Apr 13

The Captains #3: Jimmy Gardner (1913-1915)

Jimmy Gardner learned his hockey on “Boon’s Lane” in Montreal, playing with future hall of famer Dickie Boon. Boon is credited with inventing the poke check and Gardner benefited from his days slapping pucks with him.

Jimmy Gardner

Gardner played hockey for almost ten years, but only two of those with the Montreal Canadiens. However, prior to joining Les Canadiens, Gardner won four Stanley Cups. In 1902 and 1903 he won the Cup with the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, then did the back-to-back feat again in 1909 and 1910 with the Montreal Wanderers. The truth is Gardner’s playing days are best remembered in a Wanderer’s jersey.

Let’s not ignore his contributions to the Canadiens though. In 1909, while still playing for the Wanderers, Gardner had a hand in the creation of the Montreal Canadiens. During the 1913-1915 seasons, Gardner served not just as captain of the Canadiens, but also the coach. When he retired from professional hockey in 1915, he stayed on as coach until 1917. This means, of course, Gardner was in charge for Montreal’s first Stanley Cup in 1916.

Jimmy Gardner was born on May 21, 1881 in Montreal and started playing hockey with the senior Montreal Hockey Club and became one of the famed “Little Men of Iron” along with Dickie Boon. When Boon founded the Montreal Wanderers in 1903, he took many of the best players from the MHC to form the new club, including Gardner.

Gardner only played a single season with the Wanderers before skipping the country to play in Michigan for two years, Pittsburgh for a year and then returning home to join the Montreal Shamrocks and soon found himself back on the Wanderers where he helped the team win the Stanley Cup in the 1910-1911 season.

Gardner’s retirement was all about hockey. Following his two seasons as the Canadiens head coach, he decided to become an official, refereeing games in the minor leagues until 1924. His skill at leading a team was not forgotten though, and was named head coach of the Hamilton Tigers in 1925, leading the club to a first place finish. He spent the remainder of his hockey career coaching various teams, including the Providence Reds of the Canadian-American League, leading them to a championship in 1930.

Gardner was a true hockey man with both on-ice skill and off-ice leadership and know-how. He died on November 7, 1940 at the age of 59 and 22 years later he was inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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Apr 12

The Captains #2: Edouard “Newsy” Lalonde (1910-1911, 1912-1913, 1916-1922)

Newsy Lalonde was born Edouard Cyrille Lalonde on October 31, 1887 in Cornwall, Ontario. He would grow to be perhaps the best all-around hockey and lacrosse player of the early 20th century. Lalonde played as a professional in both sports, actually making more money at lacrosse than hockey. It must be remembered that in the early decades of the 20th century, lacrosse was at least as popular as hockey in Canada, and Lalonde was a hero to fans of both sports.

Lalonde worked in a newspaper print shop as a boy, earning him his nickname, a name that would stick with him throughout his life. Like most Canadian boys of the time, work was work and hockey was hockey and Lalonde never let the former get in the way of the latter.

Lalonde started with hockey though, joining the local Cornwall Hockey Club in 1904 as an amateur. Lalonde was only 15 years old, but was already a star on the rise and one year later he joined the senior league, playing for the Woodstock Seniors. By 1906 he had been lured by his friend Jack Laviolette to join the professionals in the International Hockey League to play for the Soo Indians. He only played a single season there, but Lalonde was named to the all-star team. Phenom does not quite capture the impact of Lalonde.

Jump to 1907 and Lalonde was back in Canada as a member of the Ontario Professional Hockey League’s Toronto Professionals. Lalonde was the leading scorer in the league with an amazing – I mean seriously, think about this - 29 goals in just nine games. Lalonde’s team met the powerful Montreal Wanderers for the Stanley Cup. losing 6-4 in the championship match. In the game, Lalonde netted two goals.

After Jack Laviolette was charged with forming the Montreal Canadiens in 1910 for the new National Hockey Association he reached out to Lalonde to get him onto the all-French roster. Lalonde would add “trivia question answer” to his resume by scoring the first goal in Canadiens history, putting two pucks in net in a 7-6 win over the Cobalt Silver Kings.

