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Vintage Leaf salutes the Habs on their 100th anniversary

The Canadiens are celebrating their 100th anniversary this weekend, aptly before a game against a fellow Original 6 team.

I’m not one to watch a lot of ceremonies, especially the kind the Leafs have conducted recently, but I know the Canadiens always do these things well and in a tasteful manner. (I did watch the night that they closed the Forum, I think it was, when so many greats stood on the carpet and the Rocket received a thunderous ovation from the Montreal crowd, tears coming to Richard’s eyes.) They have a lot to celebrate.

Other sites will do a much better job of “covering” this event. All I will try to do is jot down some things that stand out in my memory, from the time I was old enough to follow—and cheer against—the Habs. (I can’t go back a hundred years—in my case, I can recall about fifty of those years, as I was born in 1953.)

If you’re visiting this site for the first time, you might be interested in a couple of audio interviews we have available. One is a conversation I had with Rocket Richard in the early 1980s, the other an interview I did a few weeks ago exclusively for this site with another Montreal legend (and one-time Leaf) Dickie Moore.

Those who have followed my posts will already know that I was raised in a fervently pro-Montreal household (link to How I became a Leaf fan…) It wasn’t just a rooting interest in my family. It was part of our way of life. As the youngest of five kids and someone who decided early on not to like the Canadiens, it made for many awkward moments, especially with my Dad.

The first thing I remember that really stands out specifically involving the Canadiens is a game in the playoffs, probably in 1959-’60, when I would have been 6. I have this memory of watching (on our old black and white TV) Montreal winning the game in Toronto, on their way to a 4-game sweep and their 5th consecutive Stanley Cup.

This particular memory would be of Bobby Baun scoring on a long shot from the right point, to make the score closer in that particular game at Maple Leaf Gardens, like 6-2 for Montreal. (I just looked up the scores in that series. Game 3 in Toronto actually finished 5-2 Montreal, so I’m guessing that is indeed the night and moment I have in mind, though I’m not sure if Baun was the player who scored.)

What stands out about that moment is that I was sitting in my oldest brother’s lap. John, or Jean as we always called him in our French-Canadian family, was a big Habs fan like my Dad, but he was kindly pretending to cheer for Toronto when they were so far behind. He saw that I felt badly, and when Toronto scored, he celebrated with me.

That was the series Rocket Richard scored his last-ever NHL (and playoff) goal against Johnny Bower and the Leafs. It may have even been that night. Richard scored on a quick-turnaround backhander and retrieved the puck as a souvenir, knowing it may be the last he would ever score.

The next spring I remember the CBC going to the end of game 5 of the Montreal-Chicago semi-final series, after those of us in English-Canada had just watched Detroit eliminate the Leafs in Game 5 in Toronto. Chicago won 3-0, behind Glenn Hall in goal. A couple nights later in Game 6, (I believe from Chicago) I remember being stunned that Chicago won again, also 3-0, with Hall earning another shutout. The Hawks upset the Habs, who were trying for their 6th straight Cup.

I was too young to understand at the time, but I think that was also the famous series that Red Storey, the gregarious and popular referee, made a call that ended his career. I say that it ended his career because NHL President Clarence Campbell came out the next day and basically told reporters that Storey had choked under pressure, essentially saying the referee had made a call that favored Montreal. (This would have played into my Dad’s theory that Campbell—who had suspended the Rocket for the entire playoffs a few years earlier—and the league office were “against” the Canadiens. Storey resigned on the spot and never worked a game again because Campbell did not back him up.)

Earlier that season, I remember my disappointment when Bernie Geoffrion scored 50 goals for the Habs, and Frank Mahovlich didn’t quite make it to 50 for the Leafs. I clearly remember a great goal by Henri Richard in the playoffs against the Leafs in the spring of ’62 that won a game in the last minute at the Gardens. (See my post… It was worth the drive to Chatham).

Of course all Leaf fans of that era remember 1963, and how Dave Keon scored a late goal at the Gardens against Jacques Plante to clinch first place for the Leafs on the last Wednesday night of the regular season, and a bit later, how dominant Toronto was against Montreal in the playoffs that year, winning in 5 games.

Then there was 1964, that great 7-game series that Toronto won, with Keon scoring 3 times in Game 7 at the Forum.

The Habs were all the way back next year, though, winning the Cup in ’65 against Hall and the Hawks. I remember the night of Game 7. I was working in the field with my dad and brothers (we lived on a farm). Everyone was thinking about the game. It was late April and we had just done the “spring ahead” thing with our clocks. I don’t know if Ontario and Quebec didn’t shift at the same time or exactly what occurred, but the game started earlier than we thought it would. By the time we came in the house and turned on the TV, the game was already well into the first period, and Montreal was ahead 2-0. I was so disappointed, but the rest of the family was quite pleased. Beliveau and Dickie Duff had scored in the first few minutes and the Hawks never threatened after that big start by Montreal.

