ray Getliffe, pictured here. They each collected seven votes.
“Eric Lindros To Be Immortalized By Flyers On Thursday” might be, but isn’t, a headline on a story filed yesterday by The Philadelphia Inquirer’s cryonics bureau; in fact, what they want you to know is that the local hockey team will tonight be retiring the number 88 that the 44-year-old former centreman wore when he led the Flyers for eight seasons in the 1990s. “He was probably the most dominant player during his time in the NHL,” said an old teammate, Rod Brind’Amour, when Lindros was elevated, and properly so, into the Hockey Hall of Fame last fall. Back in 1997 at this time, when Saturday Night put Lindros’ gaze on the cover, you might have had your doubts that it would ever come to this. Brian Hutchinson, who profiled Lindros in the magazine’s pages, seems to have been all doubt, all the scathing way through. Lindros was 23, then. It was a year-and-a-half since he’d won a Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, six months since he’d notched 47 goals and 115 points, wrapping up what would end up being the most bountiful scoring season of his 13-year NHL career. Hutchinson’s profile isn’t what you’d call kindly, wandering through the whole sorry history of the Lindros’ refusal to report to the Quebec Nordiques and on into the story of all the Stanley Cups he’d failed to win as captain of the Flyers. “He has come close to fulfilling his destiny,” Hutchinson writes in the course of detailing the injuries and immaturities, the failures of Flyers management that had kept Lindros from it. “He may be the most well-rounded, physically imposing player in hockey history,” he writes. “Surprisingly quick for his size, with a tremendous reach that lets him gobble up loose pucks, he also, according to Flyers goalie Ron Hextall, has one of the hardest shots in hockey, a snap shot that comes out of nowhere, untelegraphed and accurate. But he’s no innovator. Unlike Orr and Gretzky, he doesn’t change the way the game is played, nor does he have a singular talent — like Mario Lemieux’s stickhandling or Guy Lafleur’s skating — that sets him apart.” Ouch.
On Bob Gainey’s birthday — Peterborough, Ontario’s own five-time-Stanley-Cup-winning former-Habs-captaining Hall-of-Famer turns 64 today — a few fond fêteful notes.
A cornerstone, Stu Hackel dubbed him when, earlier this year, Gainey was named to the NHL’s pantheon of 100 Greatest Players. Hackel’s citation quoted a Montreal teammate from those dominant Canadiens teams of the 1970s, Serge Savard: “I can’t think of anyone on our team,” Savard said, “who means more to us than Gainey.”
The NHL didn’t, of course, get into ranking its superlatives, but if you’re looking for something in that line, I refer you to a book published earlier this fall by the hockey cognoscenti at Le Journal de Montreal. Not so surprisingly, Les 100 meilleurs joueurs du Canadien goes with a top three of Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau, and Guy Lafleur. Gainey gets in at number 22 — three slots back of Carey Price, but just ahead of Andrei Markov, Toe Blake, and Georges Vézina. If that fails to satisfy, you may be better to settle down with Red Fisher’s 2005 Canadiens top ten, whereon Gainey is lodged at number eight. (Béliveau, just for the record, comes ahead of Richard in Fisher’s thinking, with Lafleur holding at third.)
“That No. 23 for the Montreal team, Mr. Gainey, is the best player in the world in the technical skills of the game.” That was Soviet maestro Viktor Tikhonov rating Gainey during the 1979 Stanley Cup finals, which Gainey dominated. You’ll see it sliced up, this opinion, edited down to leave out the final phrase and make it absolute. Not necessary — it’s high enough praise in the original translation. Still, you can understand how, especially in Montreal in those glory days, the temptation to upgrade. “May be one of the most technically perfect hockey players who ever lived,” Gazette columnist Tim Burke was writing the morning after Canadiens beat the Rangers to hoist the Stanley Cup.
