the lowdown

Now I Lay Me Down: Born in Chambly in on a Wednesday of today’s date, Denis Herron is 70 today: salutations to him. Here he’s stretched out for puck-stopping purposes at Montreal’s Forum in December of 1981 in a game against the Quebec Nordiques. Herron was in his third and final year with the Canadiens that year, winning the William M. Jennings with teammate Rick Wamsley. (The previous year he’d shared a Vézina Trophy with Richard Sévigny and Michel Larocque.) In September of 1982, Montreal traded Herron back to Pittsburgh, the team from whence he’d come to the Canadiens in 1979. All in all, Herron played 14 NHL seasons, including a stretch with the Kansas City Scouts, before finishing his major-league days as a Penguin in 1985. (Image: Fonds La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

as de québec

On the Saturday that the Quebec Nordiques originally drafted Guy Lafleur, Thurso’s own 21-year-old Turbo scored the 22nd goal of his rookie season, the winning one in a 6-5 Montreal Canadiens victory over the Los Angeles Kings. The Nordiques were only dreaming, of course, that day in February of 1972, when 12 teams from the upstart WHA laid wishful claim to more than 1000 players from other leagues in North America and around the world. The Los Angeles Sharks took Montreal’s Ken Dryden while the team from Ohio, the Dayton Aeros, tabbed Bobby Orr. Along with Lafleur, the Nordiques’ fantasy team included his Canadiens’ teammates Jacques Lemaire and Pierre Bouchard, along with Toronto’s Paul Henderson.

By the time Lafleur did finally join the Nordiques, signing as a free agent in the summer of 1989, he was 37 and Quebec had migrated to the NHL. Having unretired the previous year to play for the New York Rangers, Lafleur turned down a lucrative offer from the Los Angeles Kings in favour of Quebec, where he’d played for the QJHML Remparts in his pre-NHL days, from 1969 through 1971.

Lafleur played two seasons for the Nordiques before he stowed his skates for a second time in 1991, playing against the Canadiens on ten occasions, registering two goals and three assists. The photograph here dates to Saturday, January 5, 1991, when Patrick Roy shut out Quebec 3-0 as Montreal got goals from Stephan Lebeau, Stephane Richer, and Russ Courtnall.

(Top image: Bernard Brault, La Presse, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

rush hour

Gare du Nords: Quebec Nordiques goaltender Richard Brodeur fends off a pair of Calgary Cowboys in WHA action from the 1975-76 season. Number four is defenceman Chris Evans. His teammate, passing the far post? Harder to identify: Danny Lawson, maybe, or Butch Deadmarsh? Calgary dispatched Quebec in the first round of the playoffs that year, but then fell in the second to the eventual Avco Trophy champions, the Winnipeg Jets.

maurice richard vous parle

Maurice Richard

Rocket To Pocket: Maurice Richard, in his basement, circa … the late 1960s, or early ’70s? Looking on are sons Jean and Paul. (Image: Antoine Desilets, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)

Is Rocket restless?

Vern DeGeer of the Montreal Gazette was someone who was wondering that in 1965; Maurice Richard himself seems to have been another.

He was 43 that year; he’d been retired from the glare and the glory of NHL ice for five years by then. He’d been a force to behold as a right winger for the Canadiens, a phenomenon unto himself, and he was working for the team still … as an assistant to president J. Davidson Molson, out and about as a team ambassador and sports-supper speechmaker, in the business now of gladhanding fans rather than goalscoring.

“When I retired five years ago,” Richard told DeGeer, “I was all wound up inside. I wanted to get away from it all. I seemed to be all worn out mentally and physically. The pressure had been great. I’d been going at top speed for 18 seasons. That’s a long time.”

Had the pressure let off since he’d stowed his skates? Not so much.

“Now I seem to be building new tensions,” Richard said. “I’ve found the calls for public appearances, travelling all across the country, even tougher than playing. The same old questions have to be answered, the same routines.

