Gilbert Perreault: The Forgotten Frenchman

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
Gilbert Perreault: The Forgotten Frenchman

Gilbert Perreault came out of junior hockey a year ahead of Guy Lafleur and Marcell Dionne.

 

He was a year older than those two all-time great French Canadian hockey players. His career has always seemed tied to and overshadowed by one or the other, or both of them. They were always a year younger and yet seemingly better.

 

That comparison never seemed fair to me.

 

Gilbert Perreault was one of the greatest hockey players I’ve ever seen play the game. He made plays at speed like Lemieux, but he was faster than him. He was just as fast as Lafleur, but with more control and better puck handling skills. He was as fast as Orr with moves like Beliveau.

 

He was one of those transcendent players who come along all too rarely. Yet for most of his career and after it was over, he has seemed to be looked at as just another player.  

 

The comparison always seemed to find him wanting. He’s not quite Lafleur, he’s not Dionne, he hasn’t won a cup, he’s talented, but he’s not extraordinary.

 

Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

In my estimation, Perreault was one of the all-time greats. When I first heard Howie Morenz’s nickname I imagined he must have looked a lot like Perreault on ice. He must have exploded like he was shot out of a cannon moving at twice the speed of normal men.

 

However, while I imagined Howie with short, strong, choppy strides eating up distance, Perreault was quick, but smooth like silk. He was speed incarnate with little discernible effort. He deserved a nickname like the "Stratford Streak," the "Road Runner," the "Golden Jet," or the "Rocket", because he was faster than all of them and perhaps not as appreciated as any of them.

 

The French Connection was a great nickname for a line, but what did Perreault himself get? Gilly?

 

During his last season in junior league, the 19-year-old had 51 goals and 70 assists in 54 games in the OHA. Pretty impressive, eh?

 

Yet in that same year, 18-year-old Marcel Dionne had 55 goals and 77 assists in the same number of games. The next year Dionne had 62 and 81 in 46 games.

 

In 1969-1970, 18-year-old Guy Lafluer had 103 goals and 67 assists in 56 games in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The next year he had 130 goals and 79 assists in 62 games. He averaged more than two goals a game in major junior hockey.

 

Already it was hard for Perreault to compete. Whatever he did, whatever he managed, they did it better.

 

Perreault was a year older, and became Buffalo’s first franchise draft pick. He was the first man taken overall in 1970 amateur draft. Yet somehow the other two still outshone him.

 

All three broke into the NHL straight out of junior but Gilbert was there a year earlier. He starred for the Buffalo Sabres with almost a point a game his first two seasons, scoring 38 goals as a rookie and breaking the record set by Nels Stewart in the 1920s.

 

He stepped back to 26 goals and 48 assists in his second season, while playing 76 games. He won the Calder trophy when Lafleur and Dionne weren’t there, but then Dionne made a seamless transition to the big leagues in 71-72 with Detroit.

 

Dionne managed 28 goals and 49 assists in 78 games. He had bested the year older Perreault by the slightest of margins, again. Lafleur in the high-pressured Montreal market had flopped in his debut as a rookie in 1971-72 with only 29 goals and 35 assists in 73 games playing on the checking line. Yes, the standards have always been crazy high in Montreal.

 

Then came the 1972 summit series versus the Russians.

 

In September, before the season started, Perreault and Dionne were invited to the training camp and joined the roster to play in this unprecedented international hockey tournament. They were two out of 38 players chosen to represent their country against the Russians.

 

The entire tournament was designed to allow Canada and the NHL to reestablish their imagined dominance in world hockey. The Canadians hadn’t won gold at the Olympics since 1952.

 

The Edmonton Mercurys won the 1951 Canadian Senior Hockey Championship, the Allan Cup, and were the last club team to win the Olympic tournament for Canada. Canada continued to send club teams till 1964. The Trail Smoke Eaters became the last Canadian amateur team to win the world championship in 1961.

 

Canada felt their amateur teams were forced into an uneven competition with what they saw as basically professional all star teams from beyond the iron curtain. The Canadian club teams now were being embarrassed at international competitions. The IIHF voted to allow Canada to use nine non-NHL pros on its international hockey teams in 1969.

 

However, Avery Brundage of the IOC and Bunny Ahearne of the IIHF acted to have professionals again excluded from their tournaments.

 

Canada subsequently opted out of international hockey.

