Newsy to Rocket to Guy

Not to mention Morenz, The Boomer and Big Pete. In the watered-down world of professional hockey, only Les Canadiens have kept the faith

Robert Miller April 5 1976
Newsy to Rocket to Guy

Not to mention Morenz, The Boomer and Big Pete. In the watered-down world of professional hockey, only Les Canadiens have kept the faith

Robert Miller April 5 1976

Not to mention Morenz, The Boomer and Big Pete. In the watered-down world of professional hockey, only Les Canadiens have kept the faith

Newsy to Rocket to Guy

Robert Miller

To you from failing hands we throw/ the torch; be yours to hold it high.

History doesn’t record whether John McCrae ever saw the Montreal Canadiens play hockey; he might have. The club was founded in 1909, when McCrae was practising medicine in Montreal. A battle surgeon who died of pneumonia in France in 1918, McCrae was a native of Guelph, Ontario, whose name will live forever as the author of In Flanders Fields. Whether he saw the Canadiens play or not, he inadvertently summed up in the two lines above what has become the essence of one of professional sport’s great franchises— pride and continuity. First published anonymously in Punch magazine during the winter of 1915 (the Canadiens won their first Stanley Cup that year), the lines are stenciled across a wall in the team's dressing room. Every time the players clamber into their equipment, the words are there, staring down at them. McCrae would probably approve, even though he wrote In Flanders Fields for soldiers, for in

a way the Montreal Canadiens are soldiers, engaged in an unending crusade. Their torch has been passed down the years from Newsy Lalonde to Howie Morenz to Rocket Richard to Jean Béliveau—all great leaders of great hockey teams. Now it seems destined for the capable hands of Guy Lafleur who, like his predecessors, will have plenty of help in holding it high.

In these unsettled days of watered currency, watered integrity and watered hockey, the Montreal Canadiens seem oddly undiluted—proud, talented and still driven to excellence in a time when, as the legendary Rocket puts it, “The league isn’t very good any more.” If they are no longer the Flying Frenchmen, as the American sportswriters dubbed them 50 years ago (French is no longer the majority language in the club dressing room) at least they are still flying. They remain a tonic for their adoring fans, and a touchstone. Living proof of the values of the past. The Olympics may turn into a fiasco, Mayor Drapeau may be in another flap, Africa may be in

flames, the franc and pound and even the dollar may be swirling down the drain but, mon Dieu, the Canadiens are there.

“Les canadiens sont là" goes the Forum victory refrain, and in this spring of 1976 they are. Or will be, if they can find their way through the maze that is now the Stanley Cup play-offs without being tripped by the Boston Bruins or mugged by the Philadelphia Flyers. “We’ve got the club for it, that’s for sure,” says team captain Yvan Cournoyer. “Gee, Philly and Boston are both playing well,” says coach Scotty Bowman, adding with a small smile, “but so are we.” (At one point, late in the season, the Flyers, staging a drive for first place in the overall NHL standings—a crucial advantage, come the play-offs—had gone 22 games without a loss but had not managed to gain even a single point on the frontrunning Canadiens.) Disappointed twice in a row, losing in the 1974 quarterfinals to New York Rangers and in the 1975 semifinals to Buffalo Sabres, Bowman vowed that this season he would take a different approach, abandon the headlong firewagon style of hockey that had made the Canadiens the most exciting team in the sport for decades. It was time, he felt, to concentrate on defense. In particular, he wanted to slash the club’s 1974-75 goalsagainst total of 223. “We have to face the possibility,” Bowman said a year ago, the ashes of defeat still bitter, “that the traditional Montreal approach—skating, headmanning the puck—won’t work any more.” The theory was sound enough; the question was whether the team could make the adjustment.

With just nine games to go in the schedule, the Canadiens had allowed only 150 goals (best in the NHL). “We’ve improved better than 10%, eh?” Bowman reflected. “And that’s a lot in this game. I’m happy about it.” But it wasn’t just a question of playing more defensively. Ken Dryden, the tall lawyer who can play goal like a brick wall, returned to the form he displayed before he took his famous one-year sabbatical from hockey over a salary dispute. Many games this year, Dryden kept his team close until it could get untracked and take command.

