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Before Bobby Orr there was Doug Harvey—also the NHL’s first modern-day “player-coach”

I’ve posted many times in this space about Bobby Orr, who, it’s fair to say, revolutionized the way defensemen (at least some) felt they were able or allowed to play the position.

No one, before or since, could skate and control the play from the backline the way Orr did, but he showed a defenseman could be more like a rover and contribute significantly on offense, too.

Now, there had always been some good offensive defensemen in the NHL, folks like Eddie Shore and King Clancy back in the 1930s, and Red Kelly in the 1950s, though they played a very different game from Orr of course, in a very different era.

But there is one guy that hockey people always speak of in almost the same breath as Bobby Orr, and that is all-time Montreal Canadiens great Doug Harvey.

Now, I was awfully young to fully appreciate Harvey in his prime years with Montreal throughout the 1950s, as I was born in ’53. I did see him in the very late ’50 and early ‘60s and have seen plenty of film of him. He didn't have that extra gear that Orr had, but he could carry the puck and pass the puck like few in his era—especially for a defenseman. Kelly and Marcel Pronovost in Detroit were very skilled, too, but Harvey was recognized as the player who could best control a game. My Dad saw Harvey play often, and always told me that he could speed the game up when he wanted to, and more importantly, slow it down when things got a bit tense for the Habs. Harvey was said to be so good that he could play the game “in a rocking chair”.

(If there is anyone following this site who saw Harvey in person in his prime, I invite you to share your memories here.)

It’s playoff time and there are always some outstanding defenseman at work at this time of year. Rob Blake, for example, has been a wonderful player in the league for many years, a Cup champion, like Harvey. The same could be said for Chris Pronger. A couple of those Black Hawk defensemen may someday be spoken of in the same breath, once they have a few more years on their resume.

But none of them also took on an extra responsibility as Harvey did, and I’ll explain exactly what I'm referring to.

I have a very particular recollection of Harvey, because he was suddenly traded the New York Rangers. He had been dealt straight up by the Habs in the summer of 1961 for rugged rearguard Lou Fontinato. This was after Montreal had lost in the playoffs to Chicago in six games in the semi-finals. It was also the first time the Canadiens didn’t win the Cup in six years.  Harvey had been the captain of the Habs that season, after the retirement of “Rocket” Richard. Harvey had helped Montreal win 6 Stanley Cups in the 1950s.

It’s often suggested that Harvey was traded because of his involvement with the fledgling NHL Players Association in the late 1950s. Others like him—Jim Thomson in Toronto and Ted Lindsay in Detroit also were traded after their efforts become public, but Harvey was traded well after Lindsay and Thompson.

In any event, he was moved for Fontinato, a younger, tough, rambunctious player. (Unfortunately, his career in Montreal was cut short by a serious neck injury.) Harvey, while not a big man at maybe 190 pounds in his hey-day, was a rugged customer himself.

Here's the twist:   Harvey went to New York and was immediately installed as the team’s “player-coach”. My recollection is that Harvey was actually the Head Coach, but I may be wrong.

Amazingly, though he was already on the downside of his career-at least past his peak years- at the age of 37, he led the Rangers to the playoffs and won the James Norris Trophy as best NHL defenseman for a record seventh time. He was also named the end-of-season first team all-star, the tenth time he had accomplished that feat. (Above, we have included a photo of Harvey in action with the Rangers against the Black Hawks in the early '60s.  You can see Marcel Paille in goal for New York, and a very young Stan Mikita in the background for Chicago.)

Now, I can’t remember if he remained a playing-coach while playing all season or not. I remember reading an article back then in which Harvey said he missed spending time “with the boys”, an acknowledgement that he really didn’t like the fact that, as coach, he couldn’t really fraternize in the same way with his teammates as he had been able to in Montreal.

(Those interested in a perspective on Harvey from someone who played with him for a decade can click here to listen to my interview conducted this past October with long-time Montreal legend and Hall-of-Famer Dickie Moore.)

Despite Harvey’s apparent success on the ice and as “coach”, I believe the Rangers ended the awkward coaching arrangement for good after just the one season- though it had been several years since they had made the playoffs, and it would be several more before they made the playoffs again.

Can you imagine a player-coach nowadays? It’s a full-time job just “matching” lines the way the game is played in the current era.

Harvey ended up in the minor leagues by the 1963-64 season, and stayed there for many years (except for 2 games with Detroit during the 1966-’67 season) , until being lured back to the NHL with Scotty Bowman’s expansion St. Louis Blues in 1968-’69. (Interestingly, he was actually brought up to the Blues for the 1967-’68 playoffs after playing all season in the old Central pro loop.)

How good was Harvey? Well, by that time he was heavy, and slow—very slow. At the age of 44, he was not in shape. (He was not like Chris Chelios, chiseled and in amazing condition at the age of 48 and playing as recently as two months ago for the Atlanta Thrashers.)

But just as amazingly for the time, in his last NHL season, Harvey played 70 regular season games. It was the first year the league kept official “plus-minus” stats. Harvey finished the year +11, playing in front of fellow old-timers and legends Glen Hall and Jacques Plante.

So while many fine defensemen have distinguished themselves over the past 40 years and Orr set a standard no one may ever match, Harvey is never forgotten by those who know the history of the game.

1 comment:

  1. When the Canadiens traded Harvey to the Rangers, they just wanted to get rid of him. He was aging, and his drinking was becoming a distraction. The Habs wanted him gone, but they did not want Harvey to have any success in New York. That is why they made the deal to trade him contingent on him becoming the modern day player-coach. They knew he was not a coach and that he would fail.

    One thing about Harvey - his success was not instant. For the first few years of his career the fans and media and even coaches were constantly on him to play better. They were critical of him. Perhaps it was because he was a square peg in the round hole, not conforming to expectation but instead revolutionizing his position. But unlike an Orr or Ray Bourque, he was not an instant superstar.

    Joe Pelletier