Would he coach? Maybe. “I haven’t given it much thought until now, but I think I might consider trying my hand as a coach,” said Richard. “I’m not sure. I’ve never had any offers. If they did come, I’d feel more like considering them than I did when I quit in 1960.”

I don’t know if the offers were extended in ’65, or in the years that followed; the Rocket never did, we know, end up coaching in the NHL. He took a brief turn behind the bench when the Quebec Nordiques launched with the WHA in 1972 — only to resign after just two games due to what the newspapers called “severe nervous strain.”

It wasn’t long after that exchange with Vern DeGeer that Richard quit his job with the Canadiens. This time, he announced his departure in the column he wrote for Dimanche-Matin, “Maurice Richard Vous Parle.”

It wasn’t, let’s say, a fond farewell.

“The title of vice-president or assistant to the president — take your choice — was never more than honorary,” he wrote. “I never had time to do it justice, though I would so much have liked to contribute constructively to the cause of the Canadiens. But I was never more than a good-will ambassador.”

As vice-president, he said, “I was never invited to a meeting behind closed doors, never asked for an opinion on anything whatsoever. I kept pace with the news the same way you did, by reading the sports pages.”

The image above comes undated. Could be … late ’60s, early ’70s, maybe? It was taken in the basement of the Richard family home, on Péloquin Avenue in north-end Montreal. The spectators in the background are (I’m pretty sure) Richard’s sons Jean and Paul.

I’ve been visiting the house by way of a couple of old magazine features and so can offer some more basement views. First up is June Callwood, writing for Maclean’s in May of 1959, when Richard was still in the NHL. His wife Lucille figures prominently in this piece, as does the couple’s domestic set-up in their “thirteen-room stone house.”

There were six Richard children at this point: Jean was still to come. “Their living-room windows overlook a strip of park,” Callwood wrote, “beyond which is the river where in summer the Richard boat is in constant use. towing the older children or their father on water skis.”

Indoors, Callwood found the house to be “warm, sparkling clean and bright with sunlight” — and teeming with the spoils of superstardom:

Lucille has stored literally dozens of cups, statues and plaques in a glass-doored case in the recreation room, along with boxes of pucks — all identical in appearance — labeled to indicate that this one won a Stanley Cup playoff game and that one broke a scoring record. The scrapbook situation is almost out of hand and so is the number of paintings of Maurice that fans have made from photographs and sent to him. Several are hung in the living room, others in the recreation room. One, a real trial, is over six feet high and leans against a basement wall.

Many gifts have been of great value, among them a colour television set, a freezer, a stove, a marble-statue floor lamp and four refrigerators. Lucille dispersed the abundance of refrigerators by putting the biggest one in the kitchen, another in the bar in the recreation room and two others in the back entrance vestibule. One of these is packed to the doors with beer, a reflection of an affiliation Maurice has with Dow Breweries, rather than of his drinking habits, which are only a notch above teetotaling.

Callwood found Mrs. Richard gracious and charming. Her first impression of the Rocket: “A thickbodied, not tall, man, Richard normally has an expression of remote sadness and his black eyes are fathomless.”

One of her questions, about dealing with fame, made him uncomfortable. “Sometimes I get fed up, but I can’t let it show,” he admitted. “It’s not nice for kids to hear about me being sore at people.”

Twelve years later, it was Alan Walker from The Canadian Magazine who dropped by to size up Richard and his household. He wrote it up in a feature published in May of 1971.

Richard was 49. “His hair is grey now,” Walker wrote, “and slicked down with Vitalis. His face is scarred by the crunch of sticks and pucks. His false top teeth are expensive, and so look real. His eyes, which used to be piercing enough to terrorize opposition goaltenders into helpless rigidity, now look smaller because his face has fattened.”

Richard was a vice-president again, but of S. Albert & Co. Ltd., a fuel company rather than a famous hockey team. He’d started as a salesman; now he oversaw a sales team of 20. He was still making public appearances and giving speeches, on behalf of breweries, Dow, O’Keefe, and Labatts, though there’s no mention in the piece of how refrigerators remained in the house.