Talent. Canadiens have so many good defensemen that Bowman quite literally doesn’t know what to do with them all. Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe are both all-stars. Larry (Big Bird) Robinson isn't far away. Don Awrey, acquired a year ago for his muscle, was good enough to partner Bobby Orr for several years in Boston. Rick Chartraw (born, of all places, in Caracas) and Bill Nyrop(born in Minnesota, a former quarterback with the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, and son of the chief

executive officer of Northwest Orient Airlines) are solid newcomers. Pierre Bouchard, the son of former Canadiens’ captain Emile (Butch) Bouchard, and John Van Boxmeer would be starters on almost every other team in the league. Utility forward Jimmy Roberts, the team’s oldest player at 34, can play defense, as well.

Then there are the forwards, led by Lafleur and Peter Mahovlich. Lafleur, the greatest scorer in the history of junior hockey (Canadiens made mind-boggling deals to make sure they’d have the right to draft him five years ago), finally broke through last year and began to tear apart the NHL the way he’d been expected to. This year, he has improved again, and late in the season he was dueling with Philadelphia’s Bobby Clarke for the scoring championship. A quiet man, who the other players say “does his leading on the ice,” Lafleur plays on a line with the irrepressible Mahovlich, the team’s comedian and one of the world’s greatest players, and Steve Shutt, a hot junior who made the jump directly to the Canadiens. This big line, Bowman says, is the club’s secret defensive weapon. “They’ve always got the puck,” the coach chuckles. “That’s not a bad defense.”

The Canadiens’ second big line— Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire and Yvon Lambert—can play defensive hockey, too. Lambert is a rugged player. Rescued by the Canadiens from the wastelands of the International League and taught to skate (he didn’t start until he was a teen-ager), he has become one of the league’s toughest cornermen, as well as a 30-goal scorer. Bowman also has a checking line, which he

juggles from time to time, using rugged little Doug Jarvis, Roberts, Doug Risebrough, Mario Tremblay, defenseman Van Boxmeer and anybody else who happens to be in uniform that night.

Sometimes Bowman uses three lines, sometimes four. His constant tinkering with his lineup annoys the press in Montreal and occasionally upsets the players. But Bowman can point to the results. Furthermore, as Jean Béliveau says: “It’s a good thing to be flexible. Sometimes you have to play a checking game, sometimes a skating game. Scotty can tell, in a shift or two, if somebody’s not quite ready that night. And he can tell what kind of gamehitting, checking, skating—it’s going to be. Sometimes the press criticize it, because they don’t understand it.” Béliveau, vicepresident of the club, sits at his desk looking thoughtful for a moment. “It’s a hard thing,” he says, “a very hard thing to find 20 perfect men.” He leaves the impression that the Canadiens have come closer than most teams.

No fewer than 18 Stanley Cup pennants float high above the Forum ice, occasionally fluttering in the still air as though the ghosts of Morenz, Georges Vezina and other stars from other eras were restless, moving about, keeping an eye on things, making sure the torch doesn’t go out. Montreal almost always has a good hockey team, and more often than any other organization it comes up with a great one. Why? The quick answer, heard most often around the league, is Sam Pollock, vicepresident and general manager of the club. Pollock is an acknowledged hockey genius. Says Rocket Richard, who has had his differences with Pollock and who doesn’t care who knows about them: “If I owned the club, I would want Sam Pollock to run it. He’s got a great hockey mind.” Says Béliveau, who for nearly two decades personified the grace of NHL hockey on the ice and who now personifies the quality of the Montreal organization off the ice: “Sam Pollock never stops working, never stops thinking. I have to ask myself if other general managers in the league work as hard as Sam does.” Says Floyd (Busher) Curry, a former Canadiens’ star who is now the club’s assistant general manager: “Hell, Sam is the Canadiens.” After echoing the others’ sentiments about Pollock, AÍ MacNeil takes the question a step further: “What makes the Canadiens special? Well,

