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One of the best games I ever saw in person: Montreal-Boston, Game 7, 1979 Cup semi-finals

With the current Montreal-Boston series now in an “elimination” situation, I can’t help but think back to one of the best games I’ve ever seen—in person.         

There’s no doubt that one of the fun debates in hockey is the old standard:  what was the greatest game ever?  Everyone has their own view, of course- that’s what makes the discussion worthwhile.  Many still talk about the 1975 New Year’s Eve game between Montreal and the Soviet Red Army, which ended in a 3-3 tie.  (Thank goodness it wasn’t diminished by including a shootout.)

Whatever one’s view, it goes without saying that there have been countless outstanding hockey games over the years.  But it’s a bit different when you ponder what was the best game you ever saw—in person. (I've posted previously about one of the greatest all-time playoff series ever, the 1971 quarter-finals between the Bruins and the Habs, but I wasn't able to be at any of those games...)

For me, it was probably Game 7 of the 1979 Stanley Cup semi-finals between Boston and Montreal. (I'll ask for your personal recollection at the end of the story!)

That 1978-’79 season, I was 25, and working at a small radio station on Montreal’s west island.  I was hosting a sports talk show once a week, so I was able to sit in the press box for most of the games at the Forum that season.  (I remember one time sitting next to Jack Lynch, then a young defenseman with the Capitals, when he was sitting out because of an injury.  Very nice individual, who, if I’m not mistaken, went on to work for the Ontario Ministry of Tourism.  I would hear his ski reports on the radio for many years.)

Usually, though, I sat alone.  I always found if I sat with other folks along “media row”, I would be distracted and miss what I was there to do:  watch, learn and analyze what was going on down below, on the ice.

In any event, while I was there to cover the Montreal home games (I rarely attended practices, usually only when I was trying to arrange an interview with one of the players) and it was indeed a great learning experience for me.  Though I was part of  'the media' and living in Montreal, I was still a Leafs “fan”, albeit from a distance.  But that spring of ’79, the Leafs went down fairly meekly in 4 games against the Habs in the playoffs, which marked the end of the Jim Gregory era, as well as that of coach Roger Neilson.

But the series that was a real barn-burner was the semi-final match-up- Montreal against the Bruins.  Hockey fans will remember that the Habs were loaded: the “big three”-Savard, Lapointe and Robinson on defense (along with other able blueliners, like a then young Rod Langaway), that Ken Dryden guy in goal, and an awe-inspiring array of forwards.

How good was Montreal up front?  Well, Shutt, Lemaire and Lafleur would be a tremendous line today—Lafleur puffing on his cigarettes in between periods and all.  The grinding line of Risebrough, Tremblay and Lambert was so hard to play against.  Jarvis, Gainey and Jimmy Roberts were a fantastic checking line and simply superb penalty killers.

I just named three formidable lines.  Add the offensively gifted Pierre Mondou, checking specialist Rejean Houle, rugged Pat Hughes, 50-goal scorer Pierre Larouche and you have an idea of just how much depth they had.

Oh, and I just remembered to include the speedy ex-Toronto Marlie, Mark Napier, who would have been a first-line star on almost any other team.  Guys like former first-round draft choice Cam Connor barely saw the ice.

So, yes, they were good.  And they were looking to win their fourth Cup in a row.

Now the Bruins, under Don Cherry, were a fine hockey club as well.

The aging Gerry Cheevers was still a stalwart in goal, but they were transitioning to Gilles Gilbert in goal.  He had never been a star, but was one of those guys with talent.  When he was hot, he was very good.  Against Montreal, he took over from Cheevers and was marvelous.

They had future Hall-of-Famer Brad Park, still in his prime, and solid journeymen in Gary Doak, Dick Redmond, Al Sims and Mike Milbury on the blueline

Up front they were all character.  People will remember the names- Ratelle, Middleton, Cashman.  Peter McNab was a big center.  Terry O’Reilly was so determined, what a fine winger he was.  Then you had the guys Cherry loved to death- John Wensink, Stan Jonathan and Bobby Schmautz.  Al Secord was just a kid, not the player he would later become in his great Chicago years in the ‘80s.  Dwight Foster was a young guy and Don Marcotte was still around as a very useful veteran, whose job it was to slow down Lafleur as best he could.

The series went back and forth, and came down to game 7 in Montreal.

Now, as objective as I was supposed to be in theory, I was never able to shed my past.  I had always hated the Habs and their success.  Envy, whatever it was, if you’ve followed this site at all you’ll know I come from a long line of people who adored the Habs, and I just could never go there.  I loathed them.

So in this game, as much as I had always disliked the Bruins (to a lesser degree than I hated the Habs back then) I wanted badly for the Bruins to win.

And in Game 7, they deserved to.  Absolutely.

Montreal fans can certainly correct me if my memory is failing, but I remember the Bruins grabbing the lead a few times in the game.  Gilbert was really good in net for Boston.  Big Dryden was hard to beat but the Bruins managed to have a 3-2 lead very late in the game.  Then came the infamous “extra man on the ice” penalty against the Bruins.  That was all the Habs needed for Lemaire to drop it off to Lafleur for the shot that tied the game with maybe two minutes left.

In overtime, the Bruins should have won it several times over, but suddenly it was Tremblay from Lambert, or vice versa, right at the edge of the crease, and it was over.  The play was right in front of me, as my seat in the press box was high up at the Forum, basically along the goal line where the goal ended Boston’s season.

Montreal went on to play the Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals and hammered them in five games.

It should have been Boston and New York in the finals, which would have been great to see:  Ratelle and Park with the Bruins, against former Bruin Phil Esposito and the Rangers, after the huge and controversial trade a couple of years before that sent Espo to New York.

But Montreal won that night, and I went back to the radio station, and filed  my reports for the morning sportscasts.

I always remember Larry Robinson being quoted as saying, after the game, “We wanted it more”.  I always respected Robinson, and he was very generous to me personally, doing a number of great interviews with me over the years.  But I thought the idea that the Habs “wanted it more” -and that’s why they won- was a crock.

They got the luckiest kind of break in the world, a rare “too many men” call at the end of the game.  And they could have lost easily in overtime (I remember Cashman hitting the crossbar, but I’m not bitter…).

I realize players say lots of silly things after a winning a big game.  So I get that Robinson was just proud to be part of a great team.

And good teams take advantage of the breaks they’re given, as Montreal did that night.

It was a superb game, played with intensity and passion, a back and forth game filled with drama. It was the last night Don Cherry ever stood behind the Bruins bench. He was fired not long after that game.

Looking back, even though Montreal won the game, it was something to be there that night.  It was probably the best game I've ever seen- in person.

If one game that you were at stands out, send your recollections along...

1 comment:

  1. This one will hurt, Michael. February 22, 1972. Toronto at Detroit. Wings were barely in the playoff chase and decided to play their top draft pick, Henry Boucha, who had just returned from the Olympics. Toronto grabbed a 4-0 lead with Plante in goal. Crowd was screaming for Boucha to get a chance to play. (They loved his headband.) He scored on his first shift and it kicked the Wings into a high gear. They rallied for a 5-4 win. (I think Marcel Dionne scored the winner.) In the end, it didn't matter. Toronto made the playoffs and Detroit didn't. But I have never forgotten the roar of the old Olympia that night.