Richard was working from home, too, running General Fishing Lines, a business he’d bought four years earlier.

Here’s Walker describing the Rocket’s set-up:

Richard’s cellar is so crowded that it is difficult for a big man to manoeuvre between the crates of fishing line and the billiard table that dominates the room.

In the adjoining laundry room, sharing scant space with Mrs. Richard’s automatic washer and dryer, Richard has a typewriter, a green filing cabinet, and a red telephone on a neat desk. Unpainted plywood cupboards around the walls hold miles of fishing line ready for labelling.

Back in ’59, talking to June Callwood, Richard did briefly talk about his extra-hockey interests.

“Every year I think I ought to get interested in another business,” he said then, “start a restaurant or something. But when the hockey starts, I forget about everything else. Maybe if I had other interests, I wouldn’t have lasted so long in hockey.”

“Are you afraid of anything?” Callwood wondered.

Richard was quiet a long time. “Yes, I am afraid of the future. I am afraid to grow older. I never used to think of it, now it’s on my mind every day. I will be so lonely when hockey is over for me.”

“Can you coach, maybe?”

“No, I can’t change the way a man plays hockey. Either he can play it or he can’t. I can’t help him.”

It was in May of 2000 that Richard died, at the age of 78. As far as I know, he lived in the house on Péloquin Avenue until the end. That October, Richard’s children put the house on the market, asking $649,000. I’m not sure what it sold for, finally, but by the time the deal went through the following May, the asking price had dropped to $399,000.

That same month, on the anniversary of Richard’s death, the strip of riverside greensward across the street from the Rocket’s house was officially renamed Parc Maurice Richard.

Rocketman: Jacques Doyon’s of Richard adorned the cover of Le Sport Illustre in 1952 and also, apparently, the Montreal legend’s rec room wall. You can see it in the background of the image at the top here.

consummate joe

Captain Colorado: A birthday today for the sublimely skilled Hall-of-Fame centreman Joe Sakic, who was born in Burnaby, B.C., on a Monday of this date in 1969: he’s 52 today. His current job, of course, is as GM and executive vice-president of the Colorado Avalanche, the team he starred for in his salady days, when he led the team to a pair of Stanley Cups, in 1996 and 2001. He played 20 seasons with the team, starting (as they did) in Quebec, as a Nordique, and serving as captain for 17 seasons in all. When Sakic retired in 2009, he did so as the eighth-highest scorer in NHL history, with 1,641 career points. (He stands ninth, now.) Sakic ranks seventh all-time in playoff goals (84) and ninth in playoff points (188-tied with Doug Gilmour), and he still holds the NHL record for postseason overtime goals, eight, which is tow more than Maurice Richard scored. 
 

fête nationale

Celly: One joyous night in Montreal deserves another. As the present-day Habs book their ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 28 years, here, above, is Mario Tremblay embracing Keith Acton at Montreal’s Forum in a game against the Quebec Nordiques on April 13, 1982. Same below, with RéjeanHoule arriving. (Images: La Presse)

steely dan

Q Card: Dan Bouchard’s NHL career launched in Atlanta, where he guarded goals for the Flames for nine seasons, but it eventually landed him back home, in the province where he was born: Bouchard tended the crease for the Quebec Nordiques from 1981 through ’85. In a profile included in the Nordiques’ ’82-83 media guide, Bouchard listed his favourite TV show as the PBS scinece series Nova. His favourite food? Fettucini. When Montreal artist Heather Price painted this portrait that same season, she called it “Incognito.”

jets propellant

Winnipeg beat the Nashville Predators last night to advance to the Western Conference finals where they’ll meet the Vegas Golden Knights to see which of them of them will play for the Stanley Cup. That seems reason enough to visit with a former (WHA) Jet, Anders Hedberg, seen here in February of 1977. He had reason to revel: having just scored three goals in Winnipeg’s 6-4 win over the long-lost Calgary Cowboys, Hedberg now had 50 in the 49 games his team had played that season. (He’d missed two games, injured). That put him into the annals of hockey history, ahead of Maurice Richard, whose first, famous 50-in-50 came in 1945, as well as own linemate, Bobby Hull, who’d repeated that feat over the course of the 1974-75 WHA season.

