August 16, 2010
(Ed. Note: Welcome to Puck Daddy's August series, "Mount Puckmore" which will feature fans, bloggers and various media personalities of all 30 teams choosing the four defining faces of their franchise. These four people are who you remember most when you think of these teams -- whether they be players, coaches or executives. We'll be running these daily for the rest of the month. Today, representing the Montreal Canadiens, Eric Engels of HockeyBuzz.)
By Eric Engels
"The good old days" is a phrase that typically depicts an era of hockey my father and grandfathers never imagined I'd witness. Growing up, I could live vicariously through their recollection of experiences withhockey's golden era, but to them, my generation would never see the true greatness of the Montreal Canadiens. The stories they told me shaped my passion for hockey and led me wading through the rich history of the franchise, until I finally understood why they felt the way they did.
Through newspaper clippings and precious footage of classic games from Stanley Cups past, I gained a true understanding of what made the "old days" good. I ventured through the great Montreal dressing room of the 1970s, reading Ken Dryden's book The Game. I marveled at players like "the Roadrunner" Yvan Cournoyer, "Big Bird" Larry Robinson and gritty Jacques Lemaire. I recognized what made Steve Shutt such an effective goal-scorer (his hand-eye coordination was exceptional), I trembled watching John Ferguson annihilate Chicago's Eric Nesterenko with one punch, and I watched Lafleur score magnificent goal after magnificent goal. I absorbed all of it, until I understood.
At the age of 27, I've finally reached the point where I can tease my father about having seen more hockey from his era than he ever watched with his brothers. Because I've gone back, if not solely for the purpose of understanding the evolution of the Montreal Canadiens and their contribution tothe evolution of hockey, I feel slightly qualified to be able to name three offour people to "Mount Puckmore" from eras of hockey that long predate my existence.
To say the Canadiens have a rich history would be understating it. The team has spent more than a century imprinting on hockey's collective consciousness. More than 40 Canadiens represent the class of the Hall of Fame. Seventeen of those representatives have their numbers swinging from the rafters at the Bell Centre. Thirty-six of them played on dynasty teams: From 1955-1960, from 1964-1969 and from 1975-1979. Builders like Selke and Pollock are among the most iconic in the history of sport. Coaches like Blake, Irvin and Bowman achieved unparalleled success in hockey. Players like Newsy Lalonde, Georges Vezina, Howie Morenz, Jacques Plante, John Ferguson, Doug Harvey, Guy Lafleur and Bob Gainey changed the face of the game by revolutionizing their positions.
Because the list is so prolific, choosing between builders, coaches and players of the organization would make the omissions from Montreal's "Mount Puckmore" more noteworthy than the selections.
For that reason, I've decided to elect only those who have skated for the vast majority of Montreal's 24 Stanley Cups. Without further ado...
Maurice Richard (Montreal Canadien, 1942-1960)
The Montreal Canadiens had won 4 Stanley Cups before the 1942-43 season -- the first of Maurice Richard's illustrious career. Nothing was a given for Richard, who in hockey's true image, earned his spot with the Montreal Canadiens on pure guts and heart. The team's most exciting prospect suffered numerous injuries that put his career in serious jeopardy before it ever got started in the NHL. Maurice's resolve to recover and play through injury inspired coach Dick Irvin Sr. to persuade management that his place was in the NHL, with the Montreal Canadiens. The same determination that launched "the Rocket" into NHL stardom epitomized the career of the most celebrated, legendary Montreal Canadien of all time.
Irvin's persuasion wasn't necessarily enough to keep Richard in a Habs uniform. Sixteen games into his first season with the team, Richard broke his right ankle, and Habs GM Tommy Gorman attempted to trade Maurice to New York -- a deal that fell through upon Rangers GM Lester Patrick's insistence.
As legend would have it, Richard changed his number from 15 to 9 the following season, and scored 32 goals, en route to being named to the league's second all-star team. He gave the Canadiens and their fans a taste of what he could do, and the following season, alongside Toe Blake and Elmer Lach, the "Punch Line" was led by Maurice's flare as he set out to accomplish what no player before him had ever achieved.