 

They had been chosen as the first non-European host of the World Hockey Championships and they declined to host the event in 1970.

 

They missed the Olympics in 1972 and 1976 and didn’t play in the World Championship again until 1977.

 

The 1972 series was designed to right a world of wrongs. Canada decided to play the Russians outside of any IIHF format flouting Ahearne and the European organization of international hockey. Those Russian players who had trounced Canadian senior champion club teams and the amateur national team would be made to pay for their effrontery.

 

The arrogance of the NHL was unbounded. They refused to allow stars from the rival WHA, like Bobby Hull and JC Tremblay play in the tournament. This was one of the reasons youngsters like Perreault, Martin, Guevrement, and Dionne were even invited.

 

 

The NHL’s hubris was repaid in spades as they lost the first game at home in Montreal 7-3. The Russians were not only too professional for Canadian amateur teams, they were too professional for the NHLers.

 

The Russians stayed in game shape year-round and worked out all the time. The NHL players had a comparatively relaxed training camp and tended to play themselves into shape during the NHL season. The concept of dry land training was foreign to them. They were skaters not runners.

 

Desperation set in as another hockey humiliation seemed on the way.

 

Team Canada coach Harry Sinden made a bevy of substitutions for game two. He changed the goalies, Tony Esposito for Ken Dryden, and he also took out some of the slower skating veterans for younger, faster players who could hopefully keep up with the speedy Russians. He benched the Ratelle-Gilbert-Hadfield line. Don Awrey came out; Serge Savard went in. Substitutions became the order of the day after every game.

 

Perreault finally got a chance to play in Game Four. He scored a beautiful individual effort goal but the Canadians lost the game 5-3 and were booed off the ice in Vancouver.

 

The players then travelled to Sweden to play two exhibition games to prepare for the final four games in Moscow. Rats started to desert the sinking ship as Vic Hadfield, Rick Martin, and Jocelyn Guevrement chose to return to Canada and “prepare” for the regular season.

 

Perreault played again in Game Five, getting an assist, but Canada lost again to the Russians, giving up a 4-1 lead in the third period.

 

It was then that Perreault, a young, young man, made a decision that I believe marked his career from then on. He chose to follow teammate Martin back to Buffalo. Sinden says in his book Hockey Showdown that he begged Perrault to stay. The others hadn’t and weren’t going to play because their style or ability wouldn’t let them compete with this Russian team.

 

Marcel Dionne never played and yet received kudos for his willingness to stay, skate with the team, practice with them, and support them in Russia as one of the black aces.

 

Perreault, Sinden said, was one of the few players he had on the roster like Cournoyer, like Henderson, who could skate with this Russian team.

 

After Perreault left, Canada managed an unlikely comeback and won the Summit Series, winning the last three games in Moscow. They won the final game on a goal with 34 seconds left after trailing by two going into the third period. The players who left, including Perreault, were pilloried in the Canadian Press and certainly in Sinden’s book on the series. The players who stayed and won were lionized.

 

I’m not sure if I’d have wanted to be on that team if they’d lost, especially if they were swept in Russia, rather than winning those last three one goal games. But they didn’t lose; they won, and very few people ever forgot the players who abandoned their country’s national team in their moment of crisis.

 

Perreault came back from the '72 series with a tarnished reputation, but he leapt into the season. On the French Connection line with Richard Martin and Rene Robert he had 88 points in 78 games, leading the Sabres to their first playoff appearance in his third season.

 

In six playoff games he had 10 points, but the Sabres were ousted by the eventual champion Montreal Canadiens. Perreault was the star of his team, while Lafleur was an under-performing checker with 55 points in 73 games, and eight in 17 in the playoffs.

 

Dionne had 90 points in 77 games with Detroit but was suffering through the Red Wings Gordie Howe to Stevie Yzerman greatness drought and was apparently not enough on his own to get them in the playoffs. 

 

The next year, Perreault broke his leg and had 55 points in 51 games while the Sabres missed the playoffs.

 

The season after that, 1974-75, was one of his and Buffalo’s greatest. Perrault finished with 96 points in 68 regular season games, while each member of the French Connection finished in the Top 10 of NHL regular season scoring.

 

At the same time, though, Dionne was third in the league with the playoffless Wings, just behind Orr and Esposito. He had 47 goals and 74 assists.

