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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.
“It’s enough that I get to play for the Canadiens. I never thought as a child it would come true.” – J.C. Tremblay
During his career with the Canadiens both the fans and the media focused on what J.C. Tremblay wasn’t. He wasn’t tough. He wasn’t consistent. He wasn’t a Norris Trophy winning defenseman. And above all he wasn’t Doug Harvey.
But “J.C. Superstar” was one thing, one of the most underappreciated players in the history of the Montreal Canadiens.
Born on January 22nd, 1939 in Bagotville, Quebec, the oldest of eight children, Tremblay played the left wing during his youth. However, when it was brought to his attention that there was a shortage of defensive prospects in the Canadiens system, he made the switch, Not only did he gain increased ice time, but he became one of the most promising prospects in the Canadiens system.
In 1957-58 he joined the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens, coached by Scotty Bowman, and with teammates Ralph Backstrom and Bobby Rousseau, he was able to help Hull-Ottawa win the Memorial Cup.
Tremblay’s skills blossomed in Hull-Ottawa, his passing, shooting, and skating all improved. In 1959-60 he made the first all star team, scoring 25 goals and adding 31 assists, and won the Eastern Professional Hockey League’s most valuable player. This earned him a temporary promotion to the Canadiens where he played 11 games. During the next year, 1960-61 he also split time, playing 29 games with the Canadiens (including 5 playoff games), and 37 games with Hull-Ottawa (scoring 40 points).
In 1961-62 Tremblay joined the Habs full time. This coincided with the departure of Doug Harvey from the Canadiens. Harvey had one six of the last seven Norris trophies and was the dominant defenseman of his time and one of the greatest of all time. He had also been a key contributor to six Stanley Cup winners. Needless to say these were huge holes for Tremblay to fill, and in many ways he was never able to escape Harvey’s shadow.
Tremblay went on to play in all 70 games for the Canadiens, scoring 3 goals and adding 17 assists. Doug Harvey, playing for the New York Rangers won his seventh Norris trophy.
In the next three years Tremblay’s points were 18, 21, and 20. These point totals were not up to the expectations of the Canadiens fans. Combined with the Habs not winning the Stanley Cup, there was a growing impatience. This led to Tremblay becoming the target of the boo birds in the Forum crowd. In many ways this led to psychological scars that never healed for Tremblay, despite his later success.
The 1965 playoffs represented Tremblay’s coming out party. J.C. led all playoff scorers with 9 assists in 13 playoff games as the Canadiens won their first Stanley Cup in five years. With a Stanley Cup win, part of the burden seemed to be removed from Tremblay, as he finally began to fulfill his potential and gain the acceptance of the demanding Montreal attendance.
J.C. was able to follow this up with a career high of 35 points in 1965-66. And in the playoffs he was the Canadiens best player scoring 2 goals and adding 9 assists in 10 playoff games. In leading the Canadiens to their second straight Stanley Cup, Tremblay thought he would win the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP. Instead the honor went to the Red Wings goalie Roger Crozier in a losing cause.
This was viewed by Tremblay as another example of people overlooking his talent. This lack of recognition for his play was truly a sore spot for J.C. In the off-season he was comforted when his hometown of Bagotville held a special day in his honor.
In trying to explain Tremblay’s lack of recognition later on, Jean Beliveau wrote that J.C. was “essentially a shy man, a bit of a loner, who, like a bear, would growl to keep people away.” But Beliveau also went on to acknowledge that J.C. “was a very important cog in our machine.”
Tremblay was not a physical player, he never had more than 24 penalty minutes in a season, and he tended to shy away from body contact. Unfortunately, this is what some fans and members of the media focused on.
But that was only part of the picture. There wasn’t a better puck handler in the league than J.C. He was able to produce offense from the blue line, and was the leagues best playmaking defenseman. One of his signature plays was to rush up to the center red line and flip the puck in the air towards the goaltender. When done properly the puck would take an unpredictable bounce in front of the goaltender. Tremblay later estimated that he was able to score 25 goals off these weird bounces by frustrated goalies.
