This is part a continuing series of articles entitled – The Forgotten Habs. Each column will focus on a player who was a valuable contributor to the success of the Montreal Canadiens. These players, by and large part have largely been forgotten to the passage of time, and their role in the history of the Canadiens has become a mere footnote in the team’s glorious history. None of these players can be found in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but without them, the history of the bleu, blanc, et rouge, would not be so illustrious.
To paraphrase the old blues song, if it wasn’t for bad luck, Michel Larocque would have had no luck at all. And while he was able to claim four Vezina trophies, and possess four Stanley Cup rings, for Larocque it was a shared glory, and never a success that he could claim as his own.
Whenever, it appeared that Larocque was ready to take the center stage however, it seemed that the fates always worked against him. His was a career that never reached full bloom. Today, Larocque is mainly remembered for two things; his colorful nickname and his status as Ken Dryden’s back up on the great Canadiens team of the 1970’s.
Michel Larocque was born in Hull, Quebec on April 6th, 1952. As a young child he was given the nickname “Bunny” by his mother. Throughout his entire life the nickname stuck to the point that his given first name was rarely, if ever mentioned.
It didn’t take Bunny long to climb the major junior hockey ladder. In his early teen’s he became the goaltender with the Hull Losiers of the Quebec AAA league. During this time he was called up and played his first game with the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey Association at the age of fifteen.
Bunny finally graduated to be the 67’s main goaltender at the onset of the 1969-70 season. In his first year he led the league in goals against average (3.63), shutouts (3), games played (51), and minutes played (3,060 minutes). Bunny proved that his rookie season with the 67’s was no fluke; by being named to the leagues second all star team in 1970-71. Bunny led the OHA in shutouts for the second straight year with 5, and led the league in playoff goals against average (3.45) and playoff shutouts with 3.
In 1971-72 the 67’s joined the newly formed Ontario Major Junior Hockey League. Named to the first all star team, Bunny led the league in shutouts for the third consecutive year (3) and goals against average (3.45).
As the 1972 entry draft approached Bunny found himself as one of the top available prospects. Drafted with the sixth overall pick of the draft, by the Montreal Canadiens, Bunny was the top goaltender taken in the draft. It would be another thirty three years before the Canadiens selected another goalie this high in the draft. In the 2005 entry draft Carey Price was selected by the Canadiens with the fifth overall pick of the draft.
On the surface being chosen by the Canadiens so high was a huge achievement for Larocque. But in many ways being drafted by Montreal in the 1970’s was the worst thing that could have happened to him and too many top junior prospects. Because the Canadiens had such a rich and plentiful farm system to go along with an elite team, the task of making the big club was the most difficult amongst all of the NHL teams.
Before joining the Canadiens for their training camp in the fall of 1972, Bunny was chosen to participate in a unique undertaking. In order to flesh out the squad during scrimmages and practices, the management of the Canadian team that would go on to face the Soviet Union in the Summit Series, invited three players of junior age to practice with the team. In addition to forward Billy Harris, defenseman John Van Boxmeer, Bunny was given the opportunity to gain valuable experience by practicing with the best players in the NHL.
After attending Montreal’s training camp in the fall of 1972, Bunny was sent to the Canadiens top farm team; the Nova Scotia Voyageurs of the American Hockey League. Bunny won the job as the Voyageurs’ starting goaltender and went on to lead the league in the goal against average (2.50) and was named to the AHL’s second all-star team. After finishing in first place in the AHL’s Eastern Division with 101 points, the Voyageurs, with Bunny in goal, swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs before bowing out to the Cincinnati Swords in the Calder Cup finals.
For Bunny, the Canadiens training camp that he attended in the fall of 1973 was far different from the one he had been to just the year before. The Canadiens all-star goalie, Ken Dryden, winner of two of the last three Stanley Cups, held out in a contract dispute making the goaltending spot open for competition. Larocque emerged as one of the three goalies that the Canadiens would end up carrying throughout the year in an effort to compensate for the absence of Dryden.
Joining Larocque were Dryden’s two backups from the year before and Bunny’s predecessors as the goalies with the Voyageurs’; Wayne Thomas and Michel Plasse.
