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.
“We had one goal and it was to win the Stanley Cup. If some things came after (awards), it was a reward, but a reward that everybody helped you to achieve.” – Jacques Laperriere
Ask any fan of the Montreal Canadiens to give the names of the Canadiens greatest defensemen and you will get a wide variety of responses. Many older fans will immediately answer Doug Harvey; some will mention Larry Robinson, while others will mention players like Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, and Butch Bouchard. All members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, all recognized as legendary members of hockey’s most prestigious franchise; the Montreal Canadiens.
Few of these fans will respond with the name Jacques Laperriere.
Yet amongst all of those legendary defensemen Laperriere is the only one that can boast of being a winner of the Calder trophy as Rookie of the Year and unlike Savard, Lapointe, and Bouchard he can proudly boast of being a Norris trophy recipient as the NHL’s best rearguard.
As one of the top players on the Canadiens championship team’s of the sixties, Laperriere has become the least remembered member of the so called “quiet” dynasty. Undoubtedly, the Habs top defenseman during his decade with the team, Laperriere was responsible for guiding the Canadiens through a rebuilding period, a transition stage so successful that many only realized it in retrospect.
Jacques Laperriere was born on November 22nd, 1941 in Rouyn-Noranda, a town in Northwestern Quebec that has produced an inordinate amount of professional hockey players considering its size (population 39,924 as of 2006). Along with Laperriere, players like Dave Keon, Pit Martin, Dale Tallon, Jacques Cloutier, and fellow Canadiens like Rejean Houle, Eric Desjardins, and Pierre Turgeon all emerged from Rouyn-Noranda.
One of ten children (6 boys, 4 girls), Jacques Laperriere began playing hockey at the age of six. Eight years later, Laperriere was spotted by Canadiens scouts, after honing his skills by playing hockey outdoors for the majority of the year.
Signed by the Habs at fourteen, Laperriere was assigned to a Canadiens sponsored midget team. Jacques potential and talent were unavoidable to those who saw him, and at the tender age of sixteen, he graduated to the major junior ranks with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens.
It was here that Laperriere would meet the man who would shape the rest of his playing career. In the late 1950’s Sam Pollock was in the charge of the Canadiens junior operations throughout Eastern Canada. It was this developmental system set up by Pollock that would lay the foundation for the Canadiens success in the 1960’s, a time that saw Pollock become the team’s general manager.
By 1961-62 Laperriere, playing for the Montreal Jr. Canadiens (then Montreal’s top amateur team) set a junior record for defensemen by scoring twenty goals in forty eight games. And while this junior record would be broken a few years later by a phenom named Bobby Orr, Laperriere, playing as much as forty minutes a game, established himself as the top junior defensive prospect in the country.
Many teams would have rushed a player with Laperriere’s talent up to the big team, but the Canadiens of the time did not operate like other teams. Instead of playing at the Forum, Laperriere began the season with the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens of the Eastern Professional Hockey League.
“When Laperriere’s playing well, he’s the best defenseman around,” claimed Claude Ruel, the Canadiens top scout. “But when he has a bad game you get scared, because he can lose his confidence and then he has a bad bunch in a row.”
Opportunity finally knocked for Laperriere near the end of the 1962-63 season when Canadiens defenseman Lou Fontinato broke his neck in a freak accident. Laperriere was called up to the Canadiens and played the final six games of the season and was thrust into playoff action against the defending Stanley Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs.
Wearing the number twenty six, Laperriere made an immediate impression with the Canadiens, gathering significant playing time as well as penalty killing duty. Slowly, questions about the consistency of Laperriere’s game were put to rest that spring. Despite Montreal’s loss in the semi-finals to Toronto, Laperriere distinguished himself in a losing cause.
At the Canadiens training camp that fall, Laperriere was presented with the number two on his jersey. The symbolism of this number was strong. The number two was up until the previous year, the property of the legendary Doug Harvey, winner of seven Norris trophies and six Stanley Cups, and most importantly Laperriere’s idol. To many, Laperriere wearing number two indicated his status as the heir apparent to Harvey’s role with the Canadiens.
For many young players the pressure to follow in Harvey’s considerable shadow would have been impossible. Laperriere quickly established himself as his own player, a player whose first consideration was the team and not himself.