On November 30th, 1966 in a game against Toronto, Tremblay and teammate Bobby Rousseau became the first players to permanently wear a helmet. Unfortunately, this helped contribute at the time to Tremblay’s soft image.
Tremblay responded to this criticism by having his best year yet in 1967-68. In addition to scoring 30 points, J.C. was also a plus 28. For the first time in his career Tremblay was named to the second all star team, and he finished second in the balloting for the Norris trophy behind Bobby Orr.
But it was in the playoffs where J.C. really shone, scoring 9 points in 13 playoff games. With the Canadiens up 3 games to none in the finals against the Blues, the Canadiens were trailing 2-1 in the third period. At 7:24 of the third, J.C. set up Henri Richard for the tying goal, and four minutes later scored the Stanley Cup winning goal.
After seven years in the league J.C. Tremblay was finally beginning to carve out a name for himself as one of the top defensemen in the NHL.
In 1968-69 J.C. was able to establish new career highs with 39 points and a plus/minus of +29 as the Canadiens repeated as Stanley Cup champions.
However, the next year, 1969-70 represented a lost year for the Canadiens and for Tremblay himself. The Canadiens failed to make the playoffs and Tremblay’s point total almost dipped to half of what it had been the previous year. This firmly put Montreal in a rebuilding mode. For the first time in his career there were whispers about Tremblay’s future with the Habs.
Tremblay proudly voiced his desire to stay in Montreal. The Canadiens were rewarded with his best season. In 1970-71 J.C. scored 11 goals and added 52 points for 63 points, setting a new record for Habs defensemen, breaking the record once held by Doug Harvey. Tremblay followed that up by contributing to a surprise Canadiens Stanley Cup championship, his fifth championship.
Now finally “J.C. Superstar” established himself as a great defenseman in his own right. For the only time in his career Tremblay was rewarded by being placed on the NHL’s first all star team.
But for Tremblay, the psychological scars remained.
Reflecting years later, J.C. remembered that, “a Montreal fan forgets good plays, the bad plays he remembers forever. One year (1970-71) I made a record for scoring for Montreal defensemen and I was a first team all star. Next year the first game I made a mistake – fans start booing. First game!”
In 1971-72 Tremblay was made one of the team’s assistant captains. He responded by contributing 57 points and an astonishing career high plus/minus of +52. Tremblay’s stature was never higher; he was named to represent Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series. And at the same time J.C.’s contract status was up in the air.
Into this picture stepped the newly formed World Hockey Association. Looking for star players the newly formed Quebec Nordiques targeted Tremblay and offered him a financially lucrative contract that the Canadiens couldn’t or wouldn’t match. Unfortunately, like Bobby Hull once Tremblay signed with the Nordiques he disqualified himself from playing in the 1972 Summit Series.
Tremblay was the first great star for the Quebec Nordiques, and was the WHA’s greatest defenseman. In his first four years he would be named to the league’s all star team. He would also be named the league’s top defensemen in 1973 and 1975. In 1977 Tremblay, helped lead the Nordiques to the AVCO World Trophy, after losing in the finals the year before.
But undoubtedly, one of the highlights of this period came in 1974 when the WHA held their own Summit Series against the Soviet Union. Named the captain of the team Tremblay led all defensemen in scoring in a losing cause during the eight game series.
Tremblay was the only player to play in all of the Nordiques seven years in the WHA. When Tremblay retired in 1979, the team was absorbed into the NHL the next year. Tremblay finished second in WHA history in assists, fourteenth in points, and sixteenth in games played. But before the Nordiques joined the NHL it was announced that they were retiring Tremblay’s number three.
Later that year with his daughter in need of a kidney, J.C. donated his. J.C. was reunited with the Canadiens when he became their chief European scout in 1985. Unfortunately, in 1994 Tremblay’s remaining kidney was diagnosed with cancer, and after a tough battle, J.C. Tremblay passed away on December 7th, 1994 at the age of 55.
J.C. Tremblay played the majority of his career in the shadows, first in the shadow of the great Doug Harvey, and then when his spot on the Canadiens was taken over in the next year by Larry Robinson. But J.C. Tremblay was a great player in his own right, a player for whom recognition was a constant struggle, and one of the top defensemen ever to play for the Canadiens.