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As playoffs beckon, remembering the (almost) best night of my life as a Leaf fan: When the Habs missed the playoffs back in 1970

Being a devoted hockey fan of a particular team can sometimes bring out some of the, shall I say, less than “high-road” parts of our make-up.

Maybe I should speak only for myself, but sometimes it’s true that misery loves company

Now, not many things can beat the feeling of being an athlete and working hard to achieve and ‘win” something big.  As a fan, the feeling of supporting a team that achieves the ultimate, a championship, can be pretty sweet, too.

Now, I well realize Maple Leaf fans, and I among them, haven’t been able to experience that feeling for, well, let’s just say a while.

I was listening to an interesting discussion on the radio the other day.  The host was asking for the views of callers as to whether they automatically cheer for another “Canadian” team when the Leafs are eliminated from playoff contention (as they have been again this spring).  It stirred, predictably, a lot of reaction.  Some people do indeed cheer for another Canadian team while others are less inclined to do so simply because a team is based in Canada..

For me, I’ve never been one to pick up a second-favorite team, if I can call it that.  Oh, I like the underdog story in sports, a lot of us do, but the Leafs have been it, full stop, as a hockey fan.  I get no joy, none, out of watching any other team win.

Now I will admit the one thing, though, that (until more recent times) almost matched the high of the Leafs win, was when the teams I truly hated (read Montreal, and later Boston and Philly as well) lost.

You see, raised in the environment that I was, cheering against a particular team was almost as rewarding as having your own team win.  This was particularly the case for me, in a household surrounded by deeply passionate Montreal Canadiens fans.

Born in 1953, I had been raised with the aura of Montreal’s invincibility around me.  Not by anything my Dad or brothers said—they weren’t arrogant about their favorite team, it wasn’t that— but simply by virtue of the fact that, when I was in my impressionable, formative “sports” years, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup every season between 1956 and 1960. 

As a child, it was kind of what I knew, in hockey terms.  The Habs were simply "the best".  They always won.

My dislike for Montreal was probably just part of the family's (at least the males) passionate approach to things, I guess. I just grew to loathe everything about the Habs.  They were good, too good, and I just didn’t like them.  (To be clear, I have great regard now for those great Montreal players and teams.  But back then, well, that’s not exactly what I was feeling.)

While the Leafs picked up the mantle from Montreal in the early ‘60s, winning three Cups in succession, Montreal recaptured the trophy in 1965 and ‘66.  They had again built a dynasty, a powerhouse, with Gump Worsley in net (he had come over in a trade for Jacques Plante) and outstanding forwards like the legendary Jean Beliveau (see great old late-1950s photo at right), Yvan Cournoyer, Claude Provost, ex-Leaf Dickie Duff and rugged John Ferguson, and a defense corps built around Jacques Laperriere, Terry Harper, Ted Harris and the wonderfully talented J.C. Tremblay.  Toe Blake was still behind the bench.

I was disappointed both years (1965 and ’66), as Chicago took Montreal to 7 games in the ’65 finals, and Detroit won the first two games right in Montreal in ’66, before losing the series in six games.  Montreal was just too strong, too good when it mattered.

Toronto won an unexpected Cup in ’67, beating Montreal in the finals, as we old Leaf fans are well aware—and still treasure the moment to this day.

But Montreal won two more Cups in 1968 and 1968 and in the 1969-’70 season were expected to compete for a third title in a row.

What unfolded may not have led to the absolute best night of my life as a fan (I’d like to think I wasn’t so small that my delight in a team losing felt better than my team succeeding, but we’re talking professional sports and loyalties here; I could be a very small man in those days……) but it felt pretty good, nonetheless.  Really good, in fact.

So maybe, other than when the Leafs won their Cups, it was the best.

In that 1969-’70 season, the Canadiens had an aging but still elegant Beliveau along with Ralph Backstrom, Henri Richard and young Jacques Lemaire creating formidable strength up the middle.

For their part, the Leafs that season were never really in the race for a playoff berth, and finished in last place in the Eastern Conference. (Keep in mind this was still during the early years of post-1967 expansion, so there were two Conferences.)

But there were a few surprises along the way.  The Hawks were still a top team, and Boston and the Rangers had built young, very strong clubs as well.

Somehow, the Red Wings surprisingly found life behind a 40 year-old Gordie Howe (who played on a line with Alex Delvecchio and ex-Maple Leaf star Frank Mahovlich) and young players like Garry Unger.

The playoff race was so close heading into the final week that every game involving Montreal, the Rangers and Detroit were enormous in terms of playoff implications.  One of those teams was not going to make it. Montreal lost a crucial mid-week game against Boston, I believe it was (I could be wrong), setting up a peculiar scenario that unfolded on the last weekend of the season.

Montreal had two games left, including a game Sunday night in Chicago to end their regular season schedule.  The Rangers and Detroit had a home and home series scheduled.

The Red Wings had been hit hard times in recent seasons. After making the finals in 1961, 1963, 1964 and 1966, they had then missed the playoffs three years in a row and didn’t look to be a team on the upswing. But they did have some talent, with mainstays like Gary Bergman on defense, along with former Maple Leaf stalwarts Bobby Baun and Carl Brewer.  They had two good 'lefties',  Roger Crozier and Roy Edwards, in goal but they weren’t a powerhouse compared with the Habs.