“I used to score a lot of goals in junior,” Laperriere recalled later. “The first thing Toe Blake (Montreal coach) told me was ‘We have enough guys who can score goals. We want you to stop the other teams from getting goals.’ I started to be very defensive minded.”
During his rookie season, Laperriere was constantly tested by the other players in the league. Laperriere was unflappable, possessing a rare poise, he showed like his idol Harvey, an ability to control the game in his own end. His calmness in the face of the opposing attackers also enabled him to consistently move the puck with sharp, crisp passes to the forwards, keying the Canadiens famous offensive attack.
Laperriere’s stoicism on the ice was disconcerting to many opposing players. He was never intimidated and was infrequently penalized. One of the league’s best shot blockers, his unusually long reach allowed him to use the poke check extensively in his own end. His long and lanky frame (6’2 and 190 pounds) masked a devastating body checker, one that didn’t shy away from the physical play that was a staple of league at the time.
The mid-60’s were a transition period for the Canadiens. The team that had won an unprecedented five consecutive Stanley Cups was quickly fading into memory. 1961 saw the retirement of Rocket Richard, 1962 saw the trading of Doug Harvey, 1963 saw the retirement of Dickie Moore and the trading of Jacques Plante, and the conclusion of 1964 saw the retirement of Boom Boom Geoffrion.
Laperriere represented the new breed of Canadiens, brought along by new general manager Sam Pollock. Along with mainstays Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Jean Guy Talbot and Claude Provost, players like Yvan Cournoyer, Bobby Rousseau, Gilles Tremblay, and fellow defensemen J.C. Tremblay and Terry Harper established themselves. Suddenly, the Canadiens were transformed and ready to begin another dynastic run.
Laperriere’s rookie season was an unqualified success that saw him edge out teammate John Ferguson for the Calder trophy as the league’s rookie of the year, and play a major role in the league’s top defense. Named to the second all star team, Laperriere achieved a rare distinction for a rookie at the time. Unfortunately, the Canadiens season once again came to an end at the hands of the Leafs in a seven game semi final series.
The 1965 season would be different as the Canadiens would win their first Stanley Cup in five years, beating the Black Hawks in seven games. Unfortunately, it was a hollow victory for Laperriere, who was named to the first all star team, but broke his leg in the semi finals and was forced to sit out for the rest of the year. Unbelievably, it wouldn’t be the last time that an injury, the Stanley Cup finals, the Black Hawks, and Laperriere converged.
As good as the 1965 season was for Laperriere, 1966 would even be better. Not only did the Canadiens repeat as Stanley Cup champions, but Laperriere was once again named to the first all star team and was awarded the Norris trophy as the league’s best defensemen.
When asked to explain the secret behind his extraordinary skill set, Laperriere was typically humble.
“It’s a simple thing. You cover the area you’re responsible for. You don’t get caught out of position. You gain control of the puck. You pass it to somebody or else you carry it over the blue line and then pass it to somebody else. You don’t take chances – that’s for forwards to do. Stay away from the offense unless it’s absolutely safe.”
For Jacques Laperriere as with many great, naturally talented players the game came easy. This was the essence of Laperriere’s greatness; he made the difficult look simple, executed the complicated with ease, all the while making it look effortless.
And while the Canadiens (with three different goalies) led the league three times in allowing the fewest goals against in Laperriere’s decade with the team, one shouldn’t overlook his offensive skills.
Laperriere would pick his offensive spots carefully, and would rarely rush the puck. He possessed a hard, accurate, and low point shot that allowed his forwards untold scoring chances through deflections and rebounds. Laperriere had eight seasons of twenty or more assists.
The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were notable for two things; the Canadiens transition on the blue line and on the emergence of a young defenseman for the Boston Bruins named Bobby Orr.
Bobby Orr not only dominated the game but also changed hockey forever. Such was the extent of Orr’s dominance that from 1968 to 1975 he won seven consecutive Norris trophies as the league’s best defenseman, along with two Hart trophies as the leagues top players. In his seven years of unprecedented domination Orr led all defenseman in the newly created plus/minus statistic, with the exception of one year.
In 1972-73 Jacques Laperriere led the league with a plus/minus of plus 78.
