On October 3rd, 2005 Montreal Canadiens President Pierre Boivin announced a series of initiatives in advance of the team’s 100th anniversary on December 4th, 2009. Chief among these was the announcement that the team would be retiring the numbers of the most deserving players in the lead up to the Canadiens centennial.
“No jersey has yet been retired in this arena (the Bell Centre),” explained Boivin. “Yet by the time we reach our centennial, we will have retired the jersey of every player who deserves that honor.”
That bold statement kicked off a round of speculation by both media and fans alike as to who would receive this ultimate honor. In the years since the announcement the Canadiens have raised to the rafters the names of five players, Dickie Moore, Yvan Cournoyer, Bernie Geoffrion, Serge Savard, and Ken Dryden. There was no disagreement over these selections, as it was generally agreed that all five men were deserving of the honor.
So who’s next?
There are no shortage of candidates to choose from, after all the Canadiens have placed more players in the Hall of Fame than any of the other franchises. In looking at the list there are three players that figure to have their numbers retired within the next two years. If any of them aren’t honored it would be shocking.
#19 Larry Robinson
-played on six Stanley Cup championship teams
-winner of the Norris trophy in 1977 and 1980
-winner of the Conn Smythe trophy in 1978
-first all star team defense (1977, 1979, 1980)
-second all star team defense (1978, 1981, 1986)
The best defenseman in team history not named Doug Harvey, Larry Robinson enjoyed a career that few others can claim. His accomplishments are numerous, but what remains is the memory of his presence on the blue line from 1973 to 1989. His size and his skills made him an imposing force patrolling the Canadiens backend for many years..
In 1985 Larry Robinson was one of six players named to the Montreal Canadiens all time 75th anniversary all star team. He is the only one of the six players who does not have his number hanging from the rafters of the Bell Centre.
#23 Bob Gainey
-played on five Stanley Cup championship teams
-winner of the Frank J. Selke trophy in 1978, 1979, 1980, and 1981
-winner of the Conn Smythe trophy in 1979
One of the most respected players to ever wear the Canadiens uniform, Bob Gainey was one of the few players who was able to change people’s perceptions about watching hockey. But being the player who brought the spotlight to defensive forwards tells only part of the story.
Gainey was a fierce on ice competitor, whose commitment and determination never wavered. He became one of the respected captains in the team’s history, setting the example for his younger teammates to follow. His talent did not go unappreciated, by the team, by the fans, and by the head coach of the Soviet Union national team who proclaimed that Gainey was the best all around hockey player in the world.
#33 Patrick Roy
-played on four Stanley Cup championship teams
-winner of the Vezina trophy in 1989, 1990, and 1992
-winner of the Conn Smythe trophy in 1986, 1993, and 2001
-winner of the William M. Jennings trophy in 1987, 1988, 1989, 1992, and 2001
-first all star team goaltender (1989, 1990, 1992, 2002)
-second all star team goaltender (1988, 1991)
There are some players who are stars, some who are superstars, and a very select few who can rightfully claim to be considered a legend. Patrick Roy is one of these players. Roy permanently changed how the position of goaltender was played. He popularized the butterfly style of goaltending that has now become the norm.
But Patrick Roy was more than a trendsetter, he may have been the most competitive player the Canadiens have had since Maurice Richard, and like the Rocket he saved his best play for the biggest games. Patrick Roy may have been the greatest clutch goaltender that the sport of hockey has ever seen. He has the three Conn Smythe trophies to prove it.
But beyond these three obvious choices, who else deserves this ultimate honor that up until now has been overlooked. I have narrowed the list down to the three players that I feel deserve to have their numbers permanently raised to the rafters of the Bell Centre.
#1 Bill Durnan
-played on two Stanley Cup championship teams
-winner of the Vezina trophy in 1944, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1949, and 1950
-first all star team goaltender (1944, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1950)
Bill Durnan only played seven years for the Montreal Canadiens, but with the exception of one year, he was the top goaltender in the NHL. Durnan’s style was unique, his one defining trait was that he was ambidextrous. He also had the distinction of serving as Montreal’s captain.
In addition to all of his awards, for over fifty years Durnan held the record for the longest shutout streak at 309 minutes. Amongst Canadiens goaltenders only Jacques Plante has as many Vezina trophies as Durnan, and no Montreal backstop has been named to the first all star team as many times. Very much like later Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden, Durnan retired from the game in 1950 while he was still in his prime.
#6 Toe Blake
-played on two Stanley Cup championship teams
-coached eight Stanley Cup championship teams
-winner of the Hart trophy in 1939
-winner of the Art Ross trophy in 1939
-winner of the Lady Byng trophy in 1946
-first all star team left wing (1939, 1940, 1945)
-second all star team left wing (1938, 1946)
Toe Blake is remembered by most people today as one of, if not the greatest head coach in hockey history. Generally forgotten is the fact that Toe Blake is in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a player. As the left wing on the famed “Punch Line” with Elmer Lach and Maurice Richard, Blake helped the Canadiens win two Stanley Cups. In 1944 he scored the cup winning goal, and led the playoff scoring race with seven goals and eighteen points. His average of two points per playoff game would not be matched until Wayne Gretzky came along. In 1945 Blake had his best year, 67 points, and helping Richard hit the previously unheard of 50 goal plateau.
A broken ankle ended his playing career in 1948, but Blake returned to the Canadiens as the team’s head coach at the start of the 1955 season. It was the start of the greatest coaching career in NHL history. In a record that will likely never be broken, Blake coached the Canadiens to five consecutive Stanley Cups in his first five seasons behind the bench. In his thirteen years as the Habs head coach he won eight Stanley Cups. In his years coaching the team, the Canadiens never had a losing season, made the playoffs every year, and had a dominant playoff record of 82 wins against 27 losses.
#16 Elmer Lach
-played on three Stanley Cup championship teams
-winner of the Hart trophy in 1945
-winner of the Art Ross trophy in 1945 and 1948
-first all star team centre (1945, 1948, 1952)
-second all star team centre (1944, 1946)
One of the greatest playmakers ever to play for the Canadiens, Elmer Lach retired in 1954 as the NHL’s all time point’s leader. One wonders what he could have achieved if he had been able to avoid a career long battle with injuries. But it was his ability to return to action and his determination to stay in the lineup that endeared him to Montreal fans.
As the centre of Montreal’s famed “Punch Line”, it was Lach who helped his line mate, Maurice Richard reach the magical fifty goal mark by leading the league in assists. Lach was able to lead the league in points on two occasions. Even more impressive than Lach winning the scoring title in 1948, was the fact that in the previous season he had suffered what was thought to be career ending fractured skull.
The biggest goal of his career was his Stanley Cup winning goal against the Boston Bruins in 1953. The goal gave Lach his third Stanley Cup and ultimately his last, he retired the following year.
Now some will argue that Durnan’s number one, and Lach’s number sixteen have already been raised to the rafters. But this is no reason not to acknowledge these players, after all Dickie Moore and Yvan Cournoyer share the number twelve in retirement.
In taking a closer look at the latter three players, I find it hard to believe that they have been overlooked for so long. Unfortunately, both Bill Durnan and Toe Blake have passed on, but it’s never too late for these men to receive the recognition of having their numbers hoisted to the rafters.
A majority of today’s fans never saw Bill Durnan, Toe Blake, and Elmer Lach play for the Canadiens. That however, doesn’t diminish their contribution to the Montreal Canadiens. Let’s hope that the Canadiens don’t let these three men’s accomplishments fade further into the past, it’s time to celebrate them and raise their numbers to the rafters.