The NHA was interesting in part because J. Ambrose O’Brien owned not just the Canadiens, but four of the five teams in the league. With the Canadiens not doing well in their inaugural season, O’Brien “traded” Lalonde to his Renfrew Creamery Kings to aid them in making a run at the Cup. After scoring 16 goals in his six games with Montreal, Lalonde bettered it by scoring 22 goals in the five remaining games. Part of that bloated total came in a single game when Lalonde scored a record nine goals in one game, a 17-2 win where Lalonde played at center. It cannot be a surprise then that Lalonde won the first NHA scoring title. I mean, this guy was seriously potent with the puck.

Lalonde’s stay with Renfrew was brief and he returned to Montreal the next season. His offense actually dropped off and he only managed 19 goals in 16 games. Yeah…only. Lalonde was a true professional and by that I mean he was not unaware of his skill and importance to the Canadiens. When he did not get the contract he thought he deserved, he decided to jump west and became a member of the Vancouver Millionaires. Once again he lit it up on the ice, winning the Pacific Coast Hockey League scoring championship with 27 goals in just 15 games.

This takes us to 1912 when the Canadiens, perhaps admitting their mistake in letting Lalonde escape, sent the then-princely sum of 750.00 and Didier Pitre to Vancouver to get their star back. Lalonde returned and resumed his captaincy, leading Les Canadiens on the ice and finding himself in a much-improved league.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider Lalonde in the context of his times. Hockey in the early 1900s was not the same game we know today. First of all, there were seven players per side – all the players we know now plus on rover. Hockey, which emerged from rougher games like rugby and shinny, was well known for the assaults on the ice with and without sticks. Lalonde once told of an incident with Joe Hall who hit him in the neck with his stick, nearly crushing Lalonde’s throat. Substitutions were rare in those days, so Lalonde’s absence from the ice was short. Lalonde skated off for a bit before returning and whacking Hall so hard he broke the man’s collarbone.

Now that Lalonde was back with Montreal, he had found his home for the next ten years. Lalonde brought his, shall we say, unkind temperament to his old/new team, making enemies on the ice and with opposing team’s fans. In 1914 he led Les Canadiens to the Stanley Cup finals against the Seattle Metropolitans, a final that found Newsy slapped with five penalties and a game misconduct. Why the misconduct? He hit a referee in the face with the knob end of his stick. Lalonde was not interested in making friends.

By the 1914 season, Lalonde was once again unhappy with his monetary rewards and held out. Yeah, that stuff happened even back then. Six games into the season he finally returned, only to suffer a freak injury in a game against the rival Montreal Wanderers. With an opposing player down on his knees, Lalonde fell, landing with his leg right on the skates, ripping into the leg and severing part of the artery. He had to have emergency surgery and was lucky to recover.

But recover he did and in 1915 scored 28 goals in the now-24 game NHA season to capture the scoring title. More importantly for Lalonde – and us – he led Montreal to a Stanley Cup victory over the Portland Rosebuds, the first championship in club history.

Of course, in 1917 the NHA dissolved and the National Hockey League was formed. Les Canadiens were admitted into the new league but even with Lalonde continuing to light it up, his club finished dead last. Things would not get much better until 1919, when Montreal once again found themselves vying for the Stanley Cup, this time against the Seattle Metropolitans. Seattle won the first game, Montreal the second, Seattles the third, Montreal the fifth. The fourth game went to double overtime before the game was called due to the horrid ice conditions. Still, the Canadiens were well on their way to their second Stanley Cup.

Edouard “Newsy” Lalonde

Sadly, not long after the conclusion of game five, many players on both squads came down with the Spanish influenza which was devastating the world. Along with players like Bill Couture, Joe Hall (yeah, the same one Newsy tangled with years before), and Jack McDonald, Lalonde was simply too sick to continue playing. As a result, the 1919 Stanley Cup finals were canceled and no champion was named that season.

Lalonde continued playing for Montreal until 1922. That season, three new owners took over the club – Leo Dandurand, Louis Letourneau and Joe Cattarinich. Lalonde had some major issues with Dandurand and walked out of the club. He walk out lasted four games, but when he returned the bad blood was too much for Dandurand to accept and he traded Newsy to Saskatoon for Aurel Joliat. Given Lalonde was 36 years old and declining in goal production, along with his attitude with the team, this is one of the many lopsided trades made in Montreal history. Joliat, of course, would be a superstar for Les Canadiens well into the 1930s.

