Montreal Canadiens history is replete with stories of flying frenchmen. The scorers, the skaters, the goaltenders, even the great defensemen get their due.
But there is a role on hockey teams that is often ignored. That is the role of the defensive forward. The checker or shadow is employed not so much to score but to keep the other team’s star from scoring on you. The checking forward often will follow that star around the ice and work to deny him the puck. If he gets the puck the checking forward’s job is to do whatever it takes to get the puck out of his zone and away from his net.
It is not a glamorous role. Yet it was a role that became painfully apparent as the Canadiens had to deal with Gordie Howe, Frank Mahovlich, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux. The ability to stop those players from beating you becomes crucial.
Montreal, like all the other NHL teams, resorts to using checkers to cover these and minimize their impact. I've put together a list of the selfless defensive forwards who I think were the ten best in Montreal Canadiens history.
Thanks to Mike Leonetti and his 2003 book, Canadiens Legends Montreal's Hockey Heroes for stories on many of these players and especially for the information on Floyd Curry and Bert Olmstead. Also thanks to hockeydb.com for the statistics.
Doug was more an agitator then a traditional clean Claude Provost style checker. He didn't so much mark his man as attempt to obliterate him. Doug was a fair skater and tough. This was evidenced by tilts with the likes of Marty McSorley and Dave Schultz. He would fight anyone.
He had very little in the way of offensive skills and so contributed by hitting the opposing team’s stars hard and often. He was constantly irritating the opposition's scorers. He wanted them more concerned with him than with scoring. Risebrough played that role successfully in Montreal for Scotty Bowman for eight seasons.
Murray Albert "Bert" Olmstead was less a checking forward and more of a power forward. He played with some of the best offensive players of all time. He was a left winger for Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach as well as for Bernie Geoffrion and Jean Beliveau.
A poor skater, Olmstead was the physical fore checker who would go into the corner and get the puck out for his more talented line mates. He was used on occasion to shadow opposing scorers. The most famous such incident occurred on the last night of the 1952-53 schedule when Montreal was playing Detroit.
Gordie Howe had 49 goals and was trying that last night to equal Maurice "The Rocket" Richard's record of 50 in one season. Olmstead followed Gordie around all night harassing and hitting him whenever he could. Howe never managed to score in what was a 1-1 tie. The Rocket's record was preserved.
While not exclusively a checker, Olmstead represents one of the earliest examples of a Montreal Canadiens forward receiving accolades for playing a successful checking role.
Rejean Houle was one of many junior scoring stars who were brought into a talent laden 1970s Canadiens team and forced to learn a checking role.
Playing on a team full of future hall of fame right wingers, he was also forced to play different positions so he could play at all. He started on a checking line with Marc Tardiff and Guy Lafleur.
Lafleur of course didn't last long on the checking line and it's questionable if he did any checking while on it. Houle however excelled in the defensive role. He shadowed Bobby Hull during the 1971 Stanley Cup finals mimicking the job Claude Provost had done on Hull for years. He thus made a crucial contribution to that cup team and his role became set in stone.
He left for the WHA where he became a scoring star (51 goals in 1975-76). He returned to Montreal where his defensive prowess and ability to play any forward position made him very attractive to Scotty Bowman. Houle managed to improve his offensive numbers over the years in Montreal, but he was still primarily seen as a versatile checker on those great Canadiens' teams.
Jimmy started his career trying to break in to a Montreal Canadiens line-up in the early sixties that featured veterans Tom Johnson and Jean Guy Talbot, tough guy Lou Fontinato and three up and coming youngsters JC Tremblay, Terry Harper, and Jacques Laperriere on defense. Ted Harris showed up the next year. Roberts made the team as a checking winger.
When called upon he would always be there to fill that role. He was an earnest hard working checker and a key penalty killer. He was a punishing hitter despite his size. He was often called on to shadow his opponents leading wingers. He won two cups with the Canadiens in the 60s and then went to the St. Louis Blues in the 1967 expansion draft. He played a similar role for the innovative Scotty Bowman in St. Louis.
Roberts, the utility player, was perfect for Bowman who loved using defenseman at forward and forwards on defense, depending on the situation. He'd often trot out four defenseman to kill penalties in Montreal or use a large skilled man like Robinson or Savard in front of the net on the power play.
Roberts played the role of defenseman and defensive forward in St Louis with great success. Infamously he was given the responsibility of shadowing Boston Bruin's defenseman Bobby Orr in the 1970 Stanley Cup Finals. The result was Bobby Orr scoring one of the most famous goals in NHL history to win the cup in overtime.
Roberts eventually made his way back to Montreal. His utility and energy made him valuable in Montreal where he again was reunited with coach Scotty Bowman. As his career wound down he became a mentor for up and coming young checkers Doug Jarvis and Bob Gainey. Though a defenseman for large portions of his career, Jim Roberts' major contribution in Montreal came as a checking forward.
Jacques Lemaire was best known as an offensive center in Montreal. He had a bullet shot and was a tremendous skater. He finished his career centering one of the best offensive lines in NHL history with Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt.
