Longtime fans of the Montreal Canadiens, who mark their 100th anniversary on Dec. 4, can remember when winning the Stanley Cup was more of an expectation than a hope.
The Habs won 15 NHL championships in 23 seasons between 1956 and 1979, with dynasties as bookends. It was a level of success that, given how the hockey business has changed, will never be repeated.
So, how did they do it?
Picking the right people to manage and coach had a lot to do with it.
Go back to the days of the Original Six.
Toe Blake was named head coach on June 8, 1955, of an all-star cast assembled by GM Frank Selke that included goaltender Jacques Plante, a top-four defence of Doug Harvey, Dollard St-Laurent, Tom Johnson and captain Butch Bouchard, accomplished scorers Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau and Bernie Geoffrion, tenacious wingers Dickie Moore and Bert Olmstead, and defensive forwards Ken Mosdell, Floyd Curry and Claude Provost.
Adding 19-year-old rookie Henri Richard. The Rocket’s kid brother, and penalty killing specialist Donny Marshall also helped the Canadiens to five straight titles, which remains an NHL record. Anybody old enough today to have watched them back then will swear on a stack of bibles that there has never been a better team.
What a power play: Harvey quarterbacking from the left point, Boom Boom refining the slap shot from the right point, Olmstead digging the puck out of the corner, Beliveau the consummate playmaker, and The Rocket supplying the furious finish.
In its five-year reign, Montreal won 40 of 49 playoff games and never fell behind in a series. Blake motivated extraordinarily talented players.
Rookie centre Ralph Backstrom was eased into the lineup in 1958-59, and Plante changed the face of hockey in 1959-60 by donning a mask. When the Canadiens swept aside Chicago and Toronto in the minimum eight playoff games, Leafs boss Conn Smythe paid Blake’s Boys the ultimate complement.
“We lost to the greatest team of all time,” said Smythe.
After Maurice Richard retired at age 39 in 1960, the Canadiens watched Chicago win the Stanley Cup in 1961 and Toronto take it the next three years. Things turned back Montreal’s way after Sam Pollock was installed as GM in 1964.
The defence featured Jacques Laperriere, J.C. Tremblay, Terry Harper, Ted Harris and Jean-Guy Talbot, who was a holdover from the five-Cup run. Beliveau, who was elected captain by his teammates in 1961, Backstrom and Henri Richard provided strength down the middle, and Bobby Rousseau and John Ferguson patrolled the wings.
When Gilles Tremblay broke his right leg just before Christmas, Pollock acquired Dick Duff from the Rangers and Montreal swept Duff’s old Leafs team to end Toronto’s championship run. Provost then shut down Chicago’s Bobby Hull while Gump Worsley starred in goal in a seven-game championship series. Beliveau won the new Conn Smythe Trophy.
The Habs were back on top, and they’d win the Stanley Cup again in 1966. Toronto upset Montreal in the 1967 final, and the NHL doubled in size to 12 teams the following season.
With rookies Serge Savard, Jacques Lemaire and Mickey Redmond inserted into the lineup, the Canadiens finished first overall in 1967-68 and needed only 13 games in three rounds of playoffs to win another championship. It was Blake’s eighth. The fedora-clad bench boss was 55. He’d coached the team for 13 years. He’d had enough and quit.
Chief scout Claude Ruel was named head coach and Montreal again finished first overall. Yvan Cournoyer got to play a full-time role under Ruel and thrived. Only 14 playoff games were needed to clinch another title, and Savard was the first defenceman to win the playoffs MVP award.
Beset by injuries – Savard broke a leg and Beliveau an ankle – Montreal missed the playoffs for the first time in 21 years in 1970, when Boston won it all. Ruel was replaced by Al MacNeil. The Bruins were favoured to prevail again the next season, but Montreal spoiled their party.
Pollock’s trade to get Frank Mahovlich – he already had the Big M’s brother, Pete Mahovlich – was a key, and rookie goalie Ken Dryden came out of nowhere. He’d appeared in only six regular-season games but he proceeded to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. Montreal ousted the Bruins in seven, defeated Minnesota in six and, with a 3-2 win in Chicago in the deciding seventh game of the championship series, was again on top of the hockey world.
“The best of all the 10 Stanley Cups I’ve won,” Henri Richard replied after the ’71 victory. “It’s the best, better than the other nine because we were so much the underdogs it wasn’t funny.”
A year of transition followed as Beliveau, one of the best stickhandling centres and classiest captains of all time, and the rough-and-tumble Ferguson both retired.
A universal draft had been introduced and Pollock had adapted brilliantly to stockpile picks. He used the No. 1 position in 1971, plucked from lowly Oakland, to get Guy Lafleur. On Sept. 18, 1971, a new era in Canadiens history began when Lafleur laced on skates for his first exhibition game, and a new head coach, Scotty Bowman, stepped behind the bench.
Boston regained the Stanley Cup that season, but Montreal snatched it back in 1973. Henri Richard was captain now and The Pocket Rocket celebrated an 11th Stanley Cup triumph. Cournoyer, nicknamed The Roadrunner for his small size and blinding speed, was presented with the MVP award after Game 6 of the final in Chicago.
Philadelphia won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975. Dryden had quit in a contract dispute and Mahovlich was among players who’d jumped to the World Hockey Association. Laperriere, who didn’t enjoy playing for Bowman, announced his retirement, and Henri Richard hung ’em up in ’75.
The on-ice leadership was in the hands of Cournoyer, the new captain, Lemaire and Savard now. Lafleur was breaking through as an elite scorer. Lanky young winger Bob Gainey was ready for prime time and Dryden returned from his law office exile. Starting in the spring of 1976, the Canadiens would win four consecutive championships.
Savard, Guy Lapointe and Larry Robinson were big and mobile and anchored the defence. Lafleur, who would win his second straight scoring title, Lemaire and Steve Shutt combined for 150 goals in 1976-77. Cournoyer, Pete Mahovlich and more often than not Rejean Houle, who’d returned from the WHA, were a potent second unit. Yvon Lambert, Doug Risebrough and Mario Tremblay comprised a high-energy third line, and Gainey, Doug Jarvis and Jim Roberts checked opponents into the ice.
It couldn’t last forever.
Personnel changes followed. Pollock quit in the summer of ’78; a bad back forced 10-Cup winner Cournoyer to retire after playing only 15 games that autumn; Bowman, miffed after being passed over for the GM’s job, packed his bags; and Dryden and Lemaire retired while in their early 30s.
The Habs had won 15 championships in 23 years.