Lalonde is a legend in Canadiens history, there is no doubt of that. However, if we ask ourselves why, it has to include his demeanor on the ice and his fearless abandon when it came to fighting. This same mindset, however, led to one of the darkest moments in Canadiens history as well. Completely pissed off at Dandurand and the Canadiens for the trade to Saskatoon and possibly envious of the love Joliat received from the Montreal fans, Lalonde took his first opportunity when facing Montreal on the ice by crosschecking Joliat in the face.

Lalonde’s career continued as player-coach for Saskatoon until 1926 when he joined the New York Americans as a pure coach. Well, almost pure. In one game he did suit up again to play, but that would be his last dance on the ice and he officially retired as a player in 1926. He did continue as head coach of the Americans until 1929, took over as coach of the Ottawa Senators until 1932 and finally returned home, so to speak, and coached the Montreal Canadiens into the 1934-1935 season.

Lest we forget that Lalonde was a star in two sports during his life, he was not only inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1950, but in the same year was voted the greatest lacrosse player of the first fifty years of the 20th century. He ended up being inducted into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1965.

Lalonde died in 1970 and is remembered for his toughness, his dominance on the ice, his scoring prowess and his mean disposition. Not only opposing players, but some of his own team members through the years detested Newsy. This is a guy who attacked anyone he felt like on the ice and as a head coach once punched a player in the face for back talking. No nonsense on or off the ice was Lalonde’s way of life.

Newsy Lalonde finished his playing career with 125 goals and 41 assists in 99 games. In those 99 games he has 183 penalty minutes. Impressively, in his seven postseason games, Lalonde scored 15 goals and added 4 assists. He played largely at center, but also took on roles as a rover and a forward throughout his career.

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Apr 09

The Captains #1: Jack Laviolette (1909-1910, 1911-1912)

Jean-Baptiste “Jack” Laviolette played sensational lacrosse, but his true calling was the game of hockey. He played organized hockey starting in 1902 and continued dazzling crowds until a terrible off-ice injury in 1918. Laviolette was one of the original Flying Frenchman and had at least as much savvy off the ice as he showed skating on it.

He was born on August 27, 1879 in Belleville, Ontario, Canada. During his career he would coach, manage, captain and dominate for the Montreal Canadiens.

Jean-Baptiste “Jack” Laviolette

Laviolette started playing in the old Montreal City League on a team sponsored by Bell Telephone. His skill caught the eyes of Montreal and he moved onto Le Nationales, a team of French-only amateurs who were wildly popular in the French Amateur Hockey League. He played in only six games in his first season with the team (1904), but scored eight goals, finishing sixth in scoring and exciting his team and coach.

However, Jack was not content playing for what amounted to nothing. While amateur hockey was the only game in town in Canada, over in Michigan there was the International Hockey League, a recently formed professional organization. Laviolette did not take long to figure out he could play the game he loved and get paid and headed for the Michigan Soo Indians in 1905. He played there for two years and was named an all-star in every season, netting 40 goals during his tenure.

1907 found Laviolette playing organized lacrosse where he finished first in scoring, but hockey called him again and he joined the Montreal Shamrocks, playing with the team until 1908.

It was 1909 that really started Laviolette’s historic career. The recently formed National Hockey Association, a league formed in direct opposition to the standard league’s in Canada, wanted a team like the Montreal Nationales to add to their appeal. A francophone team would surely draw crowds and allow the new NHA to battle the immensely popular Nationales head-on. J. Ambrose O’Brien, who owned the Renfrew Creamery Kings, put up the money for the new all-French team and charged Laviolete with putting it together. He was given a single month to do that job.

Calling his old childhood friend, Didier Pitre, he convinced him to join the club. He added Newsy Lalonde, a favorite of the Montreal community, and found his goaltender in Georges Vezina. Laviolette was named captain of the team, head coach and general manager. This team would begin led in every way by Jack.

Didier Pitre was the first player signed and it caused an uproar with the Nationales. When Pitre took a train to Ottawa after being called by Laviolette for the signing to this new French hockey team, he had no idea what he was headed for. He met a hockey representative at the station and signed a contract immediately. Unfortunately, that contract was with the Nationales as Pitre later found out when he found Laviolette. Pitre did the only thing he could think of: he signed with Les Canadiens as well.

The Nationales were furious and placed an injunction on Pitre suiting up for Les Canadiens, threatening prison if he did so. Pitre laughed this off and played anyway and by the time his court date would have come, the CHA had folded, leaving only the NHA left and Pitre firmly a member of his new team.

