A few teams in the NHL like to pretend they have a tradition of excellence. The average life expectancy in Sierra Leone is shorter than the Toronto Maple Leafs’ current Stanley Cup drought, but “The passion that unites us all” remains their corporate mantra. The Chicago Blackhawks are closing in on 50 years without a championship and they continually demand their players, “commit to the Indian.”
But no team plays on its tradition and sense of élan the way the Montreal Canadiens do. In fact, if you didn’t know any better, you’d be led to believe the Canadiens have always lived up to the romantic myth, that they’ve always been the class of hockey and the standard bearer for any measure of excellence.
You might be shocked to learn there was a time when there was nothing further from the truth.
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The Canadiens were, in fact, so bad during the Depression and the first half of the 1940s that they almost lost a battle of survival to the Montreal Maroons. The Cleveland Canadiens? It wasn’t as far-fetched then as it sounds some 70 years later.
In fact, by the time they began winning Stanley Cups with alarming regularity in the mid-1950s, both the Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings actually had more NHL titles than the Canadiens. But then the Habs went about to change the course of history and essentially carved their permanent place among the greatest organizations in the history of sport.
But even though the Canadiens have been around for a century, almost all of their success can be traced to a 24-season period spanning from 1955-56 through 1978-79, a time in which they won 15 championships. No team in North American professional sports has ever had a run that productive over a quarter of a century — not the New York Yankees or the Boston Celtics or the Green Bay Packers. Outside the realm of professional sports, the feat has never been duplicated by UCLA basketball, Notre Dame or Yale football or Liverpool or Manchester United in the English Premier League.
And not surprisingly, all the championships and all the outstanding teams were bound together by a common thread that ran through the organization, with one great GM or coach begetting another. It began with the assembly of a formidable farm system that continually supplied players to feed the beast, not only from the fertile territory of Quebec, but from other parts of Canada as well. It survived the NHL doubling in size through expansion, then swelling to 17 teams. It endured the poaching from a rival league and the league’s decision to (rightly) take away the organization’s divine right to every star player in its home province.
And like all great dynasties, it was started by superior management. But those who don’t have a keen sense of history when it comes to the Canadiens might be surprised to learn that it all started with Thomas Patrick Gorman, a Hall of Famer whose contributions to the Canadiens have never been celebrated they way they should.
Truth be told, Gorman’s feud with Montreal ownership has relegated him to one of the least-celebrated geniuses in the history of the sport. It was Gorman who, after winning Stanley Cups with the Ottawa Senators, Maroons and Blackhawks, took over a moribund and irrelevant Canadiens franchise and won two Stanley Cups in three seasons. He also built the Canadiens into a lucrative moneymaker and set the foundation for the future of the franchise.
It was Gorman who inherited a team in 1940 that had finished last in the NHL and was in shambles. It had only three or four NHL-caliber players on it, but thanks to shrewd scouting outside of Quebec and a youngster named Maurice Richard, Gorman had built the team into a Stanley Cup winner within four years.
It could have all stopped when Gorman resigned after a power struggle in 1946, but instead it was Frank Selke who took what Gorman started and brought it to new heights of excellence. Selke established the Canadiens powerful farm system in Quebec that yielded most of their breathtaking skill, and supplemented it with a net that cast as far as Winnipeg and Edmonton, where they acquired a number of their key defensemen and role players.
Chrys Goyens, who wrote an excellent intellectual biography on the Canadiens entitled Lions in Winter, likens what Selke did to a farmer working his land through the spring and summer without seeing the sprouts coming up. When the harvest did finally come in, the Canadiens produced a string of five straight Stanley Cups starting in 1956, a run of success that has never been equaled in the NHL or outside of it. (The Canadiens maintain they would have won the first Cup in 1954-55 and started a run of six in a row had NHL president Clarence Campbell not suspended Rocket Richard for the remainder of the season and the playoffs that year. Not only did it deprive the Canadiens of their best player, but it also caused them to lose home ice advantage and the Red Wings beat the Canadiens in Game 7 on home ice in the Stanley Cup final that year.)
At the other end of the dynasty was the team that won four Stanley Cups in the late 1970s, one that was assembled through shrewd drafting and trades, and one that could be held up as the most successful blueprint for developing players. Al MacNeil may have been run out of town by Henri Richard after leading the Canadiens to the Cup in 1971, but his more important fingerprints on the franchise came in the steady stream of players he developed in the minors for the Canadiens powerhouse teams of the 70s.
Sandwiched in between was the Canadiens’ forgotten dynasty of the 1960s, a team that had less star power and more elbow grease than the other two, but was its equal in almost every way. That was a team that won four Stanley Cups in five years, and would have made it 5-for-5 had they not taken the Maple Leafs so lightly in the 1967 final. Ask any former Canadien from that era what keeps him up at night and he’ll say it was the miserable experience of losing to the Leafs just months before Montreal was to host the world’s fair in ’67.
“Those teams didn’t have the same romantic qualities that the great teams of the 1970s or the dynasty of the 1950s had,” Goyens said, “but (former Canadiens GM) Sam Pollock always said that group of guys was his favorite.”
Selke began the run of front office genius by hiring the likes of Pollock, Claude Ruel, Cliff Fletcher and MacNeil. Pollock essentially built the Cup teams of the 1960s and ’70s and looked out for the Canadiens interests by using his power at the league level. Selke hired Toe Blake to coach in 1955 and his successor Pollock hired cup-winning coaches in Ruel, MacNeil and, ultimately, Scotty Bowman. Even after MacNeil’s messy divorce from the NHL team, Pollock kept him in the organization as the coach of the minor pro team and he continued to churn out NHL-caliber players for a powerhouse team.
It created a set of dominos that continues to fall today. Not only did those Canadien teams provide some of the greatest teams the game has ever seen, it has also stocked much of the rest of the NHL with front office people and coaches the likes of which has never been seen. It’s no accident that players such as Ken Dryden, John Ferguson, Serge Savard, Bob Gainey, Doug Risebrough, Rejean Houle and Rogie Vachon went on to become GMs of the Canadiens and other teams around the league. Larry Robinson, Bob Murdoch, Jacques Lemaire, Jim Roberts and Mario Tremblay eventually became head coaches at the NHL level and others such as Jacques Laperriere, Pete Mahovlich, Guy Lapointe, Claude Larose, Yvan Cournoyer, Steve Shutt, Doug Jarvis and Pierre Mondou went on to serve meaningful roles as assistant coaches and scouts at the NHL level.
And so it goes. The Canadiens run that started with T.P. Gorman more than 60 years ago still resonates throughout the NHL to this day. Since then, there has been a constant supply of players and executives who have learned well and taken their knowledge with them either into the upper reaches of the Canadiens or on to other organizations to make them better.
It’s quite a legacy, isn’t it? But as the Canadiens celebrate their 100th year, they also enter their 15th straight season without a Stanley Cup, a drought that is beginning to make The Great Darkness of the 1930s and ’40s look short by comparison. (And if not for one Patrick Roy, one could argue that the current Cup-less streak could easily be at 28 years and counting.)
But the Canadiens will always have a quarter of a century where they piled up so many championships and had so many great teams that it may be impossible for anyone else to catch up.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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