Bunny acquitted himself quite well in the training camp and was given the starting assignment for the Canadiens first game of the year in Minnesota against the North Stars. In his first NHL game Bunny was victorious in a 5-2 Montreal win. Throughout the year Larocque found himself sharing the goaltending duties with Plasse and Thomas. Bunny managed to play in 27 games, winning 15, with a goals against average of 2.89.
The Canadiens finished in second place behind the Boston Bruins in the NHL’s Eastern division with 99 points and were matched against the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. The Canadiens decided to name Bunny as the starting goalie in the playoffs. Despite posting a respectable 2.97 goals against average, Bunny was unable to stop the Rangers from winning the series in six games.
Even with the loss to the Rangers, things were looking up for Bunny Larocque. At the conclusion of his rookie season he had established himself as the top net minder for one of the league’s best teams.
These playoff games against the Rangers would mark the last playoff action that Bunny would see for the foreseeable future. Although he had no way of knowing it at the time, Bunny would not play in a playoff game for another five years. Instead, he would have to be content sitting on the bench and watching as the Canadiens would go on to establish themselves as one of the greatest teams of all time.
Much to the surprise of many in the hockey world, Ken Dryden returned to the Canadiens at the onset of the 1974-75 season and immediately reassumed his position as the Canadiens number one goalie. For Bunny Larocque this meant that his role with the Canadiens now consisted of being the backup goalie to the unquestioned starter.
Over the next five years, Bunny took his role in stride. He was always a team player and never raised a complaint about his position with the team. That doesn’t mean however, that he didn’t compete for the top spot.
In his book, “The Game”, Dryden described their situation;
“After we had played together a year or two, I realized that I could stay ahead, but I could not win. Larocque and I compete with each other constantly. Our competition is undeclared, its results are known only to us, we say nothing to each other about it. But we know. We compete though we are teammates and share the same goals for the team. We are friendly, if a little guarded with each other, and personally compatible.”
Over the next five years Bunny established himself as the league’s top backup goalie, one that would have been the starter on many other NHL teams, but instead played behind the best goaltender in the league; Ken Dryden. In the five years as the Habs back-up Larocque posted some gaudy numbers.
1974/75 – 25 games, 17 wins, 5 losses, 3 ties, 3 shutouts, 3.00 goals against average
1975/76 – 22 games, 16 wins, 1 loss, 3 ties, 2 shutouts, 2.46 goals against average
1976/77 – 26 games, 19 wins, 2 losses, 4 ties, 4 shutouts, 2.09 goals against average
1977/78 – 30 games, 22 wins, 3 losses, 4 ties, 1 shutout, 2.67 goals against average
1978/79 – 34 games, 22 wins, 7 losses, 4 ties, 3 shutouts, 2.84 goals against average
By playing in at least 25 games during the 1976-77, 1977-78, and 1978-79 seasons Larocque was able to share the Vezina trophy with Dryden. In those days the team that posted the lowest goals against average would have the Vezina trophy awarded to the goalies on the team that played at least 25 games.
And while Bunny was relegated to a secondary role with the Canadiens, he was still able to post some impressive statistics, including his sole loss during his 22 games played in the 1975-76 season, or his league leading goals against average in 1976/77. As a matter of fact, during his five years spent as the Canadiens backup goalie, Larocque actually posted a better winning percentage during the regular season than Dryden (Larocque’s .701 to Dryden’s .659).
But the real difference between the two was in the playoffs, where Dryden dominated, winning four Stanley Cups, while Larocque could only watch from the bench. In his five years as his backup Larocque was only able to see action in the third period of the first game of the 1979 finals against the Rangers. Losing 4-1 heading into the third period the Canadiens replaced Dryden with Larocque who shut out the Rangers in the third period.
Larocque’s chance to shine came at the onset of the second game of the 1979 Stanley Cup finals. Given the chance to start the game, after watching the team’s previous 64 playoff games from the bench, Larocque was taking the pre-game warm up when an errant shot from teammate Doug Risebrough, knocked him out cold on the Forum ice. While Larocque lied in the hospital, Dryden stepped in and the rest is history. The Canadiens went on to win the game and the next three, with Dryden patrolling the nets, as the Canadiens won their fourth consecutive Cup with Larocque once again, watching from the bench.
At the conclusion of the 1979 season, Ken Dryden retired. After serving as the backup for the previous five years without complaint, Larocque felt as if he had finally graduated to the Canadiens starting goaltender position.