Les Canadiens, as the team would be known for their first two seasons, started in the Canadian Hockey League and their first game was on January 5, 1910 against the Cobalt Silver Kings. A 7-6 overtime final (the game-winner coming from George Poulin) got things off the right way for the new club.

However,  once the CHA folded, Les Canadiens were forced to cease operations and new owners took over the club. The new owner’s represented Le Club Athletique Canadiens and they felt it appropriate to keep the team name. Until 1917, the team would officially be known as Le Club Athletique Canadien. In 1916 when Le Club Athletique changed their name to Club de Hockey, the famous “CH” was added to the Montreal hockey sweaters.

Laviolette had his struggles in those first years, finishing dead last with two wins in the premier season. By the 1915-16 season, they had formed a powerhouse – complete with Flying Frenchmen – and won their first Stanley Cup.

Jack was a great defenseman, often forgotten today for his speed and athleticism. Make no mistake, Laviolette played balls out all the time. He easily leapt over sticks and he had long hair, flowing freely as he sped down the ice. He never backed away from on-ice confrontation and had the tenacity so many Habs have shown over the decades. His speed earned him the nickname, “The Speed Merchant.”

Laviolette engendered pride in the French community when it was learned he refused a contract from the English Montreal Shamrocks, even though it paid more money than he made with the Canadiens. He would not play for any “Anglo” team and was on a mission to form the best francophone team on ice.

His passion and intensity was not limited to hockey and lacrosse. He was an aviator as well as a race car driver. His exploits on the race track drew thousands of fans.

Sadly, his love of racing also led to the end of his athletic career. In 1919 while driving a car in preparation for a race, he hit an iron post and his right foot was caught on a pedal, twisted and ruined. Days later his foot was amputated and a brilliant career came to a violent and tragic end.

Captain Jack was great on the ice, but his leadership of the newly-formed Canadiens formed the oldest and most historic franchise in professional hockey. In 1917, with the NHA near folding, a new league was formed with just four teams. The new National Hockey League would have the Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators, the Montreal Wanders and, after the Quebec Bulldogs were unable to play, the Toronto Arenas. Through a series of shrewd moves, including targeted expansion, the NHL grew to become the premier professional hockey league in North America. Laviolette was there, playing with the Canadiens in their first season in the NHL, still speeding down the ice, still taking no guff from anyone on the ice and leading his club until his car accident.

Jack Laviolette finished his Canadiens career with 49 goals, 19 assists, 68 points and 309 penalty minutes in 156 games. The original Flying Frenchman, Jack Laviolette’s honor of being the first captain of the Canadiens should never be forgotten.

Laviolette died in 1960 at the age of 80. He was head coach in 1910, captain of the team for the 1909-10 season and again, after handing it to Newsy Lalonde in 1910, once again wore the ‘C’ in the 1911-12 season. He was the GM for just the 1910 season, working closely with Joe Catarrinich. The one constant throughout his playing career was his play, which he did with focus, brilliance and toughness.

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Apr 02

In Flanders Fields and My Left Arm

I love the Montreal Canadiens. They are just a sports franchise, I know that, but they mean so much more to me than just shots on goal and championships. I read a lot about the men who played for Montreal, the men who helped build a dynasty. I think a great deal about the discrimination of the early days between les anglais and the French populous. Not a day goes by I don’t think about my hero, Maurice Richard and his battles, his faults and his importance to Quebec and all of Canada.

I also love poetry, love the rush of reading or writing a really good poem, finding the perfect words to capture the perfect scene. John Mcrae’s  1915 poem, In Flanders Fields, is a lovely and sad piece capturing feelings of loss, of the ruin of war and ending in the tightest description of legacy I can imagine. The same phrase that has hung in the Habs locker room since 1940:

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

As a father, as a man in the middle of life, I also think a lot about legacy. What I will mean to my children, what they will mean to their children, what we will all mean to the world. Not an unnatural thought, but a powerful one.

So, combining my love for the Canadiens, the joy I find in poetry like Mcrae’s and the importance of legacy, I got myself a new tattoo. My fifth tattoo and easily my favorite. Not just because it is new, but because it is the closest to who I am and what matters to me.

Be yours to hold it high, kids. Always hold it high.

