on a day like this, 1955: toe picked

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)

des glorieux

Open Bracket: Montreal coach Dick Irvin stands by members of his 1946-47 Montreal line-up. Backed by Butch Bouchard, they are: Bill Durnan, Ken Mosdell, Norm Dussault, Ken Reardon, John Quilty, Leo Lamoureux, Roger Leger, Leo Gravelle, Maurice Richard, Toe Blake, Murph Chamberlain, Bob Fillion, and Glen Harmon. (Image: Library and Archives Canada, 1979-249 NPC)

blanketed

habs blankets

Blanket Statement: Members of the doubly captained 1947-48 Canadiens show off blankets (in Habs colours, of course) given by Ayers Limited, the famous woolen mill in Lachute, Quebec. At the back are, from the left: Glen Harmon, Billy Reay, Butch Bouchard, Toe Blake, Roger Leger, Bill Durnan, Elmer Lach, and (on quality control) Maurice Richard. Bedspreaded up at the front are Ken Reardon and Bob Fillion.

léo gravelle, 1925—2013

Parade Sportive Paul StuartThe blond Bomber the papers called him, sometimes, and fine and industrious and the fast-skating wing man. A Canadien and a Red Wing who played four-and-a-half NHL seasons, Léo Gravelle died on October 30 at the age of 88. One of his nicknames was The Gazelle.

“Léo Gravelle swished in Glen Harmon’s shot” is a sentence you might have seen after Montreal beat Chicago in 1947. He was born in Aylmer, Quebec. Witnesses who watched him play called him an extraordinary and sprightly skater. And of course there’s the time, in Chicago, that teammate Kenny Reardon hit a steelworker in the stands with his stick and the steelworker’s friends tried to throw a chair at him and Gravelle went to Reardon’s aid, and the two players ended up in jail, charged with assault with a deadly weapon. “I did not strike any of the spectators,” Gravelle said, later. “Everybody was standing up and leaning across the barrier so I hit the top of the barrier with my stick a couple of times to keep them from coming over.” (The charges were dropped.)

In May of 2007, Léo Gravelle was the guest of honour at the annual meeting of the Society for International Hockey Research in Ottawa. Speaking to an audience that included two Howie Morenzes (son and grandson of the original) as well as the hockey artist Mac McDiarmid, and the man who knows more about minor-league hockey than anyone in the whole world, Gravelle talked about his life in hockey. It was like a spell he was speaking, an incantation. “I’ve had a good life,” he began, and

A lot of people, they think it’s easy, the start in life. When I was six years old, it was hard times. We didn’t have electricity until I was 17 years old. When it comes time to play, I’m gonna tell you the truth. In those days the skates are not like today. It’s just a leather thing. When it gets wet it expands. I had to wear my cousin’s skates. At four o’clock in the afternoon it was my turn. I put on six pairs of socks. I don’t know if you still have your mother or not, but after you lose her you miss her a lot. I had a good father. Sometimes he had to walk from Hull to Aylmer after working his day’s work. We didn’t have radios. I was an office boy. I used to run everywhere. We had a hockey team. I will tell you what we used to do. Shinpads, it was a piece of felt. Hockey sticks, we were paying 25 cents. Excuse me, ladies, if I’m swearing sometimes. I was an altar boy for eight years. Have you heard of a hockey game after midnight mass? It was the choir versus the altar boys. In the morning when I got up there was an apple, an orange, and a piece of paper. Thank you, Lord. What do you get for Christmas today? I was working for the government, office boy, 39 dollars a month. My first suit cost me 39 dollars, so my mother had to pay my streetcar for the next month. I was playing Juvenile at 17 years old. Port Colborne. At St. Mike’s the coach was Joe Primeau. When you win the Memorial Cup, a fellow has to be proud. I went to the Montreal Royals. I had a line with Floyd Curry and Howard Riopelle. I could name you some names. When you play for a team like Montreal, they can decide to send you to Buffalo. They sent me to Houston. We win the United States Hockey League championship. The next year they brought me up to Buffalo. Then I graduate back to Montreal. Then this guy, Kenny Reardon. He used to call me Gravel. We did some damage. That was another thing that went by. I got traded for Bert Olmstead. I think I can brag about this. I’m the only one who played with Howe and Richard. Sid Abel was injured. I played with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Then Sid Abel came back. I sat on the bench for 13 games. Then they sent me down to Indianapolis. Jack Adams said, Léo Gravelle will never play another game in the NHL. I never did. I learned one thing in my life, when you go in to get a job, when they tap you on the back, that means they don’t want you. But I’ve had a good life. What I’ve told you today, it’s from the bottom of my heart. The Rocket could score on his knees. Gordie Howe was sort of a brute. They were two good guys for me. I don’t know how I’ve still got my nose, my face. Black Jack Stewart, he picked me up and drove me into the end. I didn’t know where I was.

Taking ray! can be recognized on the photo Butch Bouchard and Roger Léger

Looking Within: Léo Gravelle, left, steps up to have his chest x-rayed ahead of one of his Montreal seasons, circa the 1940s. Teammates Butch Bouchard and Roger Léger stand by. (Photos courtesy Denys Gravelle.)