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JOURNALISM: Canadiens-Leafs  [Download .doc version]


Canadiens-Leafs, by Jeffrey Reed www.JeffreyReedReporting.com
As Published by FOREVER YOUNG
Cover Story, December 2005


Note: This story won the 2006 Award of Merit from the National Mature Media Awards. It was judged amongst 1,200 entries.

Pre-expansion, Original Six hockey of the 1950s and ‘60s – for many, they were the glory days of the National Hockey League. And if you were a fan of the Montreal Canadiens or Toronto Maple Leafs, you were in hockey heaven.

During a 12-season stretch, from 1955-56 to 1966-67, the Canadiens and Leafs captured the Stanley Cup 11 times. Only a win by the Chicago Blackhawks of 1960-61 interrupted that incredible run. In fact, the Habs won Lord Stanley’s Cup during the first two seasons of expansion hockey, in 1967-68 and 1968-69 when 12 teams competed.

Geography helped the Habs-Leafs rivalry, but hockey heroes brought that rivalry to life. The Canadiens rosters of that unforgettable era read like a Who’s Who of the Hockey Hall of Fame: Maurice “Rocket” Richard; Jean Beliveau; Doug Harvey; Jacques Plante; Dickie Moore; Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion; Yvan Cournoyer – the list goes on.

From the fabled Montreal Forum, six hours west by passenger train to Toronto’s historic Maple Leaf Gardens, the Leafs had their own heroes: George Armstrong; Dave Keon; Frank Mahovlich; Allan Stanley; Red Kelly; Ron Ellis; Johnny Bower – and many more.

From 1955-56 to 1959-60, the Canadiens won an incredible five consecutive Stanley Cups. In 1961, the Blackhawks, led by Bobby Hull and Stan Makita, beat Montreal in the semifinals en route to a championship victory over the Detroit Red Wings. Then it was Toronto’s turn: three straight titles from 1962 to ‘64. Back and forth the Leafs and Canadiens would go, Montreal winning again in 1965 and ‘66 before what would be Toronto’s last Stanley Cup victory, in 1967.

What’s even more incredible is during that 12-season stretch, the Leafs and Habs met three times in the finals – 1959, 1960 and 1967; and four times in the semifinals 1963 to ‘66.

Historically, there is no stronger rivalry in all of sports than that shared by the Canadiens and Leafs. Alas, those glory days are gone – but not forgotten. In fact, the Canadiens are already gearing up for their 2009 Centennial celebration. Over the next four seasons, the club is retiring a series of jerseys to join Howie Morenz (7), Maurice Richard (9), Beliveau (4), Henri Richard (16), Guy Lafleur (10), Harvey (2), and Plante (1).

In a pre-game ceremony on November 12 against the Maple Leafs, the Habs paid tribute to Moore and Cournoyer, both of whom wore No. 12. And on March 11, 2006 the club will raise No. 5 to the rafters of Montreal’s Bell Centre in honour of Geoffrion.

Legendary Canadiens general manager Frank Selke once called Moore “the best junior hockey player in Canada.” Born Richard Winston Moore in 1931 in Montreal’s tough Park Extension neighbourhood, Moore blossomed in the NHL, amassing 261 goals and 347 assists over 14 seasons, 1951 to 1968. The left-winger was part of six Stanley Cup winners with Montreal, won the Art Ross Trophy for most points in 1957-58 and 1958-59, and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974.

“Rocket (Richard) was the big star at the time,” recalls Moore, who once came to his teammate’s defence on a bloody night at Maple Leaf Gardens. A puck shot by Mahovlich caught Richard square in the face, blood everywhere. Moore led the Canadiens onto the ice in a bench-clearing brawl.

Nicknamed “Digging Dickie,” Moore was a fantastic puckhandler, and could handle himself when engaged in fisticuffs. Print and broadcast journalist Red Fisher, covering the Canadiens for a 50th season, remembers that “bench clearing in those days were the rule rather than the exception. The Canadiens would go into a city like New York, Dickie Moore would take one look at Red Sullivan, and the benches would empty.”

Moore says, “Playing in Montreal was very special. Same in Toronto. The fans knew their hockey there. They made their hockey players play even harder, give a bigger effort. If you weren’t living up to their expectations, they let you know it.”

In fact, Moore would play 38 games for the Leafs during the 1964-65 season. He remembers, “The Canadiens – (coach) Toe Blake and Selke – were talking of trading me after the Leafs knocked us out of the playoffs in 1963. I said, that’s unfair. I scored 24 goals. I said, you’re blaming me? It was business, and I understood that, but I said, nobody’s trading me. I said, thanks for everything and I walked out, left on my own terms.”

Moore sat out the 1963-64 season, joined the Leafs the next season, again didn’t skate for two seasons 1965-66 and 1966-67, then skated in 27 games for the expansion St. Louis Blues before hanging them up after the 1967-68 campaign.

“Dickie Moore was a great, great checker,” remembers Bower, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976. “Beliveau, The Rocket, Moore – dynamite! Beliveau could have scored 100 goals a season if he wanted to, but he was a great playmaker. I once gave him the far side, wide open, but he wouldn’t shoot. He passed to Rocket, and he scored. Unbelievable.”

“We all wanted to beat the Leafs,” says Moore. “They always had great goaltenders – Bower, Turk Broda, Harry Lumley. We had our hands full. But the Leafs always played a close checking game, never opened up, and we had the skating teams in Montreal. That’s why we usually outfoxed them.”