Legacy

Legacy

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Mar 21

Sam Pollock

Sam Pollock was a mastermind when it came to building a champion and maintaining their dominance. For fourteen years, Pollock ran the show in Montreal after the great Frank Selke retired in 1963. In the four years before Selke called it a career, Pollock worked closely with him as personnel director of the team. Pollock would turn out to be the epitome of what a general manager of a franchise should be.

Sam Pollock 1925-2007 GM of a Dynasty

Sam Pollock
1925-2007
GM of a Dynasty

Pollock did not cave to the notion that trading for veterans (what we often refer to as “rent-a-players” today) was the right way to build a team or find consistency. Instead, Sam was always focused on his intricate and wide-reaching farm system, letting players develop in junior and minor leagues before finding their way to the big club. This policy proved fruitful for the Canadiens, who won nine Stanley Cups in his 14 years as GM. I mean really, nine championships in fourteen years? It is jaw dropping how in tune with his team Sam Pollock was.

Pollock actually joined the Canadiens organization in 1947, serving several years with the Junior Canadiens, both the Montreal and Ottawa versions. These years showed Pollock as a great talent scout and taught him a lesson he would never forget. “You have to have continuity if you are to have success,” Pollock said. He believed there was nothing better for a franchise than finding talent and keeping it.

Of course, Pollock did make trades. He made some amazing trades, leveraging his shrewd hockey sense, evaluation of players and smooth talking of other GMS. Without Pollock at the helm, Montreal probably never gets close to drafting Guy Lafleur, clearly one of the key members of the Montreal dynasty of the 1970s. Knowing Lafleur would be the top pick in 1971, Pollock contacted the hapless California Golden Seals and proposed a trade that would help the Seals and set Montreal up for snagging Lafleur. A deal was stuck that found the teams swapping first round picks and swapping Ernie Hicke from the Habs for Francois Lacombe. The trade itself was nothing exciting in the immediate, but Pollock had his man Lafleur all lined up now.

Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Kings were even worse than the Golden Seals and were headed for the worst record in the league. Lafleur playing for the Kings was not something Pollock could stomach, so he pulled out another trick. Offering the Kings Ralph Backstrom for Gord Labossiere and Ray Fortin. Backstrom was a popular player in Montreal and a former Calder Trophy winner, but was on the backside of his career. Still, if just these players are evaluated, the Kings made off like bandits. Neither Labossiere or Fortin ever played a game for the Canadiens.

But Pollock didn’t need either of his acquired players to play. He got exactly what he hoped for by giving Backstrom to Los Angeles. His presence helped the Kings turn things around and instead of diving into the league basement, their record put them ahead of the Golden Seals. When the season ended, just as Pollock had planned, he had himself a first round pick and Guy Lafleur was on his way to a legendary career.

As a side note, Pollock actually had to make a tough choice between Lafleur and Marcel Dionne. Nice problem to have it turns out as both Lafleur and Dionne ended up in the Hall of Fame. Sticking with his instincts, Pollock “settled for” Lafleur who joined the team. (We will see more about Guy in a later article, but it is of some interest that until the 1974 season, he was considered a potential bust).

Under Pollock’s oversight, the Canadiens added other legends like Larry Robinson, Yvan Cournoyer, Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard (who would be a GM after his career ended).  He traded for Frank Mahovlich with the Rangers, another major player in the ensuing dynasty, and even though not highly touted, chose Bob Gainey (yet another future GM and coach for the Habs).

One of Pollock’s most stabilizing moves came early in his tenure when the Boston Bruins drafted Ken Dryden in 1964. Seeing potential in Dryden and needing to prepare for the end of Rogie Vachon’s career, Pollock traded Guy Allen and Paul Reid to the Bruins. At the time, Boston considered Guy Allen a major part of their future and had no hesitation in making the swap. Of course, Pollock won again, acquiring the solid Dryden who anchored the Habs in net during the next decade.

The trade itself is legendary in both cities. Bostonians still consider this the worst trade they can remember, barring Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Montreal drafted Reid in the first round (the 18th overall pick in 1964) and picked up Allen in the second round that same year. Boston, meanwhile, selected Dryden in the third round and Dryden told them he would not be playing anytime soon as he wanted to finish college. So on paper, this is the kind of trade sports blogs today would be going crazy over. A first and second for a third round goalie who is going back to school?

