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, who 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.”

canada’s cup 1976: the greatest aggregation of hockey talent ever assembled

cccp76

The Olympics go out, as they tend to do, in a salvo of light and colour and national pride. The stadium, one observer writes, is filled with the overwhelming goodwill of youth. A streaker who takes the field cavorts near dancing girls. spectacle and the striving Was it worth all that money? The questions float up and flutter among the flags. One flame goes out, a new one flickers its fingers. Leave it, maybe, to the novelist Morley Callaghan to pronounce: the Olympics are madness, he says, “and madness is beautiful regardless of price.”

Time, when it’s all over, for the hockey players to stand to the fore.

This year, it was Rio’s Olympics that’s giving way to the end of summer and a hockey World Cup pitting nation against nation against — well, of course, there’s a pair of continental teams, too, one of which is U23, so it’s a strangely asymmetrical tournament, a format that we’re still getting used to. Maybe we’ll even learn to love it.

Forty years ago, it was the Montreal Olympics that a great Canadian novelist lauded as they ended in August. The hockey players in question that year were participants in a more traditional international tournament spread among six old-fashioned national teams in the inaugural Canada Cup.

With all due respect to this year’s edition, Canada ’76 was loaded with talent and savvy and experience — and that’s just the braintrust. Montreal’s genius GM Sam Pollock was in charge of the whole operation, with Keith Allen as a principal aide and Toe Blake standing by as counsel. Then there was Pollock’s advisory committee of wise men: Jean Béliveau, Gordie Howe, and Syl Apps. Scotty Bowman was the first choice to coach, but he said no, at first: his Montreal Canadiens had just completed a successful Stanley Cup campaign, and his wife was pregnant with twins.

There was a rumour that Fred Shero had agreed to the step up, but Pollock said he hadn’t, in fact, spoken to the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers.

In the end, Pollock decided four heads were better than one. Bowman was back in, joining with Boston’s Don Cherry, Bobby Kromm of the Winnipeg Jets, Al MacNeil, coach of Montreal’s AHL farm team, the Nova Scotia Voyageurs. There was so much enthusiasm to generate, Bowman said. “I used up much of my adrenalin during the past season and have another season ahead. Having four coaches spreads it around a little and eases the pressure.”

“This will be the coaching style of the future,” was Cherry’s take on it. “Each of us will contribute something. We’ll work in harmony. There won’t be any friction. We all want to win. We’re going to be the favourites and there’s going to be nothing but pressure on us. It would be too much for one man.”

Picking a preliminary 31-man roster in June, Pollock selected 29 players from the NHL with three more drawn from WHA clubs. The coaches would trim the squad in August to 25, 20 of whom would dress for each tournament game. Injuries ruled out several significant players, including goaltenders Ken Dryden and Bernie Parent and defencemen Brad Park and Jim Schoenfeld.

There was uncertainty about Bobby Orr, too, coming off two 1975 surgeries on that troublesome left knee of his. He’d gone in for an arthroscopic exam in June, and his lawyer, at least, was hopeful. “Bobby is in A-1 condition,” reported Alan Eagleson, who also happened to be running the tournament as director, “and he’ll probably play in the Canada Cup.”

Even without the poorly, it was hard to see the Canadian roster as diminished, exactly.

Gerry Cheevers, Glenn Resch, and Rogie Vachon were among the goaltenders summoned to report to a 23-day training camp in Montreal in August. Defencemen included Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Denis Potvin, and Guy Lapointe. Guy Lafleur, Bob Gainey, and Reggie Leach were competing were jobs on the right wing, with Bill Barber, Bobby Hull, Bob Gainey, and Steve Shutt over on the left. At centre: Bobby Clarke, Darryl Sittler, Phil Esposito, Gil Perreault, Marcel Dionne, and Pete Mahovlich.

In Montreal, the players moved into the Bonaventure Hotel. August 10 they headed for the ice for the first time at the Forum. Morning drills led to an afternoon scrimmage. In the evening, the team headed to Jarry Park to watch the Montreal Expos play ball with the San Francisco Giants. The next day, and for the rest of the camp, they started the morning with a three-mile run up Mount Royal.

“It was easily the toughest training camp I’ve ever attended,” Dionne was saying by the time it was over.

