MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens righted what a lot of their fans felt was an egregious wrong.
By retiring the No. 3 jersey of Emile (Butch) Bouchard and the No. 16 of Elmer Lach on Friday night as part of the team’s 100th anniversary ceremony, the Canadiens celebrated the careers of their two oldest living Hall of Famers. Both players were elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966, so it was only appropriate that their jerseys be retired on the same night.
But if Lach had his way, he’d still be donning his skates.
“It feels pretty good,” said Lach, 91, moments after stepping off the Bell Centre ice. “But I wish I was wearing it instead of hanging it up.”
Lach centred the famous “Punch Line” between Maurice (The Rocket) Richard and Toe Blake in the 1940’s and 50’s, winning three Stanley Cups and retiring in 1954 as the NHL’s all-time assists leader.
He said he was happy to be joining his former linemate Richard among the numbers hanging from the Bell Centre rafters.
“Playing with The Rocket was like driving a new car,” Lach said.
For Bouchard, 90, Friday night’s ceremony was the culmination of a three-year grassroots campaign.
His son Jean was very involved in trying to pressure the team to recognize his father’s contributions over his 15-year Habs career, nine of them as team captain.
“I think he’s very relieved,” Jean Bouchard said. “I remember the first time I went to see him about it three years ago. He told me he wanted it for the grandchildren. He didn’t care about himself, he wanted it for them. I told him not to worry about it, we would do what we needed to do.”
Bouchard, along with Richard, was an important symbol to the city’s French-speaking population in the 40’s and 50’s, a dominant stay-at-home defenceman known as the “Rock of Gibraltar” who won four Stanley Cups and was a league all-star four times.
“Whenever I talked to anyone who was in their eighties it was so unanimous,” Jean Bouchard said. “There were two, there was Maurice and there was Butch. They were the two giants, the two idols of the era.”
Bouchard’s No. 3 jersey was currently being worn by Habs defenceman Ryan O’Byrne, who has the same defensive style as the Canadiens legend. Just before the banner was raised to the rafters, O’Byrne removed his No. 3 and handed it to the wheelchair-bound Bouchard, revealing a new No. 20 jersey underneath.
“I thought it was great to see Ryan O’Byrne do that,” Jean Bouchard said. “Last year I thought he had so much pressure wearing that number. If he were a Quebecer, everyone in his family, in his neighbourhood would have told him to leave No. 3 aside. But he came from B.C., and I don’t think he knew what it represented.”
O’Byrne said it was only after meeting one of Bouchard’s sons last year that he decided to do some research into his career, and suddenly wearing the No. 3 began to carry more weight.
“When (Bouchard) came to the Canadiens, things weren’t really going so well, but he helped turn it around,” O’Byrne said. “He’s a guy I came to really look up to, a defensive defenceman like me. It was a real honour to give up my number.”
Canadiens team president Pierre Boivin said in a statement that the decision to retire the two jerseys came as a result of several months of discussions between former owner George Gillett, new lead owner Geoff Molson and the organization. Ultimately, Boivin said it was the team’s paying customers who made the decision easy.
“We were guided by our fans in this decision and we also wanted to further recognize the great players from the first 50 years of the club,” Boivin said. “Not only were they star players in their day, but Emile Bouchard and Elmer Lach are widely considered to be two proud Montrealers who dedicated their lives to their team and their community. They are most deserving of this honour.”
Bouchard and Lach become the 16th and 17th players to have their jerseys retired by the Canadiens, joining Jacques Plante (No. 1), Doug Harvey (No. 2), Jean Beliveau (No. 4), Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion (No. 5), Howie Morenz (No. 7), Maurice (The Rocket) Richard (No. 9), Guy Lafleur (No. 10), Dickie Moore (No. 12), Yvan Cournoyer (No. 12), Henri Richard (No. 16), Serge Savard (No. 18), Larry Robinson (No. 19), Bob Gainey (No. 23), Ken Dryden (No. 29) and Patrick Roy (No. 33).