Unfortunately for Larocque, the Canadiens did not seem to have any confidence in Larocque’s ability to be the top guy. On August 30th, 1979, before the team’s training camp the Canadiens acquired goaltender Denis Herron to share the duties in net.
And while Larocque played the most games, he statistically failed to match up with Herron during the regular season.
Larocque – 39 games, 17 wins, 13 losses, 8 ties, 3 shutouts, 3.32 goals against average
Herron – 34 games, 25 wins, 3 losses, 3 ties, 0 shutout, 2.51 goals against average
Entering the playoffs however, the Canadiens couldn’t seem to decide on their goalie and went back and forth between Herron and Larocque. Unfortunately, despite posting better numbers in the playoffs, (4 wins, 1 loss, 1 shutout, 2.20 gaa) the starting job for the Canadiens most important game of the season went to Herron (2 wins, 3 losses, 3.00 gaa). For whatever reason the Canadiens coach, Claude Ruel and the teams upper management seemed to lack confidence in Bunny, And with Herron in net the Canadiens went on to lose game seven and be eliminated from the playoffs by the Minnesota North Stars.
For Larocque, the situation in Montreal would only go from bad to worse during the 1980-81 season. While he was able to outplay the disappointing Herron, he was unable to avoid the injury bug. In December he missed six weeks after having his hand skated over by Peter Lee of the Penguins. This six week sabbatical allowed Canadiens prospect Richard Sevigny to establish himself as the team’s new starting goaltender. Upon his return from the injury, Bunny’s position with the Canadiens was tenuous at best.
On January 21st he made his return against the Chicago Black Hawks and was pulled at the end of the first period after giving up three goals in a 4-2 loss. Ten days later, he played in Los Angeles and lost 4-1. After this loss Bunny went another three weeks before playing in St. Louis.
For a frustrated Larocque this was the last straw. Chafing at the bit to play, Larocque went to Canadiens management and demanded to be traded.
“I couldn’t stand it anymore,” Larocque said at the time. “It seemed that every time things would be going good, there’d be another damned injury or something like that. After a while you start wondering if it all isn’t inside your head. You need a change.”
On March 10th, 1981 Bunny got his wish and was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Robert Picard. In his autobiography, Larry Robinson summed it up best, “from the penthouse to the outhouse and with the Leafs he could no longer complain about lack of action”
Larocque was able to play the final eight games of the season for the Leafs, and despite facing around fifty shots a game, and posting a goals against average of 5.22, he was able to lead the Leafs to the playoffs by winning three games and tying two. Their reward was a first round meeting with the defending Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders. To say the Leafs were pummeled would be an understatement as the Islanders’ easily swept Toronto aside. And though he didn’t know it at the time Bunny would never play in the playoffs again.
In 1981-82 and 1982-83, Larocque played in 66 games for a truly horrid Leafs team and managed to only win 13 as his career slowly began to wind down. These 13 wins would be the last of Bunny’s career. On January 11th, 1983 he was traded to the Flyers for Rick St. Croix. After playing and losing only two games for Philadelphia he was sent to St. Louis on January 5th, 1984 where he played in five games, losing all five.
Bunny’s career came to an end when he played 13 games for the Peoria Rivermen of the International Hockey League.
Despite owning four Stanley Cups and sharing in four Vezina trophies one has to wonder if Larocque viewed his own career as a disappointment. In many ways he never lived up to the potential he showed in his junior days. In looking at his statistics from when he backed up Ken Dryden one has to wonder if the best years of Bunny Larocque’s career were wasted away, sitting on the end of the Canadiens bench.
After retirement, Bunny went back to the place of his greatest days and became an executive in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey league. In 1989-90, Bunny as the general manager, guided the Victoriaville Tigers to the regular season crown of the league, before they bowed out in the league’s championship finals to Laval.
By the spring of 1992, Bunny had been promoted to the vice-presidency of the entire league. Finally, after years of having to share his accomplishments and awards with other’s Larocque was finally being recognized for his own talents. Unfortunately, the bad luck that followed Bunny around during his hockey career, paled when compared to the news that he received in May 1992, when doctor’s diagnosed him with brain cancer.
For Bunny time was short. After three weeks of radiation therapy, he passed away on July 29th, 1992 in his hometown of Hull, Quebec at the all too early age of 40.