Bobby Orr stayed at his summer place, in Orillia, Ontario, working on his own — and making progress. “Two months ago there was no way I thought I could play but in the last month the knee has felt just super,” he updated. “I will skating hard and if there isn’t a bad reaction I will be going to Montreal.”

Bobby Hull was 37. Shut out of the Summit Series in 1972, he was thrilled to be aboard this time out. He was pleased, too, to be playing in a tournament where the hockey had evolved beyond the intimidation inherent in his home and native WHA. “It will be a pleasure to play without the worry about being stabbed in the back. Everyone will be back to hockey’s basics, the way hockey should be played and was played before the goons took over.”

Phil Esposito was feeling renewed after the shock of the trade that had taken him from Boston to New York the previous November. “It affected me mentally,” he was saying, “and because of it I couldn’t function properly. It just devastated me.” But: he was ready now, he said. Don Cherry, for one, thought it showed. “Espo was showing the snap I hadn’t seen for a couple of years,” his former coach said after the team’s first workout.

He was one of the vets from ’72, Espo. Savard, Lapointe, Clarke, and Mahovlich had played in the Summit Series, . That epic series was even fresher in the national mind, of course, than it is today, with coaches and players vowing that they wouldn’t be making the same mistakes they’d made back then. Arrogance wasn’t a word they were using: mostly what they mentioned were matters of conditioning and team unity.

They wasn’t much joy, looking back. There was wariness, weariness , grim memories tinged at the edges by the unshakeable sense of just how near run a thing it had been. Even as he and his team readied this new challenge, Serge Savard talked to Montreal Gazette columnist Tim Burke about how very, very exhausted the Canadians were, four years earlier, how disarrayed, how downspirited, who knows what might have happened if they’d hadn’t left the country after the first four games.

Lessons had been learned. Exhibition games would help, this time around. “Mental preparation is also important,” said Harry Sinden, the coach in ’72. “We went into that series saying to ourselves we couldn’t lose. We now know what we’re up against and that’s in our favour.”

Not that we weren’t still having problems imagining anything other than victory. What else was there? Our game, our tournament. “If ever a team appeared to be invincible,” Tim Burke effused in that same Savard-quoting column, “I’d put my dough on this lot.” What we had here, he’d decided, no doubts, was “the greatest aggregation of hockey talent ever assembled.”

The Soviets, if they showed up, would be lacking in their line-up. Valeri Kharlamov was recovering for a summer car accident, Alexander Yakushev had a bad knee. Veteran Vladimirs, Petrov and Shadrin, weren’t coming, and nor was Boris Mikhailov. Goaltender Vladislav Tretiak was supposed to be staying home, too — to study for military exams, the word was.

Esposito, for one, wasn’t fooled. “A psyche job,” he warned in August.

“The Russians are clever. They’re leaking these stories in hopes it will throw us off our game. When they arrive, they will be tough.”

Team Canada sent Tom Watt, coach of the University of Toronto, across the Atlantic to scout the Soviets and Swedes. “Objectively,” he said on his return, “I think Team Canada has the talent to win. But sometimes you find a kid with a high IQ doesn’t do very well in math. Performance and talent are always two different things.

But maybe the Russians wouldn’t come at all — that was a possibility, for a while. As the Olympics drew to a close in early August, the Soviet Olympic Committee was threatening both to pull out of the Game’s remaining events, and there was talk that the hockey team would stay home, too. A 17-year-old diver, Sergei Nemtsanov, had asked for and been granted asylum in Canada — defected — and the Soviets were livid.

He’d been abducted, they said, maybe drugged, certainly brainwashed. There was a meeting involving the diver, his lawyers, and Soviet and Canadian officials that proved, to the Soviets, that he was not in his right mind. Why was his face so pale, his look so absent? Why did he repeat, “like a parrot,” “I want freedom, I want freedom.”

A Russian official charged that “a group of terrorists” had been roaming the Olympic Village, preying on Soviet athletes.

Other press reports noted that young Sergei had an American diver as his girlfriend, and that this was all about her, though the girlfriend’s family released a statement to say firmly that she wasn’t Sergei’s girlfriend.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau weighed in: he said it was up to the diver to decide what he wanted to do. Which he did: after a week or two in Toronto, concerned for his “aged and ailing grandmother,” he elected to go home. Continue reading

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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