This is why Pollock is considered the best GM the Habs ever had. He had good knowledge of what Dryden could do, having followed his younger hockey exploits. So confident was Pollock that Dryden would be a key component, he sent his top two draft picks to the rival Bruins for a guy who didn’t even want to play for several years. When Dryden got called up to Montreal finally, it was 1971. Seven years Pollock waited for his prize goalie to appear, but Sam had patience when it came to running a hockey team.

In the modern NHL, the idea of a dynasty like Montreal had from 1959 to 1979 is unbelievable. We will never see a team as dominant as this again. Today there are many more destinations for players and too often we see “rentals” being relied on for postseason pushes. A GM like Pollock would not appear as masterful in today’s league for the simple reason the skills he possessed would not have been as effective. Pollock was the perfect GM in his own time, however. Nobody in any front office even came close to his ability to find those players who kept the machine that was the Canadiens running smooth.

“People build teams in certain ways. I’ve always traded for futures – not pasts,” he once said. He believed a team at the top of the heap had to work even harder to stay there. After the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1966, Pollock invited 110 players to training camp. Most teams defending a championship would focus on repeating what worked, maintaining the elusive chemistry of their club. Pollock, a maverick if there ever was one, did not care what his team had done, but focused instead on what his team could do next.

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Mar 19

Gump Worsley

Lorne Worsley was always the man when it came to playing goalie. It is not his fault that for the New York Rangers off and on from 1952-1963, a stretch of terrible hockey in the Big Apple. In his first season, even though the Rangers were downright awful. Worsley was named Rookie of the Year. He was sent down to the then-WHL minor league team, the Vancouver Canucks, after asking for a small raise in his salary and proceeded to win the MVP award. Gump was no joke.

His nickname came about because friends insisted he looked like the cartoon character, Andy Gump.

Worsley_Gump_1

The real Gump

AndyGump_arts

The Cartoon Gump

 

You can decide on the likeness, but it is a wonderful nickname however he earned it. Gump played steady for the Rangers, but his time with the club came to an abrupt end when he joined the player union. Wanting none of that in their organization, the Rangers traded Worsley to Montreal for practically nothing. Worsely returned to the minors, this time with the Quebec Aces, and in true Gump fashion ended up on the All-Star team. Montreal liked what they saw and brought Gump up to the big club, where Worsley helped win a Stanley Cup in 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1969.

Lorne Worsley was born in 1929 to an impoverished family in Montreal. He was born to play goalie it seemed, spending much of his youth in borrowed gear, hoping to play for the Bruins or Rangers. He had to be ecstatic to get his shot with New York. Odd it seems for a Montreal boy to not strive to play for Les Habitants, but Gump was always a bit…different.

Fearless in the net and absolutely refusing to wear a mask, Gump had a style we don’t see anymore – standing straight up in the net and claiming, “my face is my mask.” In his 24 year career, Worsley wore a mask in only his final six games. He earned his fearless reputation while with the Rangers, where he often faced upwards of 40 shots a night and had no defensive support to speak of. In fact, when asked by reporters which team gave him the most trouble, Worsley replied simply, “The Rangers.”

Worsley was always known as a funny guy, a beloved character on the ice. Sadly, the truth is Gump had a serious alcohol problem and suffered from depression throughout his career. He had a full-on nervous breakdown in the 1968 season as he had a terrible phobia when it came to flying. On a flight from Montreal to Chicago where turbulence was rampant, Gump lost it and couldn’t continue traveling with the team. With the NHL expanding ever west, flying was the new normal mode of transportation and Gump was unable to cope with it. Interestingly, even with a nervous breakdown, Gump had his best season as a professional in 1968, allowing just 1.98 goals per game throughout the season. In the subsequent playoffs, he won eleven games in a row.

At the conclusion of his career, playing for the Minnesota North Stars, Worsley had 335 wins and 352 losses. Whether playing for a powerhouse like Montreal or the disaster that was the New York Rangers, Gump always stood strong in net, doing everything a goalie could to stone whoever dared to take a shot. The defensive-minded Canadiens were key to extending Gump’s career after more than a decade of defenseless hockey in New York.

All hockey players get injured at some point, and Worsley suffered all the common ones: back, knee, hamstring…but the oddest injury came when in New York and he got a concussion when hit by a fan who threw a hard-boiled egg at the Gump. An egg. A concussion. A Gump.