Gainey won the Conn Smythe Trophy that spring as playoff MVP. To go with the NHL silverware, Sport magazine gave him a 1980 Silver Anniversary Jeep CJ5, too. That’s maybe worth a mention.
Would we consider here, too, just how much of the literature detailing Gainey’s hockey brilliance finds a way, even if only gently, to scuff at his reputation? That sounds a little defensive, probably, but then what could be more appropriate while we’re talking about the man who won the first four Frank J. Selke trophies?
“A down-to-earth product” of Peterborough, a New York columnist by the name of Elliot Denman called him after those ’79 finals in a column that actually quoted Gainey as saying “Aw, shucks.” On behalf of those of us who, like Gainey, are born-and-bred Peterbruvians, I’m going to turn the other cheek for all of us on Denman’s drive-by dis of our little city, which happens to have been (not making this up) the first municipality in Canada to install streetlights. Gainey, Denman supposed, “much prefers the 75-watt lighting of his hometown to the bright neons of Montreal and New York.”
Then again, Gainey did say himself that if he were a GM (as he later would be, once his playing days were ended), he’d get rid of himself. “I’d trade myself for a Larry Robinson or a Ken Dryden. Defencemen and goalies are crucial.”
Still, it’s not as if the archives lack for Gainey acclaim. Back to that.
Ken Dryden goes on Gaineying for pages in The Game (1983). To his “basic, unalterable qualities — dependability, discipline, hard work, courage,” Gainey added an “insistent passion, an enormous will to win, and a powerful, punishing playing style, secure and manly, without the strut of machismo.”
“If I could be a forward,” wrote Dryden, “I would want to be Bob Gainey.”
Heading out of the tempestuous ’70s into a whole new hockey decade, Gazette sports editor Al Strachan saw him as a symbol and standard-bearer for entire continents and generations to come.
“Nobody in the world,” Strachan wrote, “better exemplifies the true North American style of hockey than Gainey.”
He is a superb skater and an excellent defensive player. But unlike the European players, he also plays a rugged, bone-crunching game. He pounds the opponents into the boards, blasts them off the puck, and makes them pay the price for dipsy-doodling in their own zone.
Yet no one plays a cleaner game than Gainey. … Nothing could be better for hockey than to have the junior ranks start emulating the Bob Gaineys of this world than the Dave Hutchisons.
Rick Salutin writing about Gainey is worth your while, finally. “Gainey works,” he wrote in a 1980 magazine profile of our hero. “Hard.”
He tears up the ice, his legs pumping and thrusting, his face contorted with effort and determination. He is the very opposite of his teammate Guy Lafleur. Lafleur skates lightly, with a Gallic flair that appears effortless: he whirls and corners like one of those toy tightrope walkers you can’t knock off balance. Gainey is what you would expect to get if you turned Lafleur inside out. In fact, Ken Dryden calls Gainey “the Guy Lafleur of defensive forwards.” Lafleur fulfils our every stereotype of French-Canadian finesse, while Gainey does the same for our notions of the earnest, achieving English-Canadian.
It gets better. “What is the Gainey style?” Salutin goes on to wonder.
In a stage play I wrote several years ago called Les Canadiens, a defensive forward steps onto the ice/stage to try to contain a rampaging goal scorer in the Morenz-Richard-Lafleur tradition. The character says, to his teammates or the audience:
It’s okay. I got ’im. Good thing I backcheck. It’s not the glamour job, but somebody’s gotta do it. Maybe it’s because Mom always said the other kids were pretty or smart but I was so “responsible.” I’m there when there’s hard slugging to do …
This speech was inspired by Gainey’s play, but it is really too stodgy for Gainey. For, despite his defensive role, he is an exciting player.”
Later in the profile, Salutin adds a perfect parenthetic coda:
(Gainey saw Les Canadiens, by the way, and pronounced it “luke,” as in lukewarm; two nights later, at a performance of his own at the Forum, he had one of his two-goal nights in a kind of rebuttal to the onstage caricature.)