There doesn’t seem to have been much disputing Hedberg’s achievement at the time, though it can’t exactly have pleased the rivalrous governors of the NHL. Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders would notch 50 of his own in 50 games in 1980-81, and the very next year after that, Wayne Gretzky would, playful as ever, score 50 in 39. With the demise of the WHA, Hedberg’s feat has been shuffled, along with Bobby Hull’s, into the footnotes: in hockey’s NHL-dominated universe, those goals you scored in that other league only count as a novelty next to an asterisk. The way the NHL sees it, you have to score 50 in your team’s first 50 games. Five different players have done that, including Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull, twice. Gretzky did it three times in his career.

“I can’t explain how it feels,” Hedberg told reporters after the game in ’77. The Swedish Express, they were calling him back then, noting that he did his scoring with one of hockey’s hardest wrist shots and what had to be the best backhand in the business. “I don’t think Anders has taken a slapshot this year,” said his other linemate, Ulf Nilsson.

It wasn’t all good news for Hedberg that night: playing Calgary that record-setting night also strained some of his ligaments, which put him out of the line-up for ten days. He made up for lost time when he got back, finishing the year with 70 goals. As for the Jets, they were the defending Avco Cup champions that year, and did indeed make it to the finals again, only to fall to the Quebec Nordiques. They did roar back to win two further championships in 1978 and 1979, in the WHA’s last two seasons.

(Image: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, PC 18, A 84-49, Box 5)

uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

Call him the Flower, Mozart, something of a hockey maniac, pride of Thurso: how ever you care to tag him, Guy Lafleur turns 66 today. Most famously, of course, he was a Canadien, but after 14 seasons in Montreal, he did, you’ll recall, retire from retirement in 1988 to play three more seasons, first with the New York Rangers, then in Quebec with the Nordiques, before re-retiring for good in 1991. Lafleur did wear a helmet as a junior scoring sensation, notching 130 goals in 62 games in his final year with the Quebec Remparts. But after a slow start in the NHL, he eventually shed the headgear for good. I wrote a bit about this in Puckstruck, to this effect:

I don’t know whether Guy Lafleur could have taken his place among Canadiens greats wearing the bobbleheaded helmet he sported when he first played in the NHL. In 1974, at training camp, the story goes that he forgot it one day in his hotel room. He’d been a bit of a dud up to then, and the sportswriters were ready to write him off. Without his helmet, blond hair flowing free, he played with joy and with verve. The writers cheered. There, then, he decided he’d never again cover his head.

Biographer Georges-Hébert Germain writes about this in Overtime: The Legend of Guy Lafleur (1990). “As though by magic he had rediscovered the pleasure of playing.” It wasn’t what was on his head, of course, so much as in it. “But the helmet would be banished as a negative fetish for him, a bearer of unhappiness.” This was the age of the Flyer brawn and brutality, of course, and Canadiens’ management wanted Lafleur to put the helmet back on. “He would hear none of it — it was a burden, slowed him down.”

Guy’s dad wasn’t pleased, as noted in his autobiography. “I’ve always been afraid to see Guy play without a helmet,” Réjean Lafleur confided in Guy Lafleur: Mon Fils (1981). He and his wife worried when they saw him bareheaded, “especially when he falls or he’s checked against the boards.” When he asked Guy why, he said he’d damaged his helmet and the team hadn’t got him a new one yet. “I never much believed in the story,” his dad solemnly wrote.

(Image: Guy Lafleur by Serge Chapleau, graphite and watercolour on paper, 43.1 x 35.5 cm, © McCord Museum)