In 1980, Gump was elected to the Hall of Fame, his years of top-notch net minding never to be forgotten by the true hockey faithful. Worsley died in 2007 after suffering a heart attack at his Quebec home. Not one, but two Canadian rock bands have recorded tributes to the Gump:

Gump Worsley’s Lament by Huevos Rancheros

Elegy for Gump Worsley

Gump took no guff from anyone and gave plenty of it when he had to. He smoked cigarettes in between periods, looked more like the town drunk than an All Star goalie and cracked up teammates and opponents alike. To this day, you can sometimes hear announcers spin the phrase “Stacking the Gumpers” when a goalie stops the puck by lying on his side, stacking his pads like a wall before the net.

He wouldn’t even take crap from himself. After his debilitating problems from fear of flying, Worsley retired, but was coaxed back to the NHL by the Minnesota North Stars who convinced him since they were in the center of the United States, they traveled less distance than any other team. Four years he spent with Minnesota, leading them to the playoffs three times.

There have been many great goalies through the years (even some who never played for Montreal, though I admit that is hard to imagine), but nobody had the style of Worsley. His style was his negation of style altogether. Lunging, twisting, jumping…Gump just stopped pucks and didn’t care how he looked doing it. Even with 352 losses and playing for some terrible Rangers teams, his career GAA was just 2.91.

He holds the record for most losses by a goalie in NHL history and is still considered elite. His long career ended up proving how often those losses were not his fault. In 1966 and 1968, playing with the solid Montreal defensive lines, he won the Vezina trophy.

But for me, and many others, Gump’s greatness was not found in a stat line. What makes Gump great was he was a man. A simple man. The kind of guy you run into at the gas station, that little bar around the corner or sitting in the stands watching minor-league hockey. Gump would be irascible and funny within moments of each other. Gump was a great player, but Lorne Worsley was a great human being.

God love ya, Gump.

Lorne "Gump" Worsley 1929-2007 Always, the Gumper.

Lorne “Gump” Worsley
1929-2007
Always, the Gumper.

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Mar 19

How Mario Lemieux Turned Into Petr Svoboda

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Ask any long time Habs fan about former GM Irving Grundman and you might get a dirty stare or perhaps a finger in each of their ears while they sing annoyingly, “I can’t hear you!” Let’s just say Grundman was hardly a popular man in Montreal.

He was an odd choice to begin with, having no real hockey experience. His success in life came from a bunch of bowling alleys he owned throughout Canada. So the main man in Montreal was…a bowling alley owner. Good times.

Grundman ended up driving Scotty Bowman out of town after coach had enough of Irving’s temperament. Bowman, whatever you might say about him, knows hockey and he could tell right away Grundman knew next to nothing. Bowman – never a man of great patience – walked away from the mess he saw coming in the Canadiens’ head office.

Grundman did try to pull off a major move though in 1981. By then, 16 year old Mario Lemieux had caught the eye of the hockey world and Grundman predicted Mario would be the first round choice in three years time. All he had to do was find some way to snag him and bring the Habs another star. In what is actually a rather cunning bit of planning for the future, Grundman sent Pierre Larouche, their 1984 first round pick and their 1985 third round pick to the Hartford Whalers (remember them?) in exchange for Hartford’s 1984 first and second rounders and a third round pick in 1985. What Grundman was banking on was that Hartford would suck in 1984 and Montreal would be in a great spot to snag Mario.

Well,Grundman was not totally wrong. The Whalers did indeed live in the bottom of the league, but not far enough down. That spot belonged to the woeful Pittsburgh Penguins, who drafted Lemieux, leaving the Canadiens without their prize. Of course, by this time Grundman was long removed from the front office, having blundered too often to maintain his role as the team’s general manager.

Still, the Habs held the fifth pick in a loaded draft. Shayne Corson was highly touted and was available to the Canadiens. In a shocking move at the time, Montreal opted to pick Czech defenseman Petr Svoboda. Serge Savard had taken over as GM by then and he had inside knowledge that Svoboda had defected to West Germany, making him available. Savard ended up being only slightly more respected than Grundman by Canadiens’ fan, but he did pull off another trade and ended up drafting Corson three picks later anyway.

