This is part of a continuing series of articles spotlighting the men that have played for the Montreal Canadiens and been afforded the ultimate honor; membership in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“I couldn’t skate, I couldn’t shoot, and I wasn’t very intelligent. But I was spectacular” – Ken Reardon
Hockey has always been an intense game, and there were no players more dedicated and devoted than those men who played during the era of the original six. It was a tough league, one in which players had to show their toughness, night after night, just to survive in the NHL.
In those long ago day’s player movement was minimal, and fraternization between opposing players was rarer still. Players were constantly fighting to keep their jobs, leading to a desperate style of play rarely, if ever replicated now. Players also tended to spend their entire careers in one organization, leading to a loyalty to their team that has disappeared from today’s game.
And during this time no player was tougher than Ken Reardon.
He was not a strong skater, he was not good with the puck, and was not a skilled player. But, Ken Reardon was fearless on the ice, an uncompromising player who would take an inch but never give one, a tenacious player who never took a backwards step throughout his seven year career. For Ken Reardon, hockey was not a game, but a battle, and night after night he led the charge.
Unlike many players of his time, Ken Reardon’s career in hockey didn’t end as soon as he left the ice for good. And while Reardon’s on-ice exploits with the Montreal earned him a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame, it was his off ice contribution that would have a far reaching impact on the history of the Canadiens.
Ken Reardon was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba on April 1st, 1921. At the age of 13, Ken, his three brothers and one sister were orphaned when both their parents perished in an automobile accident. The family, reeling form this tragedy, moved to British Columbia to live with an uncle. At that time organized hockey in B.C. was not of the level with which we associate minor hockey today. Encouraged by his uncle Reardon played for the Blue River Rebels of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League in 1937-38.
During this time Ken’s older brother Terry Reardon started enjoying success. Playing for the St. Boniface Seals of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, he scored 32 points in 16 games before switching to the Brandon Wheat Kings the next season where he led the league in scoring with 29 goals and 16 assists for 45 points, while only playing in 16 games.
Inspired by his older brother’s exploits, Ken wrote a junior team in Edmonton requesting a tryout. Thanks to his hard work and perseverance, Ken was able to make the squad, but the accomplishment was bittersweet. He rarely found playing time, and even though the team made it to the Memorial Cup finals, he spent most the time watching from the bench.
In the 1939-40 season, Ken worked hard to improve his skating and his statistics soared. In that year’s Memorial Cup playoffs, Ken scored 18 goals and 13 assists for 31 points in 14 games played, while adding 46 penalty minutes.
Originally the property of the New York Rangers, Reardon was let go by the team due to his “poor” skating. Reardon, based on his reputation was signed by the Canadiens in the fall of 1940.
On October 13th, 1940 the CPR Transcontinental arrived at Montreal’s Windsor Station. Among the passengers arriving in Montreal for the first time was a highly touted prospect from Western Canada named Elmer Lach, and an unknown quantity named Ken Reardon.
While Lach impressed the Canadiens brass at the team’s training camp the real surprise of the tryouts was Reardon. What became apparent early was Reardon’s fierceness on the ice. On defense, Reardon was fierce and fearless. No forward was able to get around him without receiving a physical pasting. And even though his skill set needed development, it was his high intensity physical play that impressed the Canadiens brass.
Reardon signed his first contract with the Canadiens on October 26th, 1940 for $4,000 a season, plus a $1,000 signing bonus. On November 3rd of that year, he made his debut with the Canadiens in a game at the Forum against the Boston Bruins. This also marked the first time that Reardon had stepped inside the Forum. Reardon played the entire season with the Canadiens contributing 2 goals, 10 assists, and 41 penalty minutes in 34 games played.
Reardon’s second year with the Canadiens (1941-42) would prove to be a special one for him and his family. Ken’s brother, Terry joined the Canadiens, as Ken began establishing himself as one of the league’s stalwart defenseman. Terry went on to finish third in team scoring with 33 points in 34 games, while Ken finished third in the league with 93 penalty minutes.
Just as Reardon was establishing himself in the NHL, he decided to join the Army at the conclusion of the 1941-42 season. Before being shipped overseas Reardon was stationed in Ottawa where he played for the Army based Ottawa Commandos and helped them win the Allan Cup.
While stationed in Europe, Reardon proved that his courage and determination extended beyond the rink, when he was awarded Field Marshall Montgomery’s Certificate of Merit for several acts of bravery during battle.
In the summer of 1945, Reardon was discharged by the Army and rejoined the Canadiens for the beginning of the 1945-46 season. The team he rejoined was far different than the team that he had left three years before. In his first two years with the Canadiens the team had finished in sixth and fifth place. Now he joined a team that was the class of the league. Elmer Lach had blossomed into arguably the league’s top playmaker. Toe Blake remained one of the league’s top stars. They were joined on the Habs top line by Maurice Richard, who had become the league’s preeminent goal scorer and biggest box office draw. And in net the Canadiens had the dominant Bill Durnan between the pipes.