 

Worse for Perrault was the fact that Lafleur had finally gotten his legs under him and finished fourth in scoring. Lafleur had 53 goals and 66 assists in 70 games.

 

Perreault, in one of his greatest moments, had still somehow slipped behind Lafleur and Dionne again. Eclipsed, you could say.

 

The Sabres got a bye to the second round where they took out the Chicago Blackhawks in five games. They then faced Lafleur and Les Glourieux in the semifinals. The Sabres won the first two at home 6-5 and 4-2 and then were swamped in Montreal, losing 8-0 and 7-2. They then proceeded to win two close games 5-4 in Buffalo and 4-3 in Montreal.

 

Lafleur had 19 points in 11 games that playoff year, but Perreault was going to the Stanley Cup Finals versus the Philadelphia Flyers. This was a first for the NHL as two non-original six teams were meeting in the finals for the first time.

 

He ended that playoff season with six goals and nine assists in 17 games. He tied for fifth in playoff scoring. The finals had a young team, the Sabres, over-matched against the Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers. Buffalo scored a goal in three losses and were shut out once.

 

They won the first game in Buffalo, the infamous fog game, 5-4 in overtime. This represented their best effort in the series, in a nadir in ice-making and air conditioning in an NHL hockey rink in May. They managed to win the second game in Buffalo 4-2, but the Flyers at home with Kate Smith, their rabid fans, and intimidating team clobbered them 5-1.

 

In the last game in Buffalo, Bernie Parent, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, shut them out. Bobby Clarke had basically shut down the French Connection in the finals and Bernie Parent finished them off.

 

This Buffalo team was competitive for years after the loss, but Perreault never managed to make it back to the Stanley Cup finals again.

 

His next year was his best ever, with 113 points in 80 games. He finished third in NHL scoring.

 

In LA, Dionne made the playoffs but only had 90 points that year. Guy Lafleur had surpassed him though, finishing with 120 points. If it wasn’t one it was the other.

 

NHL club teams played a series against Russian club teams, Red Army and the Soviet Wings. Buffalo crushed a Soviet Wings team who would or had beat the Islanders, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. Jerry “King Kong” Korab crumpled 1972 Russia-Canada series star Alexander Yakushev with a body check early on and the Soviets never recovered.

 

This was Perreault’s first opportunity since 1972 to face the Russians and attempt to expunge his international record after the '72 debacle. He had a goal and two assists in a 12-6 win and was all over the Wings as they were outshot 46-22. They couldn’t deal with him or the physical Sabres.

 

The playoffs that year had the Habs sweep the Flyers for the cup. Buffalo was taken out by the champions in the making, the Dennis Potvin lead, New York Islanders.

 

That summer the first Canada Cup international hockey series was organized. It was scheduled for what would normally be training camp for NHLers. It was held in the first two weeks in September. The tournament was a round robin involving the USSR, Czechoslovakia, the US, Finland, Sweden, and of course Canada.

 

This was the first international hockey tournament since 1972, involving the best Canadian hockey players. The WHA had an eight-game tournament with the Russians imitating the original summit series in 1974 and lost. The Russians won four, lost one, and tied three in that series.

 

The Canada Cup tournament was designed to allow the best Canadian players to play against the best in the world and win. The tournament was held in North American rinks with NHL referees and rules. They also allowed WHA players who had been excluded in 1972, to play. Bobby Hull got his first and last chance to play with the best Canadians in the world against the best players in the world.

 

Unfortunately, the Russians sent a sub-par team and finished third. Olympic stars from the gold medal Russian team including Kharlamov, Mikhailov, Shadrin, Yakushev, Petrov, and Liapkin did not play.

 

This was one of the best Canadian international teams ever assembled and I’d say definitively the best defense Canada or anyone has ever put together. You started with a one-legged Bobby Orr with his last gasp of greatness. Add 22-year-old Dennis Potvin fresh off his first James Norris trophy, throw in Larry Robinson, 1972 stalwarts Savard, Lapointe, Carol Vadnais, and Jim Watson, and there was a defense not to be equaled.

 

The choosing of the MVP for the series came down to a fight between Bobby Orr and Dennis Potvin.

 

Orr played the single greatest offensive game I’ve ever seen from a defenceman in the first game of the playoffs where Canada demolished Czechoslovakia 6-0. Unfortunately, he could hardly skate in the second playoff game.