when I got out of juniors [MacNeil was captain of a Memorial Cup-winning Toronto Marlboros team] and I started playing pro, 1 wasn’t going too well. But then I got into the Canadiens’ organization and, well, as soon as I hit that Canadien [dressing] room and took a look around, at the names on the walls and everything, I realized 1 could never go in there at less than my best. God, the eyes that are on you in there. It’s got to be the most-watched team in pro sports. The press, the public. And all those guys who’d been there before. Well, that transcended any threat that you could get from the coach, or anything. You just had to give it your very best.” MacNeil, now coach and general manager of Montreal’s top farm team, the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, coached the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup the only year he had the job (1970-71).

Sam Pollock is weary. His eyes are tired and his body is stiff. It has been a tough season, a tough month, a tough week, a tough day. It has probably even been a tough hour. It is Friday afternoon. He has to attend a private function in the evening. He arrived in Montreal early in the morning.

From Halifax. By car. Sam Pollock goes everywhere by chauffeured limousine.This is not jet-age vanity. It is just that he refuses to fly anymore. That week, he had gone by car from Montreal to New York, for the Lester Patrick awards dinner. Then, from New York, by car, to Nova Scotia to watch MacNeil’s Voyageurs. From Halifax, he had traveled by car back to Montreal for a day at his Forum office, an evening at his

‘WHEN YOU’RE THE CANADIENS,’ HENRI RICHARD SAID, ‘YOU CANT MAKE EXCUSES’

private function, and a Saturday of jitters before the Canadiens play the Bruins. Pollock politely declines to discuss his fear of flying. “That’s not important. It’s of no interest.” And he is reluctant to discuss the No. 1 topic of conversation in the hockey world—superstar Bobby Orr, his knees and his contract problems in Boston. “Until June, BobbyOrr is the propertyof the Boston Bruins, under contract to them?” Pollock says. “I can’t discuss him until after that.” (A healthy Orr on the Canadiens would render the league farcical.) But he is willing to discuss the mystique of the Montreal team: “Well, we’ve always been lucky in that we’ve always had great players. Men like the Rocket, Béliveau, Doug Harvey, Geoffrion. These were great men. They were inspirational. They were like Lou Gehrig and Ruth and Mantle on the New York Yankees. Great leaders who attracted great followings and performed magnificently. I think the Canadiens have been a bit like the old Yankees that way.” Pollock is quick to deny what everyone else says: that he is the Canadiens. Yes, he agrees the club has made some excellent trades. Yes, it has drafted well, even though it lost its two most recent first picks

(Cam Connor signed with the World

Hockey Association Phoenix Roadrunners for a king’s ransom; Robin Sadler decided he didn’t want to play pro hockey). And yes, he agrees that the Canadiens have a good organization. He ought to. He built it. But that’s the point, he says. “No one man can do it. We all sit down and talk about players. We talk until we agree.” By “we” he means his hockey brains trust—Bowman, assistant coach Claude Ruel (a demon scout, who more often than not can be found on a pay phone in the Chicoutimi arena, talking to Pollock at 1 a.m. about a left-winger he’s just seen), MacNeil and chief scout Ron Caron. “We listen to each other, keep tabs on players and follow our own good judgment,” Pollock says. MacNeil confirms this: “One thing about Sam—he always gives your input a lot of consideration. The key is hard work. He demands it from everyone. And he gets it, because of the example he sets.” Pollock is 50 years old and never stops.

Henri Richard summed it up in the spring of 1973, just before leading Montreal to its most recent cup triumph (it was Henri’s eleventh): “When you’re the Canadiens you cannot make excuses.” Scotty Bowman knows this, too. He has known it since the day he took over from MacNeil. In four seasons, Bowman has won the cup once, a record that in any other city would be considered quite acceptable. In Montreal, where the press is hockey-mad and the fans all-knowing, it is not good enough. (MacNeil was one for one, and lost his job.) Bowman, who has a statistician’s mind and who can reel off a staggering array of facts and figures about his game, has his instructions—from the press, from the fans, even from his players; Bring the cup back to Montreal. Would he regard this season as a complete failure if he coached his team to a first-place finish and all the way through the play-offs only to lose the Stanley Cup in the seventh game on a fluke overtime goal? “Yes.” A moment’s pause while he considers the question further. “Well, maybe not a complete failure. But a failure. Certainly it would be a complete disappointment.”