Now, Svoboda did end up winning a cup with Montreal in 1986, and Corson was a solid player from 1986 to 1992 for the Habs, but neither was anything close to Lemieux who was a key reason the Penguins went from a bankrupt team to one of the elite squads in the NHL, picking up 2 Cups with Lemeiux on the ice (and another with him running things from upstairs). Just imagine Mario in the bleu blanc rouge. Just imagine having Roy in net and Lemieux with that other Lemieux (Claude) on the ice. Let’s just admit there were probably 2-3 more Stanley Cups and Serge Savard would have a much better reputation if the engineering of Grundman had actually paid off.

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Mar 16

“They Don’t Have the Team, the Defense, the Talent or the Guts.”

When Turk Sanderson uttered the quote in this title, he was admittedly frustrated. The Boston Bruins, for the second straight season, had lost to the hated Canadiens, this time in a double-overtime thriller in Boston. When Claude Provost intercepted a pass outside the Bruins zone, he heard Jean Beliveau calling to him and flipped a pass to him right at the circle. Beliveau didn’t wait and buried the puck for the 2-1 win and a return to defend their championship from 1968.

The Finals were once again completely one-sided against the expansion St. Louis Blues. In this round, Montreal again swept the Blues with oft-forgotten goalie Rogie Vachon allowing an amazing three total goals in the series, capping his brilliant performance with a shutout in the final game. These Finals proved once again the dominance of Les Canadiens.

Turk Sanderson

Turk baffled after losing to Montreal…again.

But it was the Bruins series that defined this team. There is nothing like beating the Bruins, but Sanderson’s quote captured the historical issue other teams have with Montreal. Undersized. Small. Fast. Montreal has never been much of a “goon squad”, never relied on size and strength as their main weapon. The Bruins have a history of playing tough hockey, and their game can be quite entertaining at times, but their belief that because they were bigger and tougher they should win…well we have heard that claim for decades. When Montreal took the ice in the sixth game against the Bruins, they were facing a team they had not beat on their home ice all year and a Bruins team that had not lost there since late December. In the first period, the Bruins had 22 shots on goal while Montreal only had a measly 8. In this same period, due to an elbowing call on Johnny Ferguson and a bench penalty on head coach Claude Ruel, the Bruins had a 5-3 power play for 1:24 and were primed to take control of the game.

Something went wrong on the way to that second goal, however. Montreal killed the penalty, thanks mainly to Ted Harris and Jacques Laperriere giving Vachon the support he needed and when the horn sounded, it remained a one goal game. Sanderson must have been chewing through his lip trying to figure out why this tiny team with “no guts” was hanging around in the game.

In the third period, Montreal played their style of hockey. Serge Savard nailed a shot that chipped off the ice and past Gerry Cheevers and incredible defense – including a stick block on a nasty Bobby Orr slapshot that was destined for the net – sent the teams to overtime.

It had to be here that doubt firmly rooted itself in the minds of the Bruins. Boston had not found a way to win against the Habs in overtime in over two decades and here they were again playing for their postseason lives. Along with the derision brought on by being small and fast, Montreal also has been labeled with being lucky. There is some truth in that. Good teams are often “lucky” in the eyes of the defeated and when Phil Esposito missed what was essentially a wide open net and followed up with another head-scratching miss to close the period, there was no question Montreal had escaped and gotten lucky again.

If you asked Jean Beliveau about luck though, he would tell you it was part of the game. He might throw in it was part of Montreal, especially in the playoffs. The Bruins beat up on the Canadiens, they crashed the net for the entire game, and never believed they couldn’t eventually wear out the Canadiens and head off to win their first Stanley Cup in 30 years. It wasn’t luck that ended this game. Luck only goes so far, only gets you another chance for victory and Beliveau would not be denied in the second overtime, yelling to Provost and ending the Bruins’ season. Again.

Sanderson’s comment was clearly misguided, spoken in the bitterness of defeat. Had the claim not been repeated in years prior and since, it would be forgotten in the way many such comments are. But Montreal has always been their best when they play their game, their way. Small and fast, smart and accurate, gritty and opportunistic is a mantra in Montreal because it works. Teams like the Bruins will continue to assert their physical dominance – and they will sometimes win the day – but over and over again Montreal’s little pests find their way to victory. It’s Montreal hockey, it’s not the only way to play the game, but it is the Montreal way.

Sanderson had one more thing to add to his comments that he said through the gritted teeth of the defeated and the baffled. His full post game comment was, “They don’t have the team, the defense, the talent or the guts. But they get the goals.”

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