Fisher recalls a conversation with legendary Leafs coach, the crusty George “Punch” Imlach, which made headlines from coast to coast.

“In 1967 ... before the Stanley Cup, the night before ... I phoned Punch and asked him a fairly mundane question: how do you think you’re going to do against the Canadiens? Punch replied, ‘How do you think we’re going to do against the Canadiens?’ I said, you can’t skate with these guys, they’ll just run you right out of the rink. Punch said to me, ‘They’ll never beat me with a Jr. B goaltender.’ Rogie Vachon, called up to back up Gump Worsley between the pipes, ended up playing the majority of that series and played well despite the loss.

“I said to Punch, is that on the record or off the record? Punch said, ‘You called me up for a (expletive) story, didn’t you?’ and hung up. When I mentioned to Blake what Punch said, his reply was, ‘Predictions are for gypsies.’ That made the papers across the country too.” Fisher explains, “A big part of the rivalry between Toronto and Montreal was Punch and Toe. They were two very special coaches. While they didn’t like one another, they respected one another, and they just stoked the fire between the teams.”

“We played our hearts out,” says Bower, who didn’t know any other way. Born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in 1924, “The China Wall,” as he was nicknamed, played eight long years in the American Hockey League, and finally made it to the NHL with the New York Rangers in 1953.

Bower’s incredible journey was just beginning. He lost his starting job to Worsley, and returned to the minors where during his career he spent a total of 14 seasons. Bower’s big break came in 1958 – at age 34 – when the Leafs claimed him from Cleveland of the American Hockey League.

Maskless his entire career – he lost virtually every tooth from sticks and pucks – master of the poke check, and shortsighted, Bower retired in 1970 as the oldest goaltender ever to play in the NHL. At 43 years old, he led the aging Leafs – known as the “Over-the-Hill Gang” for their number of veteran players – to their last Stanley Cup win. He recorded a remarkable lifetime goals against average of 2.51.

“Johnny Bower never got the credit that he deserved,” says Geoffrion, who also played in the shadow of Rocket Richard, of the infamous 1955 Richard Riot. But when Boom Boom, widely recognized as the inventor of the slap shot, scored his 50th goal near the end of the 1961 season (a record established 16 years earlier by Richard in 50 games), 15,000 fans went wild at the Forum. The opposition that night? The Maple Leafs.

“Remember one thing,” cautions Geoffrion from his home in Atlanta, Georgia. “One player does not make a team. One player does not win a Stanley Cup.”

Geoffrion’s slapshot “dipped a foot and a half,” laughs Bower. “Makita and Hull and the rest of them followed with the slapshot. Boom Boom was the first.” Geoffrion replies, “Punch figured I went for the head! I said, I’m not getting paid to hurt people. I’m trying to put the rubber behind the goalie. But Bower told me, he didn’t know if he should go up or down,” he laughs.

A right-winger hampered by injuries and illness, including a ruptured bowel in 1958, Geoffrion played 16 seasons from 1950 to 1968. Following a two-year stint with the Quebec Aces of the AHL, he played with the Rangers for the last two seasons of his career, and coached that club in 1968 before stomach ulcers forced him to quit. Geoffrion was the Atlanta Flames first coach in 1972, and in 1979 the Montreal native coached the Canadiens, but again stomach problems saw him leave that post early. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972.

As Moore’s career with the Canadiens ended, Cournoyer’s began. For 16 seasons with Montreal, from 1963 to 1979, this right-winger born in 1943 in Drummondville, Quebec contributed to 10 Stanley Cups – only Henri Richard has more (11).

“It’s the dream of every kid who grows up playing street hockey outside to one day play for the Montreal Canadiens. And now to have the honour of my jersey being retired is just the perfect end to that dream,” says the speedster known as the “Road Runner.” Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982, Cournoyer scored 428 goals and collected 435 assists over 968 games, and was a key player in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union.

In 1972, Kirkland Lake native Dick Duff – the middle child in a family of 13 – retired after 18 storied seasons, beginning with the Maple Leafs of 1954-55 and finishing with the Buffalo Sabres. Although he played in 43 games with the Rangers in the mid-1960s, and 39 games with the Los Angeles Kings in the early 1970s, the feisty left-winger cherished his time with the Leafs, and the Canadiens. He played on four Stanley Cup winning teams during his seasons with the Habs 1964-65 to 1969-70, and won it all with Toronto in 1962 and ‘63.

In 1962, the Leafs had not won the Stanley Cup in 11 years. Game Six of the final versus Chicago – considered one of the greatest games ever played – saw Duff score the winning goal on Glenn Hall. Tim Horton assisted on that memorable power play goal.

“The NHL owes a lot to the Toronto-Montreal rivalry,” says Duff, 69, retired and living in Port Credit, Ont. “That rivalry helped make the NHL in my opinion. We had some great players. And the Canadian interest in the NHL made it a success. It was French-English, Canadiens-Leafs – many things. And I was very fortunate to play for both teams.”

The Canadiens have the words of the poem In Flanders Fields ("to you from failing hands we throw the torch") inscribed in their dressing room. Without a doubt, the Maple Leafs, too, have a rich history. Look closer at the intense rivalry born decades ago, and you recognize the real beauty rests in the battles born between these two hockey clubs. It’s a rivalry which perhaps we’ll never see the likes of again.

 

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