In the spring of ’66, my Dad went to visit my older brother John, by now living and working on his own in the Woodstock area, because Game 6 of the Montreal-Detroit final was blacked out locally where we lived. Dad was able to see the game on television. I stayed home and listened to the game on the radio, and Montreal won again, this time in overtime on a goal by Henri Richard, on a kind of lucky bounce. (Richard was sliding on his stomach when the puck hit him and bounced into the Detroit net.)

For Leaf fans 1967 was the ultimate, a tough series but teamwork and remarkable goaltending at times from Sawchuk and Bower overcame Montreal’s superior talent and Toronto won in 6 games. I remember that Montreal tough guy John Ferguson was very chippy, as usual, and gave Bower plenty of problems with some high sticks around the net.

In 1968, Montreal swept through the playoffs with ease, beating an emerging Bruins team along the way, and they repeated their efforts the following year. They had a tougher time with the Bruins in 1969, winning in 6 games on an overtime goal—a beautiful high wrist shot from the slot by Jean Beliveau. I will always remember that earlier in the series, Montreal scored late to send games 1 and 2 into overtime. Boston had unnecessarily iced the puck in the dying seconds on at least one of those occasions, and Montreal tied it up both times. The first game, Ralph Backstrom scored the winner with a great wrist shot past Gerry Cheevers, the second overtime game ended on a deflection by a young Jacques Lemaire that won it for Montreal.

1970 I will write about another day—the only time in my youth Montreal did not make the playoffs. That made it a good spring for me.

But by 1971, Montreal was at it again. They had added Frank Mahovlich from Detroit during the season, and then Ken Dryden came out of seemingly nowhere to lead Montreal to a 7-game upset of the then mighty Bruins of Orr and Esposito fame. (The Bruins never could beat Montreal when it counted in the 50s, 60s or 70s) Montreal beat Chicago in another outstanding 7-game series. (I’ll write about that particular heartbreak another time as well.)

The Habs were upset (though the Rangers finished higher in the standings) in 1972, when talented Ranger goalie Eddie Giacomin finally beat the Habs. Montreal won the Cup in ’73 when Henri Richard was Captain, but they lost in the playoffs the next two years, including against a very strong Buffalo side with Gilbert Perreault and Richard Martin playing big roles.

But by 1976, the Habs were a dominant squad again, with Robinson, Lapointe and Savard on defense, Dryden in goal and a host of talented (Lafleur, Shutt, Mahovlich, Cournoyer, etc.) and grinding (Risebrough, Tremblay, Lambert, among others) forwards. They won 4 in a row at the end of that decade and were annoyingly good, though in retrospect they did hockey a very big favor by bashing the “Broad Street Bully” Flyers in the spring of ’76 in the finals.

I’ve written on another site (The Hockey Writers) about 1980, and how the Canadiens dynasty, in my mind, ended the night Guy Lafleur didn’t dress in Game 7 against Minnesota in the quarter-finals because he was hurt. I’ve always maintained that, under similar “elimination” situations, great Montreal leaders like Pierre Bouchard, the Rocket, Harvey and Beliveau would have dressed and been on the bench, even if they couldn’t play. Lafleur didn’t, and the Habs have been ordinary ever since. They’ve won two Cups between 1980 and the present- in 1986 and 1993, but they’ve never been a dominant franchise since, and certainly aren’t now.

But the hockey world is, of course, very different than it was even 30 years ago, and certainly a far cry from what it was like 40 and 50 years ago. No one can dominate anymore, at least not for very long.

All this said, I admire what the Montreal franchise once stood for, for the style of play—fast and often tough, but clean, and the pride that everyone seemed to play with when they wore the Montreal jersey.

As Leaf fans, we even compare ourselves to Montreal in terms of things like these pre-game ceremonies. And we can’t hold a candle to Montreal even in that way.

As great as the Leaf history was in the 30s, 40s, early 50s and then again in the early 60s, and the wonderful players who have worn the Blue and White, Montreal was something special. Morenz, Joliat, Durnan, Bouchard, the Richards, Beliveau, Dickie Moore, Harvey, Cournoyer, Lafleur - and that doesn’t come close to covering the names of all the all-time greats.

To really give NHL hockey the prominence it deserves, the best thing that could happen is for Montreal to recapture even a hint of their former glory. To become, like the Yankees in baseball, a team others love to hate, so that it means something when you beat them.

Right now, they’re just another ordinary NHL team, and the fire wagon style, with the great French-Canadian names leading the way, is- a bit sadly- only their history, not their present.

With little to cheer about in recent times, they, like Leaf fans, must celebrate the past.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I am a Leafs fan, born in Toronto in 1952 but living in Melbourne Australia since 1985. I've read your article with interest but hope you can please clarify what was the refereeing error by Red Storey that led to his stepping down? Also, small point but you say in this article that Henri Richard scored a goal against the Leafs in the 1962 playoffs - but we played the Rangers and then the Black Hawks in the playoffs in the spring of 1962, not the Habs. What a great read. I'm looking forward to reading more of your history articles. Thanks. Donald Warner, Melbourne Australia