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, 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.”

tip to toe

Drillmaster: Toe Blake died on a Wednesday of this date in 1995 at the age of 82. Though he started his career as an NHL left winger as a Maroon in Montreal, it was, of course, as a Canadien that he made his mark. He played parts of 13 seasons with that Montreal, seven of those as captain, while (mostly) skating alongside Elmer Lach and Maurice Richard on the famous Punch Line. After helping Maroons raise a Stanley Cup in 1935, he won two more playing with Canadiens. In the 13 seasons he subsequently spent coaching the latter, he steered the team to another eight Cups. To this day, no Montreal coach has coached or won more games than Blake, seen here in 1961 with three of his bleu-blanc-et-rouge stalwarts: from left, Bernie Geoffrion, Jean Béliveau, and Jacques Plante. (Image: Louis Jaques, Weekend Magazine / Library and Archives Canada / e002505697)

 

 

hockey night finale

He’ll be missed — oh, baby, will he. Bob Cole takes one last turn behind the play-by-play mic on Hockey Night In Canada: the inimitable 85-year-old Newfoundlander is hanging up his broadcasting booth after 50 years on the job. His final game goes tonight at Montreal’s Bell Centre when the Canadiens host the Toronto Maple Leafs. His first fell on a Thursday, April 24, 1969, when Montreal beat the hometown Boston Bruins 2-1 in double overtime. Jean Béliveau scored the winner (the only overtime goal of his career) to wrap-up the Stanley Cup semi-final in six games. If you’re in the mood for appreciations of Cole’s work, Sean McIndoe’s tribute at The Athletic from earlier this week is worth your time (you do have to be subscriber). Dave Stubbs has a good interview with the man himself, too, over here.

(Top image: CBC Sports)

all hat, four stanley cups

Today’s the day that Punch Imlach was born, on a Friday, in 1918, in a Toronto that was about to see the local professional team play for (and win) the Stanley Cup in the NHL’s first season. George was the name he was given that year; the nickname dates to the late 1930s, and seems (unfortunately) to have been concussion-based. Knocked out playing senior hockey for the Toronto Goodyears, Imlach is supposed to have revived and started swinging at teammates, who dubbed him “Punchy.” That was eventually trimmed as Imlach played on, never in the NHL, but notably with the QSHL Quebec Aces, with whom he would start his coaching career and oversee, in so doing, a young Jean Béliveau.

Imlach joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1958 as an assistant GM. In his first 11 seasons as Leaf coach, he steered the team to four Stanley Cups. Fired in 1969, he went to join the fledgling Buffalo Sabres as coach and GM. That’s the era from which this team-issued photo dates. “His dry acerbic wit is as much an Imlach characteristic,” the caption on the back explains, “as the intriguing hats he wears behind the players’ bench.” After a year-and-a-half’s tenure in Buffalo, he had another stint with the Leafs in the late 1970s, but it wasn’t pretty and — under Harold Ballard’s erratic stewardship — didn’t last. His 370 regular-season coaching wins remains a franchise record for the Leafs; he won 44 more in the playoffs, second in team history to Hap Day’s 49. Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1984, Punch Imlach died at the age of 69 in 1987.

plante kingdom

Out In Front: A Bruin, with intent to backhand, makes his move in front of Jacques Plante’s net. Snapped at the Montreal Forum, this photograph by Hy Peskin has the luminous quality of a painting by Tex Coulter or Tony Harris. It dates, probably, to late 1955. Studying the schedule from that fall, I see that the Bruins were in Montreal towards the end of November. Boston was languishing fifth in the standings at that time, while Montreal cruised at a first-place altitude. When Doug Mohns opened the scoring for the visitors that night, press reports tell that it was with a 20-foot backhander — could this be the moment just before that? Canadiens roared back via Jean Béliveau, who added two goals to his league-leading statistics, and Maurice Richard. Terry Sawchuk was the Boston goaltender who tried to foil them, in vain.

the thurso kid

Le Démon Blond: “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 the Bruins’ Mike Milbury and … but no. Whatever he did or didn’t do back then, on Lafleur’s birthday, let’s stick with the superlatives. “Quick, decisive, confident,” is what teammate Ken Dryden wrote of Thurso, Quebec’s own Flower, who turns now 67; “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)