Interest was so high locally heading into the final weekend that the Red Wings did something very unexpected- and that they they had never done before.  They waived the TV blackout of their home game on Saturday night against the Rangers, so confident were they that they would have a full house in the Olympia and so high was the fan interest in Detroit.  The Red Wings never, ever televised a home game back then.  (I don’t recall, though, if the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast of the Leaf game was allowed on the local CBC affiliate.  I believe that game was indeed blacked out, as usual, whenever the Wings were at home on a Saturday night.)

The Red Wing game was broadcast live on the local UHF (ultra-high frequency) station, WKBD.

The Wings-Rangers game was on the Saturday night at the Olympia was outstanding.  Gordie Howe scored a couple of goals, including one on a breakaway from the blue line in where he switched hands at the last second and deked Eddie Giacomon in the Ranger net.  The Wings won 6-3, I think it was, to clinch a playoff spot.

Montreal lost on Saturday night (they weren’t helping themselves), which meant that the Wings had clinched a spot, and Montreal only led New York by 2 points heading into the final games on Sunday.

The oddity was this:  NHL rules in those days had a peculiar and silly “tie-breaker”— goals for was the criteria.  So the only way the Rangers could pass Montreal in the standings on the last day was if Montreal lost and New York won by a big score over Detroit and therefore surpassed the Habs in their regular-season goals total.

Because of U.S. television, the Red Wing-New York finale was an afternoon contest at Madison Square Garden.  (Both teams had to fly to New York after the Saturday night game and be ready to play by one in the afternoon.  That could never happen now.)

My older brother John was visiting that afternoon, and he and Dad had discussed the possibility of “the fix” being in.  Montreal fans of that era are well versed in the conspiracy theory that day:  that is, there was likely an unspoken, informal but very real desire on the part of the Red Wings to lose without much effort, in the hopes that long-time rival Montreal would not make the playoffs.

Perhaps that kind of thinking was way off base and ridiculous, but, well, that’s exactly what happened.  Detroit had obviously partied all night after making the playoffs for the first time in years, and played that way.   They could barely stand up, it seemed, much less compete.  New York scored something like 6 goals in the first half of the game, and piled it on, winning and running up 9 goals in the process.

That meant Montreal had to at least tie in Chicago later that night to jump one point ahead of the Rangers in the standings. If they lost they would be tied with the Rangers, and because of New York’s explosion earlier in the day, would have to score at least 5 goals, I believe it was, to "win" the tie-breaker.

By the third period in Chicago, Montreal trailed by a couple of goals, and as the game wound down, Montreal coach Claude Ruel (who had led the Habs to the Cup the season prior) took a gamble that he pretty much had to take.  He pulled his goalie for a 6th attacker, not in an effort to win the game, but to score at least 2 more goals.

The move didn’t work.  I had school the next day, but I was listening to Danny Gallivan, the wonderful english-language voice of the Canadiens, on the radio.  Chicago pumped a number of goals into the empty net, and with each one, I thought I noticed Gallivan sounding more and more resigned—a voice tinged with some sadness— that his beloved Habs would miss the playoffs for the first time in his broadcasting tenure.

And that’s how it unfolded.  Montreal lost the game in a bizarre fashion, predicated upon the ridiculous tie-breaker formula (and Detroit basically throwing their game against the Rangers earlier in the day).  They finished 2 goals behind the Rangers, I think it was.

But that made no difference to me.   As an envious Maple Leaf fan who loathed the Habs my objective (the Canadiens missing the playoffs) had been met—albeit under somewhat foul circumstances.  The Wings lost that final game in a classless way and it was poetic justice that they were eliminated in four straight by Chicago in the first round of the playoffs that spring.

I believe even the classy Montreal captain, Beliveau, was quoted at the time as saying something was fishy about that last game in New York.  There should have been an investigation into the lack of professionalism displayed by the Red Wings.

The Habs cleaned house a bit heading into the 1970-’71 season.  They went on to win the Cup 6 times in the next 9 years, so they rebounded just fine.

But for one night, and until the next season began, I was a pretty happy young hockey fan in the spring of 1970.




  1. Ahhh.. Danny Gallivan! As a Leafs fan, I remember thinking how strange his announcing style was, the first time I heard him. But I came to love it, and the way he and Dick Irvin worked together.
    For some reason, I've never forgotten this Gallivanism: "Bonin goes into the corner without an iota of trepidation". I was so amazed and amused by it, I repeated it to my classmates the next day.
    It still brings a smile to my face. I wonder if anyone else has Gallivanisms they remember.

  2. Thanks Gerund O...I'd like to post more on Gallivan and like you, wonder if others have great memories of the "Savardian spinorama" and "canondading drives".

    Your reference to Marcel Bonin brings back vivid memories of a rugged player who helped Montreal win those Cups in the late 1950s, when I was a very young boy.

    And I agree that Danny and Dick Irwin were a tremendous "team" in the broadcast booth. They made listening to any game, but particularly a playoff game, something special.