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This represents the first in a 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.
Before Guy Carbonneau, before Bob Gainey, there was Claude Provost.
“Another Canadien worth mentioning is Claude Provost, a former teammate of mine and one of the unsung heroes of the NHL. Provost was never a star in the true sense of the word, but because of his great desire, his perseverance, and his love of work, he became one of the most valuable of the Habitants and the best defensive forward in hockey.” - Maurice Richard
In 1955 Toe Blake took over as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, replacing Dick Irvin Sr. Blake was hired with one goal in mind, and that was bringing the Stanley Cup back to Montreal after a two year absence. One of Blake’s first tasks was to bring in some new players for the Canadiens. Along with Henri Richard and Donnie Marshall, came a promising junior playing in the Quebec Hockey League with the Shawinigan Cataracts.
Born in September 17th, 1933 in Montreal, Quebec, Claude Provost was a promising junior hockey player. A good scorer in junior, in the 1953/54 season with Shawinigan he scored 45 goals in 48 games. Upon turning professional, Provost sacrificed his greater offensive skills when he joined the Habs in 1955. Realizing that the team was loaded with offensive firepower, Blake was looking for a few defensive forwards to make the team more complete.
Provost was able to make the team in 1955, in large part due to his checking skills. Playing in 60 games that year, Provost scored 13 goals and 29 points. In the playoff’s he contributed 3 goals and added 3 assists, as the Canadiens went on to win the Stanley Cup in Claude’s rookie year.
This was the beginning of a golden age for the Canadiens, one that no team has been able to match before or since. The 1956 cup represented the beginning of a five year reign for the Canadiens as the Stanley Cup champions. In those years Provost never scored more than 20 goals, yet like Bob Gainey a generation later, Claude Provost’s value to the team couldn’t be measured in mere statistics.
As with all great checkers Provost possessed a keen understanding of the nuances of the game. He wasn’t a great skater, and he didn’t have a powerful shot, but he was always in position thanks to his quick bursts of speed. He was able to use his deceptive speed, and always made the safe and the smart play.
But Claude Provost wasn’t all about defense; on November 9th, 1957 he set an NHL record by scoring a goal just four seconds into the start of the second period. Provost still holds the record for the fastest goal to start a period (Denis Saverd tied the record in 1986).
“Provost was one of those unsung hard workers – a grinder – who did his job game in and game out without too many people noticing him.” - Dick Irvin Jr.
At the conclusion of his fifth year in the league, Provost could look back at a career that included five Stanley Cup championships in his first five years, a claim that only he, Donnie Marshall, and Henri Richard can claim.
As the 1960’s dawned there were changes underfoot with the Canadiens. In 1960, Maurice Richard retired, followed by the trading of Doug Harvey in 1961, Jacques Plante in 1963, and the retirement of Boom Boom Geoffrion in 1964.
All of these changes thrusted Provost into a more prominent role with the Canadiens. The departure of many offensive stars gave him the opportunity to become more of a scorer with the team. Provost responded in the 1962-63 season with 33 goals and 62 points, both career highs.
However, Provost’s increased offensive output did not translate into more success for the Canadiens. After winning the five consecutive cups from 1956 to 1960, the Canadiens despite finishing first overall in 1961, 1962, and 1964 lost in the first round of the playoffs for four consecutive years; 1961, 1962 (Chicago), 1963 and 1964 (Toronto).
The 1964-65 season would be different not just for the Canadiens, but for Claude Provost as well. That year saw Provost score 27 goals and add 37 assists, resulting in him being honored as a first team all star.
In the 1965 playoffs Provost scored maybe the Canadiens biggest goal of the decade. In the semi-finals the Canadiens were matched against the three time defending champion Maple Leafs. After being eliminated the past two years by the Leafs, the Canadiens took a 3-2 series lead into Maple Leafs Gardens for game six.
Before a sold out crowd at the Gardens nothing was decided in regulation time as the two teams took a 3-3 tie into overtime. At 16:33 of the first overtime period, Provost scored what was undoubtedly the biggest goal of his career. After eliminating the champion Leafs the Canadiens went on to face the Chicago Black Hawks in the finals.
In the finals, Provost turned his focus onto the job of checking the Hawks superstar Bobby Hull. As opposed to many other defensive forwards, he checked in a clean and effective way. He didn’t take penalties, and he was not a clutch and grabber like many latter day checkers. Provost, never complained about his role, and was willing to sacrifice his individual needs for the greater goal of the team. Even Hull his main adversary, said he respected the job that Provost did.
Thanks in part to his masterful job in conatining Hull; the Canadiens were able to regain the Cup in a seven game final series that saw Hull rendered ineffective due to Provost’s skills.
This cup win helped kick off the Canadiens “quiet dynasty” of the 1960’s.
“Claude Provost was the typical front-line soldier, a good guy, usually quiet, but capable of laughter, too. NHL play during the 1960’s was dominated by Bobby Hull, except when the Hawks came up against the Canadiens, and the reason why we prevailed against them can be summed up in two words, Claude Provost.” - Jean Beliveau
As the team was able to reload with new offensive stars like Bobby Rousseau, Gilles Tremblay, and Yvan Cournoyer, Provost was able to resume his checking career in his later years with the Canadiens. As one of the elder statesman of the team he never contributed more than 19 goals a season during the “quiet dynasty” but he was still a valuable part of the team.
After repeating as Cup champions in 1966, the Canadiens lost in the finals to the Leafs in the last Stanley Cup finals of the original six era in 1967. The 1968 playoffs saw Provost once again record a valuable 10 points in 13 games as the Canadiens regained the Stanley Cup by defeating the St. Louis Blues.
1968 also saw Provost honored as the first winner of the Bill Masterton trophy for his dedication to hockey. This rare recognition of his talent and achievement was long overdue.
In 1969 Provost was able to assist Jean Beliveau on his only career playoff overtime goal as the Habs eliminated the Bruins in the semi-finals on their way to winning their fourth Stanley Cup in five years.
This represented the ninth and last Stanley Cup of Provost’s career. Only his teammates Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, and Yvan Cournoyer have more.
The 1969-70 season represented the first time that the Canadiens missed the playoffs since Provost joined the team. Needless to say changes were in the offing and the 37 year old Provost did not fit in to the Habs future as management was intent on promoting a young Pete Mahovlich.
Rather than play somewhere else, Claude Provost retired from the Canadiens and began coaching the Rosemont National of the Quebec Junior Hockey League. In 1971 the Canadiens sold his rights to the Los Angeles Kings, who were inquiring about his availability for a potential comeback, Provost chose to stay retired.
Sadly, Claude Provost passed away on April 17th, 1984 at the age of fifty while playing tennis at his Florida home.
During his life and career, Claude Provost was one of the most underappreciated members of two great Montreal Canadiens dynasties. Unfortunately, in death this status has remained unchanged.
Claude Provost played an integral part on nine Stanley Cup championship teams. He was recognized as the premier defensive forward of his generation. He was a first team all star once and played in 11 All Star games.
In 1992, Bob Gainey was deservedly elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In many ways Gainey was the player who took up the defensive forward mantle for the Canadiens after Provost’s retirement.
Bob Gainey played 16 years with the Canadiens scoring 239 goals and 501 points. Claude Provost played 15 years with the Canadiens and scored 15 more goals and 88 more points while playing in 155 fewer games than Gainey.
And while Bob Gainey is rightly celebrated as one of the games legends, Claude Provost is remembered by former teammates and older fans as an equally valuable player during his time with the Canadiens.