Dream Team: Montreal Canadiens
If you were given the power to assemble the ultimate line-up choosing from any player that ever skated for your favorite team, who would you pick? And, how?
The 'how' is relatively simple. You obviously want the players with the most skill and talent, but you can't choose Orr to play for Chicago or Gretzky for the Blues. Given that, the chosen players must both possess skill and have made a positive contribution to the franchise.
With these two analytical tools in hand, we can dig deep into the history of every NHL franchise, combing, comparing, delicately dusting, arguing, analyzing, and maybe even ruminating if we can figure out what that is until eventually, we will have unearthed every 'Dream Team'.
Last week, I did the Toronto Maple Leafs, so it only seems fitting to move onto their long-time bitter "rivals" (can you really rival something if you always lose to it?) and the winningest franchise in NHL history, the Montreal Canadiens.
Right Wing: Maurice
This should be a no-brainer - plus if I didn't choose the "Rocket", Montreal fans would probably riot. Nevertheless, there may be some meek, timid voices in the back mumbling beneath their breath about "the flower". Yes, he is the Canadiens all time leading scorer and was the best player in the NHL during the latter half of the 70's scoring 50 goals or more in 6 consecutive seasons, winning the scoring title 3 times in a row, and the Hart trophy for the NHL's MVP twice. He also led what were arguably the greatest Canadiens teams ever - if not the entire NHL - to the cup 5 times; 4 of those in a row. Guy Lafleur could be the right-winger for almost any dream-team in the NHL.
But, really, who would you rather have on your team, a guy known as "The Flower" or a guy known as "The Rocket"? We can quickly play the stat game, although it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface on why Richard was so great. He leads the Canadiens' franchise with 544 goals, won 8 Stanley Cups, was an all-star 14 times, won a Hart trophy, and averaged a point-per-game in his career, which is no small feat given the era he played in. In the 1944-45 season he scored 50 goals in 50 games. It took 35 years and a game radically changed for this feat to be matched when Bossy's magical twine-seekers began finding unlikely homes in the back of the net. Granted, 4 players have achieved this mark since, but, at the time, this was a record that shocked the sporting world. It was truly superhuman.
And, that's exactly what Richard was to not just Canadiens fans, but all Quebecers: superhuman. He wasn't just a great hockey player, he was so much more than that, he was a social and political hero. He was the best in the world at Canada's national pastime and he was all theirs, he was a francophone, he was their man in the trenches demanding respect for an alienated and angry minority, he was a rallying cry for the downtrodden, something to proudly hold onto and say "see" to the rest of Canada, he was them and they were him. His burning, determined embers for eyes that would strike fear into god or at least Terry Sawchuk, represented the passionate and fiery pride of French Canada. No NHL player touched fans on such a profoundly personal level.
When Clarence Campbell suspended the "Rocket" in the 1955 Stanley Cup Finals, Montrealers rioted. In the same year, Richard's team-mate, Boom Boom Geoffrion, was booed by the Montreal fans in the final game of the season. Why? Richard was injured for this game and, at the time, was leading the league in scoring, Geoffrion surpassed him this night "stealing" the scoring title away from their beloved son. In 1995 during the last game to be played in the "Cathedral of Hockey", The Montreal Forum, Richard received the longest standing ovation in NHL history. On May 27th, 2000, the "Rocket" lost his fight with cancer, what followed, was nothing short of remarkable. For the first time ever, a state funeral was held for a hockey player, and thousands upon thousands came out to give their final respects for a fallen hero that gave them so much. In one day, 50 000 people lined up to file into the new forum to say goodbye.
No NHL player has meant so much to his fans.