The plus/minus statistic is perhaps the best barometer we have of Laperriere’s greatness. In 1967-68 the statistic was introduced. Over the next six years Laperriere compiled years of plus 23, plus 37, plus 28, plus 24, plus 36, culminating with his league leading plus 78 in 1972-73.
More important to the Canadiens was Laperriere’s role as the team’s leading defenseman as the team undertook another transition. All the while Laperriere solidified his status as the Habs number one defenseman, helping the team to Cup victories in 1968, 1969, 1971, and 1973, in addition to picking up a spot on the second all star team in 1970.
During this period of time Habs defenders Talbot, Harper, Tremblay, and Ted Harris were generally eased out and replaced by youngsters like Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, and Larry Robinson – three who would form the backbone of the Canadiens late ‘70’s dynasty.
The one constant was Laperriere, whose play was recognized by the organizers of Team Canada who invited him to participate in the 1972 Summit Series, an invitation that Laperriere had to unfortunately turn down due his pregnant wife’s health.
The spring before in 1971 had seen Laperriere achieve what he later looked back on as the pinnacle of his career. Nobody expected the Canadiens to be much of a factor in the spring of 1971. After completing one of the greater upsets in hockey history by knocking off the Bruins in the first round, the Canadiens eventually advanced to the finals against the Black Hawks.
In a rematch of six years earlier the series followed an all too familiar script. In 1965, the home team won all the games, with the Canadiens triumphant on home ice in game seven. In 1971, the Black Hawks had the home ice heading into a seventh game. Just as in 1965 the home teams won all their games leading toward the seventh game.
This wasn’t the only similarity. In 1965, Jacques Laperriere had to sit out the finals with a broken leg. 1971 would see injury strike Laperriere once again.
“I broke my wrist in the first game of the finals and we didn’t say anything about it,” Laperriere revealed to Dick Irvin years later. “It was painful. They used to freeze it between periods and strap it up. The doctor said there wouldn’t be a problem. I didn’t mind the pain, I was happy just to play.”
And play he did, scoring 13 points in 20 playoffs games, all the while acting as the Habs top defenseman.
Two years later, the Canadiens once again found themselves facing the Black Hawks in the finals. Amazingly, injury would once again dog Laperriere against the Hawks.
“I got hit by a stick and broke my nose,” Laperriere told Dick Irvin. “I went to the hospital and they had to operate. It was broken in seven places … the next day I showed up at the Forum with a big plaster on my nose and I had two black eyes. Sam Pollock looked at me and said, ‘Oh, it’s not too bad, Jacques. You could play tonight.”
Playing with a protective mask, Laperriere once again excelled as helped the Canadiens capture another Stanley Cup, his sixth with the team. Now an assistant captain with the Canadiens, and possessing the second longest tenure of any player on the team, Laperriere was set to begin the golden years of his career.
Sadly and suddenly, Laperriere’s career came to a premature end on January 19th, 1974 in a game against the Bruins when a knee injury forced him to retire. One can only imagine how much more powerful the great Habs team of the late ‘70’s would have been with Laperriere on board.
Laperriere quickly began a career in coaching, but soon left his position as head coach of the Montreal Jr. Canadiens, in part as a protest to the increasing violence in hockey, and as well due to his general disdain of being the head coach.
In 1980-81 Laperriere rejoined the Canadiens as an assistant coach and found his true calling. For the next sixteen years, Laperriere tutored the Habs defensemen, as Montreal perennially iced one of the league’s top defensive teams, winning two more Stanley Cups along the way. Successful stints as an assistant coach with the Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, and New Jersey Devils followed as Laperriere became known as one of the league’s preeminent assistant coaches.
“I really enjoy teaching hockey,” stresses Laperriere. “I have a passion for that. It’s rewarding to work with players and see them do well. I can say that I helped him to achieve that. I did a good thing.”
Jacques Laperriere continues to work with the New Jersey Devils organization as a roving coach specializing in defense.
By nature Jacques Laperriere is a quiet man. A player who let his teammates bask in the spotlight, he was content with team achievements and points to them as his greatest successes. Having his name engraved six times on the Stanley Cup as a player attests to his greatness. No defender was more valuable to the Canadiens than Laperriere, a man who epitomized the classy, dignified player that simply went out and did his job. Of course, few players in Canadiens history played at such a consistently high level as achieved by Jacques Laperriere.
Jacques Laperriere was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987.