Fifty goals in 50 games, in 1944, was the beginning of a career that would inevitably be decorated with scoring honors and eight Stanley Cups, including four consecutive as team captain from 1957-1960. Richard never scored 50 again, but accumulated 566 goals over a career from which he retired as the highest goal-scorer of his era, and the highest scoring player of all-time, with 965 points. Incredibly, with Richard on board, the Canadiens went to the Stanley Cup Finals for ten consecutive seasons preceding his retirement, after the 1959-1969 season.
Notably, one of those 10 seasons was marred with one of the greatest controversies in the NHL's history. On pace to capture the league's scoring title, Richard got into an altercation with a linesman on March 13th, 1955, after a high-stick that clipped "the Rocket" sent him into a fit of rage. Richard went after the perpetrator, Bruins player Hal Laycoe. After severalattempts to restrain Richard, linesman Cliff Thompson locked him up, giving Laycoe a couple of free licks at "the Rocket".
Richard, incensed, clocked Thompson, leaving the linesman unconscious, and then fled the ice, a bleeding mess. Commissioner Clarence Campbell suspended Richard for the balance of the regular season, and the playoffs. Canadiens fans were beyond apoplectic, and Richard felt Campbell's actions were typical of a commissioner who discriminated against French Canadians. Campbell's appearance at the Montreal Forum for the very next Canadiens home game, on March 17, 1955, incited the most famous riot in Montreal history.
Richard's legend was emboldened by this event, but ultimately defined by his fiery eyes, his scoring will and his unprecedented ability to bring excitement to the game.
Jean Beliveau (Montreal Canadien, 1953-1971)
As a player, Jean Beliveau was as skilled as anyone who came before him. A tower of strength at 6'3 and a playing weight of 205 lbs., Beliveau was as graceful and as deadly as a quiet assassin. Check the YouTubes; the guy had supreme skill, both as a playmaking stick-handler and a deft goal-scorer. But it wasn't the Art Ross, the Conn Smythe (first player to win it) or the Hart Trophy that defined his career. It wasn't the 10 Stanley Cups(5 as captain), or the fact that he retired in 1971 as the league's all-time playoff scoring leader. It wasn't the 1219 career points, the hat trick that got him his 500th career goal, his immediate HOF induction, or his jersey retirement.
Jean Beliveau is most recognized for his dedication to the Montreal Canadiens; as a player who captained the team for 10 seasons, as a part of their executive through seven Cups, and currently, as the team's greatest ambassador. Jean Beliveau, "Le Gros Bill" is commonly recognized as the greatest gentleman who ever played hockey, and his character, beyond the borders of an NHL rink, symbolizes everything it means to be a Montreal Canadien.
Beliveau's legend is that of a man, who up until recently suffering a stroke, spent countless hours a day replying to the hundreds of fan letters he receives, each week.
Always the gracious ambassador of the Canadiens, Beliveau will often go out of his way to acknowledge, or introduce himself to the many fans that are too awestruck to approach him at the Bell Centre. His God-like status in Montreal has never overtaken his ego.
From a personal standpoint, like many privileged Montrealers, I've had more than a few opportunities to meet Beliveau. I last saw him during the second intermission of Game 6 of this year's series between the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins. I was on the main floor of the Bell Centre, and stumbled into the lounge men's room, near the elevators that lead to the press box. As I impatiently waited in line to do my business, Mr. Beliveau entered and took his place behind me. I outright insisted that he cut in front of me. He refused several times, before tipping his head and obliging, after I assured him I was in no rush.
The bathroom cleared and eventually the two of us stood side-by-side, washing our hands. He turned to me and said: "This is an incredible game. Great action, and I've never seen the crowd have as much of an effect on the players, in my life. You could tell they are nervous out there!"
I acknowledged the truth behind his perception, and said: "They could probably use your calming influence." We laughed and shook hands, both going our separate ways. I ran to the press elevator, as Beliveau took his usual route through the Canadiens tunnel to his seats above the benches. At that very moment, the RDS cameras captured Beliveau offering his calming influence to Glen Metropolit(notes), as the Canadiens prepared to force Game 7, clinging to a 1-goal lead-an image that splashed the big screen at the Bell Centre andsent "ooohs" and "awwws" through the crowd. The Canadiens prevailed, both in Game 6 and in Game 7, thereafter. And somehow, Beliveau had played his part in it, some 40 years after retiring from a perennially glorious playing career with the Canadiens.