Upon his return to the Canadiens Reardon was paired with the imposing Butch Bouchard on the defense, forming Montreal’s shutdown pair, controlling the game with a brand of physical intensity that few others could match.
1945-46 was a banner year for Reardon, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, his first and only as a player, and he was named to the second All Star team.
Reardon was one of the few defensemen in the league to rush with the puck into the opposing team’s defensive zone. These rushes were not graceful though, they resembled an out of control car with no brakes, recklessly careening to the other end of the rink, leaving the opposition in his wake.
Ken Reardon’s game was strictly up and down. He never took a sideways step, and his presence on the ice meant that the other team would have to account for his fearsome body checks and reckless style of play.
Unfortunately, for Reardon his physical style of play took its toll on his own health. It was this utter disregard for his own well being that made Reardon a player that most of the opposition feared. Reardon shortened his career by not taking the time to recover from his injuries. When he had a shoulder injury that required three weeks of rest, he would only miss a week. When he was told by the trainer that he would have to miss that night’s game, he played. After a certain amount of time, the injuries stopped healing.
This style of play made Reardon one of the most popular players for the Canadiens faithful during his career. Coincidentally, it made him one of the most hated players throughout the other five cities in the league. In New York, Rangers fans formed a Hate Reardon fan club.
All of this helped obscured how valuable Reardon was to the Canadiens. After making the second all star team in 1946, Reardon made the first all star team in 1947 and 1950, and the second in 1948 and 1949. And as per his reputation in those five years Reardon never finished out of the top ten in penalty minutes.
But it was other incidents that colored fan’s memories of Ken Reardon. He was no stranger to controversy and his feud with Cal Gardner has entered into league lore.
Their feud began on March 16th, 1947 when Gardner crosschecked Reardon in the mouth. A wild melee ensued when a Rangers fan tried to hit a badly bleeding Reardon as he was leaving the ice. His teammates came to his rescue, starting fights with the Rangers, their fans, and the police, as Reardon vowed revenge on Gardner. They clashed again in January 1949 but it was in November 1949 when their feud reached its climax. Gardner now with the Leafs had his jaw broken by Reardon in a game at the Forum. Desperately hoping to end the feud, NHL president Clarence Campbell forced Reardon while he was on the ice to post a $1,000 bond against future violence. Decades later, both Reardon and Gardner still harbored hard feelings towards each other, claiming that they would never be in the same room with each other, disproving the theory that time heals all wounds.
It was also in November of 1949 that Reardon and teammate Leo Gravelle were arrested and jailed for a few hours in Chicago. Fans claimed that they had been hit with swinging sticks by both men. Both denied this and the judge eventually dismissed the case.
Eventually, all of this took a toll on Reardon. After being named to the first all star team at the conclusion of the 1950 season, he retired from the Canadiens at the age of twenty-nine, his body no longer able to handle the rigors of the NHL. And there was no way that Ken Reardon could ever tone down his game.
Reardon immediately moved into Montreal front office as the assistant to Canadiens general manager Frank Selke. In addition, Reardon was given the task of organizing the western part of the team’s amateur system while Sam Pollock was put in charge of the eastern part. In this capacity Reardon helped develop future Canadiens such as Terry Harper, Dave Balon, Bill Hicke, and Red Berenson.
Reardon also played a crucial part in one of the most important decisions in Canadiens history. At the conclusion of the 1955 season the Canadiens were looking for a new head coach. Reardon’s choice for the new coach was his former teammate Toe Blake.
In Dick Irvin’s book “The Habs”, Reardon recalled how the coaching decision was made.
“Frank Selke didn’t want to bring Toe Blake back. He never wanted Toe as coach. He said he did, but he didn’t. Selke wanted to bring in Joe Primeau. The French press wanted Roger Leger. My father-in-law (Senator Donat Raymond, the team’s owner) wanted Billy Reay. And I held out for Toe Blake.”
“When Blake was coaching in the Quebec Senior League, he would go the league meetings and cause Selke untold grief. That’s why he never wanted him as coach.”
“So I said, ‘If he gives you that much trouble working against you, imagine how it would be with him working for you.”
Selke relented and history was made, as Blake would go on to coach the Canadiens to eight Stanley Cup championships.
In 1964 Selke retired as Montreal’s general manager. The candidates to replace him came down to a list of two, Reardon and Sam Pollock. The choice was Pollock. Reardon to his credit expressed no bitterness.
“Sam Pollock is the most intelligent man I’ve ever met,” explained Reardon, “not just in hockey, but in life.”
Reardon stayed on as the Canadiens vice president until 1966 after which he left hockey, enjoying civilian life to this day.
Ken Reardon was not the most gifted or talented player to ever play for the Montreal Canadiens. But his level of determination and toughness was rarely if ever matched by any future members of the team. His battling style and his willingness to play all out, regardless of injury or the opponent endeared him to Canadiens fans.
Ken Reardon was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966.