The team agrees. For most NHL clubs Lord Stanley’s punchbowl is a trophy in the truest sense of the word—a symbolic bauble to be gained in battle, a prize accompanied by cash as cold as the ice it must be won on (members of cup-winning teams fatten their already swollen incomes by roughly $20,000 in prize money). But for the Canadiens, it’s more. “Ahhh, the cup,” says Cournoyer lovingly, like a man talking about a favorite daughter. “It’s not easy to win. You’ve got to work hard.” He is slowly putting on his practice equipment in the Forum, pausing every now and then to flex the fingers of his left hand. His wrist is sore. Ligaments. The wrist, and pulled groin muscles, have hampered him through the season, but he has played and silently suffered press criticism while the puck refused to roll for him. Near the end of the 80-game regular schedule, with its airports and hotel rooms and restaurant food and on-ice collisions, virtually every player in the league is hurting somewhere or other, often in several places at once. But the hurts seem smaller when a team is winning, and the Canadiens are winning almost every game they play. Elsewhere in the room, players are in various stages of undress. Mahovlich is, as usual, having fun. “This goddam equipment,” he shouts in mock anguish. “Every day it’s the same (censored) thing. Put the equipment on. Take the equipment off. . He pauses, looks around slyly, then says: “But how many guys in this world would'like to come down here, put the equipment on, and go for a little skate? How many guys, eh?”

THE ROCKET TODAY IS A BITTER MAN:‘WE WERE SLAVES IN THOSE DAYS, JUST SLAVES’

The team is loose, confident and happy—a far cry from the way it was just a few years ago. The problem was twofold: the team wasn’t winning all the time, and some players were jealous of others’ salaries. Matters descended to the point where, during one heated team discussion, the fiery Henri Richard slapped Savard’s face in a dispute over press relations. There was

more, much more, to it than that, but the incident shocked the organization, not to mention the club’s fans. Finally, the club worked out a system to air grievances, and management adopted an open-door policy, inviting players to bring in their problems. It seems to have worked, although such men as Béliveau look back nostalgically to the days when the players solved their own problems. “I remember when I was captain,” Béliveau says, “we used to straighten things out in the dressing room. Or sometimes if that didn’t do it I’d go out with a player for a private talk after practice. We’d go to lunch, maybe have a beer, and settle it.” But Béliveau was such a towering figure on the team—both physically and in terms of sheer style—that he found mediating relatively easy. Since his retirement, despite the fire and determination Henri Richard brought to the job, the club has really been without a leader. The role has been balkanized—with Mahovlich, Lapointe, Dryden and, lately, Lafleur appropriating a piece. “The team doesn’t really have a leader, in the sense that Orr and Clarke are leaders,” says Dryden, himself a man most of the club looks up to, not just for his on-ice brilliance but for his office brains. “We don’t have any single players who can pick the club up all by himself and get it moving.” The hope in the front office appears to be that as time goes by, and he improves, Guy Lafleur will naturally assume the role.