Centre: Jean Beliveau
Le Gros Bill. Elegant. Classy. Smooth. Graceful yet bullishly powerful. Beliveau was a dream to watch on the ice; hypnotizing the Montreal faithful with his gazelle-like strides, crisp passing, bullet shot, and calm intelligence. In the waning years of Richard’s career, the heavy burden of Canadiens’ Superstar was passed onto Jean’s shoulders and he did not dissapoint. He led the Canadiens to an extraordinary 10 Stanley Cups during his benevolent reign of this powerful dynasty accumulating numerous individual honours along the way: two-time NHL MVP, First-Team All-Star in ’55, ’56, ’57, ’59, ’60, ’61, scoring champ in 1956, and was the first winner of the Conn Smythe trophy in 1965. He amassed 507 goals and 712 assists with the Canadiens, placing him just behind Guy Lafleur for the franchise scoring lead.
Beliveau is widely considered in the top three centres to ever play the game just behind the "Great One" and the man that many characterized as 'Beliveau-like', Mario Lemiuex. Picking him was an easy one - his exclusion would justifiably cause a riot.
Left-Wing: Bob Gainey
Many have said, "the best defense is a good offense". I have always said the the best defense is the best defense. I have also said, "defence wins championships". And Bob Gainey, folks, was the best defensive forward to ever lace em' up; the Frank J. Selke trophy, awarded to the "player that demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game", should be renamed the 'Bob Gainey' trophy. He was that good, but unfortunately his offensive statistics fall woefully short of illustrating the skill and positive impact he had on the Canadien's during the 70's. He was as important as any other member of the five Stanley Cup winning teams in the 70's.
Sure, many of you are sitting there tight-fisted, teeth-clenched, screaming upwards to the hockey gods, "Tabernacle! How can the greatest left-winger on the greatest franchise in NHL history be a guy that never scored more that 23 goals and 47 points in a season!? What about Dickie Moore's 96 points in '52-'53 or Steve Shutt's 63 goals in '76-'77!". And, I get it, offense is prized, it is sexy, it sells tickets, it raises people out of their seats. No one's throwing their hats in the air, wildly high-fiving everyone in sight because of a deft poke-check or a well-timed stick lift, but it matters. Preventing a goal is just as valuable as scoring a goal. And this belief was echoed by many when it came to Gainey. "Bob Gainey is just as important to the Canadiens as Guy Lafleur," Larry Robinson once said. The selection commitee for the Canada Cup team agreed with Robinson, bringing Gainey's defensive prowess into the fold helping them to a huge victory over the Soviets in '76. After the series, Gainey's wet-blanketing of the Soviet's offensive firepower did not go unnoticed by them. They claimed Gainey was the greatest player in the world.
Just like sex, offense sells, but alone, it will not win championships. Sure, you need guys like Lafleur to win 5 Stanley Cups, but you also need a guy like Gainey.
Defense: Doug Harvey
If I were constructing an all-NHL dream-team, Harvey would stand a good chance of being placed alongside, guess who, Bobby Orr. And, just like Orr, Harvey did his part to revolutionize how defense was to be played. During his time, all that was required of a defensemen was to muscle his opponent off the puck and bang it up the boards in the hopes of a forward retrieving it. Harvey didn't do this; granted he could muscle anyone off the puck and he did, but he would also pick the puck like a cherry off an on-coming forward's stick and instead of blindly chucking it up the boards, he would skate with it, drawing defenders in, and then making a perfect 'first-pass' to the forwards. This transition style of game, dubbed, "firewagon hockey", boggled the mind's of coaches around the league who simply couldn't defend against the vicious offensive onslaught it produced.
This description may seem relatively unexciting to any casual hockey-goer - indeed, it is standard fair - but it is precisely that because of Harvey and the other great Canadiens' of the 50's - Richard, Beliveau, Moore, Henri Richard etc. - who scored goals in bunches. The Harvey quarter-backed powerplay was so succesful the NHL had to initiate a rule change to defend against it, allowing the penalized player to return to the ice if his team was scored on. In addition to all the scoring, they also won...a lot: an unprecendented 5 Stanley Cups in a row.
Harvey would add another before the end of his career, which included 10 First-Team All-Star nods and 7 Norris trophies. He deserves to be on an all-NHL dream-team, let alone the Montreal Canadiens' dream-team.