He started his professional career in the minors with the Houston Apollos. He was having trouble scoring and his coach used him to kill penalties to loosen him up. A fast skater and good in the face-off circle, he was great as a penalty killer. He always provided the extra bonus of being able to counter attack against an unwary power play.
Lemaire killed penalties throughout his career and was always a threat to score. A student of the game, he played left wing to start and picked up the defensive aspects of being an NHL forward more quickly than some. He started as a checker as many Montreal Canadiens in that era were forced to do but he quickly became the defensively responsible member of a variety of Montreal Canadiens' scoring lines.
It would be Lemaire doing the back checking when his line turned over the puck. His speed and tenacity ensured he often caught the player he chased and got the puck back. Though a smaller more compact man, he was a latter day Pavel Datsyuk defensively. What Lemaire learned about the defensive side of the game while playing he obviously applied as a successful coach in New Jersey and Minnesota.
Floyd was a right winger for the Montreal Canadiens at around the same time as Bert Olmstead. He was known primarily for his ability to shut down the opposition's scorers.
The hard working Curry would skate up and down his wing all night shadowing the other teams' stars like Dick Duff in Toronto or "Terrible" Ted Lindsay in Detroit. Curry was always dependable, but come playoff time managed to find another offensive gear.
He managed eight goals and a point a game in the 1955 playoffs. The unsung defensive specialist became a Montreal Canadiens executive. He was purported to have predicted a 1971 Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup victory if they would only use rookie goalie Ken Dryden in nets. Floyd is one of the earliest examples in Montreal history of the strictly defensive forward.
Jarvis was one of the all-time great faceoff men in the NHL. He excelled at a time when other top quality face-off artists like Derek Sanderson and Bobby Clarke roamed the league.
He made the team in Montreal and was paired with Bob Gainey to form one of the best checking and penalty killing duos of all time. He learned about defensive and positional play from line mate Jim Roberts but he was a natural. He seemed smallish for the role he played but he was tenacious and durable beyond all imaginings.
He still holds the NHL iron man record for playing in 964 straight regular season games. He was famous for not making a mistake with the puck. Once he got the puck it was leaving his zone and it was likely to end up deep in the opposition zone. Jarvis was a tireless worker and one of the all-time great checking forwards in the NHL.
He finally got acknowledged when he won the Frank J. Selke trophy for the 1983-84 season while playing in Washington, as the league's best defensive forward that year.
Carbonneau was another great junior scorer who got pounded into the checking center slot in Montreal. His offensive skills would certainly show at times, as he scored 20 goals or more in five NHL seasons.
Still it was as a checker and penalty killer that he excelled. He was, like Jarvis, a wizard in the face off circle, but also dangerously fast. His offensive ability was highlighted when he managed to score five short handed goals in the 1982-83 season.
He was a great shadow and shot-blocker. His skating allowed him to stay with any player in the league he chose to cover. Carbonneau became team captain despite never scoring more than 26 goals or 57 points in a season. He won the Selke trophy three times in Montreal as the forward in the league who best excels at the defensive aspects of the game.
That ties him with Pavel Datsyuk and Jere Lehtinen as the only other three time winners of the trophy and puts him behind only Bob Gainey who won the award the first four times it was given out. Carbonneau is another Montreal checker who was also one of the NHL's best defensive forwards of all time.
Before there was a Frank J. Selke trophy to honour the NHL's best defensive forwards there was Claude Provost.
Despite his bow-legged stance, Provost was a quick skater in short bursts. He had offensive skills but sublimated them in order to play that checking role in Montreal. He started by playing on a team that won five straight Stanley cups. He won another four in a row playing on a second Canadiens dynasty in the sixties.
His career extended from 1955 until 1970, well into the expansion era and he played his defensive role throughout. The unselfish Provost had a profound understanding of the game and was renowned for his ability to read the play and cut it off before it started.
He shadowed the best players in the league throughout that era though he was most famous for the work he did on Frank Mahovlich and especially Bobby Hull. He was a clean player. Bobby Hull respected the job Provost managed to do on him without cheating.
Provost was one of the great checkers of all time and likely would have won numerous Selke trophies if it had been available while he played.
Bob Gainey was one of the fastest skaters ever to put on a Montreal Canadiens uniform. He had a work ethic that made him one of the greatest checking forwards of all time. He worked in a shut-down role marking such snipers as Lanny MacDonald and Mike Bossy throughout his career. His speed and size allowed him to be punishingly physical and he often was. His stone hands seemingly relegated him to the role of selfless checker and yet he showed a penchant for scoring big goals.
He teamed with Doug Jarvis to form one of the better penalty killing duos in Canadiens history. He was chosen, despite a lack of offensive skills, to play his role on two Canada Cup teams, in 1976 and in 1981.
Gainey won the Selke trophy the first four seasons it was awarded and likely would have competed for it in the three years before it was given out. He also won a Conn Smythe trophy in the 1979 playoffs when he managed a point a game alongside his defensive efforts as the Canadiens won the cup.
Gainey is a man who, despite the checking role he chose, was always having his praises sung. After a 4-2 Montreal victory over the Soviet Red Army Dec 31st, 1979, Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov called Gainey "technically the best player in the world."