Lafleur—or “Flower,” as his teammates call him—did not have an easy time of it when he came to the team. Too much was expected of him too soon. But then Bowman had the same problem. Brought in by Pollock to succeed MacNeil (whom Henri Richard had unfairly, if sincerely, denounced as the worst coach he’d ever seen) Bowman was faced with an enormous challenge. Pollock had given him a cup champion. There was nowhere to go but down. And down the Canadiens went—but not very far. The following year, Bowman had a cup of his own. Still, he was not very popular. As Montreal Star columnist Red Fisher observed not long ago: “Scott Bowman’s team will finish in first place this year and should win the Stanley Cup, but when was the last time Scott won a popularity contest? When was the last time he got a vote?” Popular or not, Bowman seems to have reached a truce with his players. “They know,” says one, “that he has their best interests at heart.” Much of the credit is given to Ruel, the roly-poly assistant coach who succeeded Hector (Toe) Blake and who also has coached a Stanley Cup-winner (1968-69). Like MacNeil, Ruel chose to stay with Pollock when he stepped down as coach. Popular with the players (the team gave him a racehorse when he turned over the coaching job), Ruel acts as a buffer for Bowman, but he never undercuts him. He is a company man. They all are. Béliveau, the ultimate company man, has come to terms with retirement and celebrity. He denies he’s wealthy (“I only wish I had the money people think I do... I don’t have a cottage, I don’t have a boat... I don’t want them”) but insists he’s happy as a vice-president and director of CarenaBancorp, the Bronfman-controlled firm that took over the Molson family’s interest in the Canadiens four years ago. He works hard on whatever project the Canadiens assign him and devotes whatever time is left to the Jean Béliveau Fund, a charitable organization he and some friends established near the end of his career. “They came to me and said, ‘Jean, you’ve played a long time, now, and we want to give you a night at the Forum.’ I told them it would be okay, but I didn’t want the usual thing—the car, the color TV, the money. Well, then we thought of the fund, and I said bkay.” Today, the Jean Béliveau Fund has assets of $265,233.75, and has distributed more than $82,000 to Quebec organizations that work with children.

Life as a member of the Montreal Canadiens is much like life as anything else: it depends on what you make of it. The Richard brothers are a case in point. Rocket, the greatest hero in French Canada’s history, is today a bitter 54-year-old father of a large family, eking out a living by a variety of means: a ghosted hockey column in a Montreal paper; a fishing-line business which he runs from his basement; a job with a Montreal heating-oil company; a distributorship of those closed-circuit television systems stores use to spot shoplifters. On the surface, a fairly full plate, but underneath nagging resentment that he never struck it rich. The Rocket thrilled his millions of fans nearly three decades before the World Hockey Association and six-figure salaries came along. “We were slaves, just slaves, in those days. Now the players have everything their way. I’m glad for them, but it’s still ridiculous, the money they’re getting.” The Rocket may be being a trifle harsh on his old employers. After he retired the club kept him on full salary for three years while he played the role of vicepresident/goodwill ambassador. “Then they told me they were cutting my pay in half, so I quit.” The famous eyes still flash with anger at the memory. Now he downgrades today’s hockey: “I had 14 season tickets a couple of years ago, and I kept losing money on them. Finally I told people, they’d have to buy the whole season if they wanted them.”

Henri, who played in his older brother’s shadow in the early years when the greatest Canadien team of all won five straight Stanley Cups (1956-60), has also retired but doesn’t have to flog his season tickets for a few bucks. He is a prosperous saloonkeeper with a growing real-estate empire. Brasserie Henri Richard is one of the poshest taverns in Montreal, a monument to interior decor in the hockey motif. Henri started out with partners and rented premises 16 years ago. Today, he has long since

bought out his partners, bought his premises, bought the building next door and begun to look for new fields to cultivate. “Hockey was very good for me,” he says as he sips a cup of midmoming coffee. “It gave me everything I have, and I gave it my best.” Now, he plays tennis, skates with the old-timers and looks as trim and tough as he did 10 years ago. He is successful beyond his childhood dreams.

As it is with people, so is it with organizations: success is making the most of your opportunities. Apart from the French aspect, the Montreal Canadiens ought to be no different, no more popular, no more successful than the Toronto Maple Leafs—

another Canadian club with a long and honorable tradition, with Stanley Cups in its past and with millions of fans. But there is a difference. There is a Stanley Cup in the Canadiens’ future, and the Canadiens are far more important to their constituency than the Maple Leafs are to theirs. Sam Pollock acknowledges the public is important: “One of our great strengths is that the people are so interested and concerned. I would never want to see that change.” It is suggested to him that the Canadiens’ fans, as a group, take a proprietary interest in their team. Pollock nods, looking pleased. “Proprietary. Yes. I like that. That’s exactly right.” ■£>