Defense: Larry Robinson
Robinson was a flawless defender and an absolute monster on the blue-line, striking fear into those poor bastards rushing into the offensive zone and making players think twice about taking liberties on the smaller, talented forwards that made up the great Canadiens' teams of the 70's.
During this time, the Philadelphia Flyers were running roughshod over the entire league; many claiming their style of hockey was ruining the game. The Broadstreet Bullies were without a doubt the toughest, most intimidating team in the NHL at the time - if not all-time - and they were led by the crazed, bloodthirsty Viking warrior on skates, Dave "The Hammer" Schultz. The Hammer punched anyone who dare came near him into a bloody, messy pulp. Robinson challenged him one game and made Dave look like a rusty old tack-hammer, soundly trouncing him to a chorus of raucous cheers in the forum and, I imagine, around the hockey world. He didn't have to drop the gloves very often after this - everyone in the league knew Robinson was not someone to be toyed with.
In addition to his nearly perfect defensive and physical game, Robinson could score. He was big and strong yet mobile and quick, and could rush the puck into the offensive zone or, a la Doug Harvey, draw the defenders in and make a crisp outlet pass to his forwards.
Robinson finished his career with 968 points, 6 Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe for playoff MVP in 1978, two Norris trophies, 10 All-Star appearances, and was ranked number 24 on Hockey News' list of '100 Greatest Hockey Players' in 1998.
Goalie: Patrick Roy
Jacques Plante left an indelible mark on not just Montreal, but the entire hockey landscape (as well as many Goalie masks) and won 6 Stanley Cups along the way. Ken Dryden - the cool, calm, collected giant in net - was the backbone of the great Canadiens' teams in the 70's, also winning 6 Stanley Cups and, this is not a typo, finishing his career winning 86% of the games he participated in.
These are two seriously formidable obstacles standing in the way of the starting position in net for Patty. But, just like the blue-line he superstitiously wouldn't step on, he is able to comfortably pop over them.
Roy finished his career in 2003 with almost ever major goaltending record. To date, Martin Brodeur has been able to chip away at a few of them and is closing in on a few more. Throw in the name, Terry Sawchuk, and there is the current debate on who is the best goalie ever. Plante was great and so was Dryden and so was the "Rocket", for that matter, but they are not in that uppermost rung of hockey greatness. It's Orr, Gretzky, or Lemieux...Sawchuk, Roy, or Brodeur. Dryden and Plante may be hockey royalty, but they are nowhere near the throne.
The frustrated die-hards may chortle, "Roy only won two cups with the Canadiens! We are using both skill and positive impact to decide who is deserving, surely an extra 4 Stanley Cups should bump him out of the picture"!
Take a look above. The positive impact of the 6 Stanley Cups Plante won have already been spread amongst three players, Richard, Beliveau, and Harvey. The same can be said for Dryden with respect to Gainey and Robinson. Point is, these goalies played on what were arguably 1A and 1B of the greatest NHL teams to ever hit the ice surface. Plante played with 6 future hall-of-famers in front of him, Dryden had 7. There are 17 sweaters hung in the rafters of the Bell Centre. Only 3 of those players honoured did not play on Dryden or Plante's team: Howie Morenz, Elmer Lach, and, you guessed it, Patrick Roy.
In 1986 and 1993 Roy put abnormally lackluster Canadiens' teams on his back marching and, at times, dragging them to the cup finals where he gently supported their heads while tilting the Cup towards their mouthes, allowing them to experience the sweet taste of victory so many Canadiens' players had tasted before. He was rightly awarded the Conn Smythe in each of these years.
And, really, c'mon, it's Patty! If you don't like the sounds of this, I'm sure Patty will lend you his two Cup rings to plug your ears with.
If you enjoyed this week's dream-team, check out last week's instalment of the Toronto Maple Leafs: http://www.lionsdenu.com/dream-team-the-toronto-maple-leafs/
The author, Eric Bombicino,also writes a daily blog on his hopeless and grueling attempt with an unnecessarily extreme work-out program. http://bombersp90xperiment.blogspot.com/