Backchecking: Jean-Guy Talbot

Talbot was never the star of The Show,
 but he left many behind-the-scenes marks in the NHL’s storied history.

There are several truly remarkable footnotes on the career of Jean-Guy Talbot.

In Quebec junior hockey in 1952, Talbot’s errant stick to the head of 19-year-old William ‘Scotty’ Bowman left the player with recurring headaches. That led to Bowman becoming tentative on the ice, which eventually pushed him toward the most successful coaching career in NHL history.

After Talbot turned pro, he won the Stanley Cup in each of his first five NHL seasons, a feat shared only by teammates Henri Richard, Claude Provost and Bob Turner. Led by Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau, the Montreal Canadiens won the first of five consecutive Cups in 1955-56.

“I didn’t know anything other than what it was like to win it all every year those five seasons,” Talbot said. “That had to be one of the best teams of all-time. A whole group of us (12) stayed together for all five Cups.”

Talbot broke in as the Habs No. 5 defenseman and had great blueline role models in Doug Harvey, Butch Bouchard and Dollard St. Laurent. He was known for physical play and being an adept passer from Day 1. Talbot won seven Cups with the Canadiens, but lost in the Cup final four consecutive years, one with Montreal and then three with the expansion St. Louis Blues.

It was with the Blues that Talbot was involved in one of the seminal moments in hockey history. In overtime of the 1970 final, Talbot was checking Bobby Orr in the corner when a give-and-go with Derek Sanderson resulted in Orr firing the puck past St. Louis goalie Glenn Hall. As Orr got lofted into the air off the stick of Blues defenseman Noel Picard, Talbot had a front-row seat. Watch it on YouTube and you’ll see No. 17 Talbot in a white helmet cruising behind the Blues net.

“I had the best vantage point of all,” Talbot said. “It all happened right there in front of me.”

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That was the last playoff game Talbot played. He finished his 16-year career in Buffalo, then transitioned into coaching. After a few seasons in minor league Denver and one with the Blues, Talbot got a call from ex-Canadiens teammate John Ferguson to coach in the Big Apple. His one-year coaching stint in New York was more dubious than remarkable. Talbot made the mistake of wearing a polyester tracksuit behind the bench and that became known as hockey’s biggest fashion faux pas.

Talbot was prone to sweating and got embarrassed when his shirt and jacket were dripping with perspiration in post-game scrums. He got caught in a perfect storm of sweat, sweatpants and practical decision-making.

“I asked (GM) John (Ferguson) ‘Will you let me wear a tracksuit during games? They’re looser and more comfortable.  After a game, I take a shower and it feels good to put on a clean, dry suit instead of one that’s damp from the sweat.’ I think John felt bad for me so he didn’t argue with it. He let me do it for the last half of the season.”

An NHL coach wearing a tracksuit wasn’t that huge of a deal in the loosey-goosey 1970s, a decade infused with disco lights and Ultrasuede leisure suits. But with the passage of time, the “awe, really” factor gets ramped up.

Talbot left coaching in 1978 and worked 12 years as a sales rep for O’Keefe Breweries in Trois-Rivieres, Que. Now 81 and married to Pierrette for 61 years, Talbot is in good health and spends some travel time visiting two sons and a daughter (and five granddaughters) in Texas, Colorado and New York.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 14, 2013 edition of The Hockey News. For more great analysis, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to THN magazine.