MONTREAL – The players were the stars, but there was none on the Montreal Canadiens more respected than coaches Dick Irvin, Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman.
The three men who together guided the club to 16 of their 24 Stanley Cups between 1940 and 1979 were honoured on Tuesday night with columns on Builders Row on the mezzanine of the Bell Centre as part of the team’s 100th anniversary celebrations.
Only Bowman survives, and he made his way out to centre ice for the ceremonial face-off before a game against the Carolina Hurricanes accompanied by his wife Suella, Toe Blake’s son Bruce and former Canadiens play-by-play announcer Dick Irvin Jr. with his daughter Nancy.
Bruce Blake wore one of his father’s fedoras and one of the red cardigans with a team crest over the heart that his dad wore during practices. The sweater is nearly 60 years old and comes out only on special occasions, said Bruce’s wife Julie Blake.
Two of Blake’s great-grandsons donned skates and carried team flags to lead the Canadiens onto the ice to start the game.
“It means a great deal to all of us,” said Bruce Blake. “We’re proud of my father for being a great player and a great coach, and being in the company of Dick Irvin and Scotty Bowman is a great feeling.”
The line of columns on Builders’ Row is to feature the 10 former Canadiens coaches and executives in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Each has pictures and a brief biography of the coaches.
Irvin coached the Canadiens from 1940 to ’55, when one of his former star players, Blake, took over until ’68. Bowman Coached the Canadiens from 1971 to ’79.
Irvin, a Hamilton native who had been a star player, had previously coached in Chicago and Toronto before he took over in Montreal and helped the Canadiens end a 13-year Cup drought with a championship in 1943-44. In 896 games with the team, his record was 431-313-152.
“It was all hockey all the time with him during the season,” Irvin Jr. said of his father. “In the off-season he had other pursuits, but he was so wrapped up in the game.
“He just loved hockey. He always said that among the players he coached, the one who liked hockey the most was Toe Blake. When I travelled all those years with the team when Scotty was the coach, I could see a lot of my dad in him. Again, all hockey all the time. That’s how these guys think and that’s what made them so good.”
Irvin coached the Punch Line – Blake with Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Elmer Lach – and was known for having tough teams.
“Tough teams in tough times in the old six-team league,” said Irvin Jr. “You look at those days, there were Jack Adams, Conn Smythe, Lester Patrick and Art Ross. They were tough old birds.
“And they went at each other for years. They were tough and they wanted teams as tough as they were.”
Blake’s Canadiens, led by Jean Beliveau, Doug Harvey and others, won a record five Stanley Cups in a row from 1956 to 1960 and three more in the 1960s. The Victoria Mines, Ont., native left with a record of 500-255-159.
One of his proteges in those days was a young Bowman.
“I coached the junior team when he was with Montreal,” said Bowman. “I went mostly every Friday.
“Toe was the first coach I knew that did match-ups. And they didn’t get the statistics they get today. You had to do your own, so you spent a lot of time in the office. People didn’t realize that.”
Bowman was behind the bench for the Canadiens team that won four straight Cups from 1976 to ’79, with Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden, and the Big Three on defence – Serge Savard, Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe.
In eight seasons, his record was 419-110-105, a stunning .744 winning percentage.
“Now there’s 30 teams, there’s a lot of parity in the league and it would be awfully difficult now,” said Bowman.
Bowman will be doing a lot of remembering this fall. On Saturday, he will be in Peterborough for the 50th anniversary of the junior Petes’ rise to the Memorial Cup final, a team he coached. And he will be in Ottawa on Nov. 15 to honour a Memorial Cup winner he coached there – the Hull-Ottawa Junior Canadiens.
The Canadiens, founded in 1909, have several events planned for their 100th season, including the retiring of former goaltender Patrick Roy’s jersey on Nov. 22 and several games in which players will wear vintage jerseys.