 

Dennis Potvin insisted he was better than Bobby Orr during that series. I’d say for the entire series he was as good as Bobby. He had an unbelievable series. At that point in their two careers they were very comparable.

 

Offensively, he had nine points like Orr. He skated almost as well as Orr, better when Orr was hurting. He hit players and went through them like he was made of some better, denser material. He was a complete defenceman and at his young best in this series. Potvin was a Scott Stevens-Bobby Orr amalgam in that series and during his career. He was mean as Messier and had talent to burn.

 

Yet for me at the time, and then watching the games 20 years later on DVD, the best player on the Canadian team was Perreault.

 

He ended the series with eight points, four goals, and four assists, one behind Orr and Potvin. Those certainly weren’t dominating numbers in seven games. He didn’t score the overtime winner in the final game like Sittler did. It wasn’t his last kick at the can like it was for Hull or Orr so he wasn’t by a long stretch the sentimental favourite. Starting with the 11-3 roll up of the Finns, though, he played like a dispossessed man in search of redemption.

 

He created chances every time he was on the ice. He made three or four end-to-end rushes every game. He’d cut though entire teams of players and no other team on earth could deal with him.

 

The Swedes with Borje Salming couldn’t stop him. The quick skating Russians and the tight-checking Czechs could not deal with his speed and ability. He was always a force whenever he was on the ice.

 

In a lineup with Shutt and Lafleur, Hull and Dionne, Clarke and Esposito, Gainey and Leach, and Pete Mahovlich and Darryl Sittler, he was head and shoulders above the rest.

 

I think in the need to give Bobby Orr one more award and with the push back from the young and fabulously talented Potvin, Perreault was lost in the shuffle. Another four points and his performance probably would have been acknowledged for the great dominating effort it was.

 

He played that series like a force of nature creating chances wherever he went. I’ve rarely seen anyone who looked so good. In contrast, Lafleur and Dionne weren’t even noticed at that tournament.    

 

The Sabres made the playoffs for 11 straight years during his time there. Perreault was a point-a-game player and team leader for that time. They missed the first two years of his career, the last two, and 1973-74, when he broke his leg. They were 9-12 in series with Perreault and 44-49 in games, good but not great.

 

His team was a force to be reckoned with every year, but other teams that were great handled his team in the playoffs. The Flyers, Bruins, and Nordiques beat them twice. The Islanders beat them in all three series they played. Buffalo did take out their other big rival Montreal and Lafleur two times out of three, but the one time Montreal beat Buffalo they won a cup. Not so for the Sabres.

 

Buffalo led the east in 1979-80 and Perreault finished fourth in league, scoring behind a young Wayne Gretzky and—you guessed it—Marcel Dionne and Guy Lafleur. They won a best of five series with Vancouver and then swept the Blackhawks.

 

They lost to the eventual champions, the New York Islanders. Perreault had an unbelievable playoff with 10 goals and 11 assists in 14 games but it wasn’t enough.  

 

Perreault was injured for part of the 1980-81 season playing, 56 games and getting 59 points. In two playoff series he had 12 points in eight games. He was chosen for the 1981 Canada Cup team and put on the first line with Wayne Gretzky and Guy Lafleur. This was to be his moment of complete redemption.

 

He was at the top of his game and acknowledged for it. He was the first string center on the first line of the Canadian national hockey team.

 

He played an incredible four games in the tournament with nine points. Playing with Lafleur and Gretzky gave him linemates who would finish his rushes with goals. He skated with them effortlessly and that line generated most of the team’s offense.

 

He was again rushing end to end and Gretzky and Lafleur scrambled to keep up. Perreault was ready to lead Canada to international hockey victory and be accorded the MVP honours he missed out on in 1976.

 

Then in the fourth game of the tournament, Gretzky dove to draw a penalty against the Swedes and rolled up Perreault’s ankle, breaking it. Though Gilbert was out of the tournament, Canada still seemed destined for victory.

 

They crushed the Soviets 7-3 without Perreault to end the round robin and then beat the US 4-1 in the semifinal.

 

Unfortunately, the Canadian team without Perreault could generate no offense in the final against the Soviets. The green unit shredded Liut in the final and handed Canada one of their worst international hockey defeats of all time, an 8-1 thrashing. It would be little solace to Perreault that he was chosen as the tournament first all-star center.  