Henri Richard (Montreal Canadien, 1955-1975)
Of the many Montreal Canadiens players who could as easily lay claim to a spot atop "Mount Puckmore", only one best embodies the most important thing about sports: Winning.
He had the longest career as a Montreal Canadien, and the most decorated one as well. It could've been Geoffrion, Lafleur, Harvey, Robinson or Savard; but Montreal's "Mount Puckmore" wouldn't be complete without Henri Richard's championship spirit, front and center. The Canadiens won 24 Stanley Cups in 33 Finals appearances, and you rarely hear about the nine that got away. It's always been about winning, and no one won more than Henri Richard.
Henri Richard won 11 Stanley Cups in his 20 years with the team. He served as assistant captain for many years, before taking over as the team's leader, upon Jean Beliveau's retirement. Creeping out of older brother Maurice's shadow was the "Pocket Rocket's" ultimate task, but Henri had little trouble building his own legacy as the most successful player in NHL history.
Henri Richard was best known for his playmaking abilities, as he led the league in assists on two separate occasions. He was smaller than brother Maurice, 15 years younger and played the center position masterfully.
By the end of his career, he amassed 1,046 points in 1256 games, and 129 points in 181 playoff games. His winning record was a testament to his reputation as one of the most competitive players to ever lace up skates.
Patrick Roy (Montreal Canadien from 1985-1995)
Do we really need to go over the numbers? The story of Patrick Roy is far more intriguing than the incredible statistics he achieved as a Montreal Canadien.
For many, Roy is the sole reason the Canadiens won their last two Stanley Cups, and his departure from the team marks the darkest era of Canadiens lore. More than his success with the Canadiens, Roy revolutionized goaltending with his "butterfly" style, his compulsive behavior (talking to his goalposts) and his oft-controversial, competitive nature.
His career began with a team that had no business winning a Stanley Cup; a team he took to the 'Promised Land', capturing the Conn Smythe trophy in the process. A Calder Cup Championship in the AHL, and about 47 games of regular season experience with the Canadiens preceded Roy's magical catapult to fame and fortune, in 1986. The starting role he was given for that playoff run was never relinquished, as Roy took the Habs back to the Finals in 1989, after three straight seasons of sharing the William Jennings trophy (best GAA) with backup Bryan Hayward. The Canadiens lost in '89 to the Flames, but if not for Roy they'd have never been playing for the Cup despite a strong regular season.
Three Vezina trophies later, Roy brought the Canadiens backto the 'Promised Land' with some of the greatest goaltending ever witnessed in the sport. The Canadiens broke a record for overtime wins in a playoff run,with 10 consecutive nail-biting victories. Hoisting the Conn Smythe once again, and uttering, "I'm going to Disney World!" was the lasting image Canadiens fans would always like to remember Roy by.
Unfortunately, a very public dispute between Roy, Coach Mario Tremblay, and team president Ronald Cory put an end to St. Patrick's days as a Montreal Canadien. Roy was infuriated by Tremblay's decision to leave him in the net for 9 of 11 goals scored by the Red Wings in an absolutely embarrassing game for the Canadiens, on Dec. 2, 1995. Shortly after, the Canadiens star netminder was dealt with captain, Mike Keane in what many have labeled the worst trade in NHL history.
Roy's return to Montreal in the team's Centennial year, tohave his number retired by the organization was an all-important moment in Canadiens' history. His ugly departure from the Canadiens sullied a legacy that may never have been rivaled by another member of the team. His return to the city that embraced him as its golden child signified the end of a feud; the continuance of which would've never enabled him to be considered among the others who now rest at "Mount Puckmore".
If not for Roy, an entire generation of Canadiens fans would never have experienced what it was like, in what previous generations had referred to as the "good old days".
Main Mt. Puckmore photo created by B.D. Gallof of Hockey Independent