That was his last crack at international play. He had 90 points in 73 games in 1983-84 but his game was faltering and his blistering speed failing. He was not chosen to be on the victorious 1984 Canada Cup team.

 

His career began to wind down.

 

He played 20 games in 1986-87 in order to insure he got the best pension possible. He had 16 points in those 20 games.

 

Perreault retired as the sixth leading scorer in NHL history. He had 512 goals and 814 assists in 1191 games. He had another 103 points in 90 playoff gamers. He never scored 50 goals. He never won a Stanley Cup or an Art Ross Trophy or a Hart trophy or a Conn Smythe.

 

He won a Canada Cup and should have been MVP of it but he wasn’t. He perhaps could have won a second and been MVP if Wayne Gretzky hadn’t rolled over his ankle.

 

Guy Lafleur had 560 goals and 793 assists in 1127 games. His playoff record was significantly better. Lafleur had 58 goals and 76 assists in 128 games. He scored 50 goals six times and 60 once. He had more than 120 points five years in a row and he won three scoring trophies, two MVP awards, and one Conn Smythe.

 

Dionne had the best career stats of the trio, finishing with 731 goals and 1040 assists in 1348 games. He’s fifth all-time for points scored in the NHL now. He also scored 50 goals six times. He won one scoring title, tying with Gretzky.

 

When I saw these three players playing together on the international stage against the best players in the world, however, Perreault was the best of the bunch.

 

Dionne rarely got to play internationally, and he never really excelled. Lafleur had good and bad moments and generally did well internationally, but Perreault was faster than Lafleur and better with the puck at speed. Lafleur had a great shot and played on better teams, but I’d say Gilbert Perreault was a better hockey player than either one and perhaps deserves more consideration than he gets when the greatest of all time are spoken of.  

 

He was one of the best skaters I’ve ever seen, certainly in a class with or above Lafleur in his prime, a young Gretzky, and an old Bobby Orr. He was better with the puck than Lafleur and on his own was one of the most dominant one-on-one players I’ve ever seen, again like Orr, mostly because of his speed.

 

He couldn’t finish like Lafleur, but give him a finisher and he’d create goals out of nothing. He was a typhoon of a player who skated like the wind and made plays like a Lemieux or a Beliveau but at a higher tempo. He lacked their size and was perhaps not quite the stickhandler that either of these two were, but he was close and he was doing it all faster.

 

People became disappointed when there was a game where he didn’t rush end to end. Fans in Buffalo probably didn’t realize that was a very rare occurrence in most NHL cities because Gilbert Perreault spoiled them.

 

From the very start of his career almost till the end, he could do things only a handful of NHL players were ever able to do and he did it internationally against the best players in the world.

 

In 1972, '76, and in '81 he was one of the few Canadians who not only skated with the best of the rest of the world but, like Paul Coffey, he skated past them.

 

The Hockey News put out a list of the top NHL players of all time in 1998. On that list Lafleur was No. 11, Dionne was No. 38, and Gilbert Perreault was No. 47. These lists are always tough and you tend to end up measuring a variety of factors that include success for his team and goals, points, length of career.

 

Of the three, Dionne had the best career. He’s fifth all time in points.

 

Lafleur played on the best teams and won five Stanley cups. He was league MVP twice, playoff MVP once, and won three scoring titles.

 

Perreault did none of those things. He never finished first in anything personally or with his team.

 

Yet when these players played side by side against the same opposition, Perreault was the most talented of the bunch. He dwarfed Dionne in international tournaments and I believe deserves to be counted ahead of him when the greatest players are numbered. It’s hard to argue with Lafleur’s successes and impossible to separate out how much was his doing and how much the teams.

 

I believe 11th greatest player of all-time is a little high for Lafleur, and 47th for Perreault is much too low. I believe Gilbert Perreault was actually a more talented player than Lafleur. He could do more things better than Guy did.

 

I’d certainly like to see Gilbert Perreault considered among the top 25 players of all time. I’d hate to see a man of his talent and spectacular ability simply be forgotten to time, as he slowly works his way down the list and out of the top 100. 

 

He was one of the most talented players I've ever had the pleasure of watching. Along with Orr, Gretzky, Lemieux, Esposito, Henderson, and Yzerman, he was one of the greatest players who ever skated internationally for Canada.  

 

Vive Gilbert Perreault.           

Load More Stories
Buffalo Sabres

Subscribe Now

We will never share your email address

Thanks for signing up.