Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The greatest team in history

Thirty-one years ago today, Clarence Campbell passed out the Stanley Cup for the last time before handing the reins of NHL governorship over to John Zeigler. It was in Boston Garden, and the great trophy was received by acting captain of the Montreal Canadiens, Serge Savard, after the Habs swept the Bruins in four straight games. It was the Canadiens' twentieth Stanley Cup.

That 1976-77 Canadiens team was the best NHL squad in history. Some will argue for the '80s Oilers, but though they were great, the Habs had them beat on defence. They were better in every way than the '80s Islanders and the '90s Penguins and Devils. Perhaps the '50s Habs could compare in many ways, but I maintain the '70s version of the Canadiens was deeper and faster than their earlier incarnation. In 1976-77, the Habs had sixty wins against only eight losses, only one of those on home ice. Imagine...eight losses over an entire season?! That team outscored the opposition by an incredible 2.76 goals per game, scoring two hundred more goals than they allowed. There are teams today that barely score that many goals per game at all...never mind outscore the opposition by that much. The Habs finished 26 points ahead of second-place Boston, and Ken Dryden had ten shutouts, with another four in fourteen playoff games. Various Canadiens won the Vezina, Art Ross, Norris, Jack Adams, Pearson, Hart and Conn Smythe trophies. Four of the first team all star spots and one second went to the Habs. The team went undefeated at home from November 1, 1976 to April 2, 1977, a total of thirty-four games including 28 wins and six ties, a record that still stands today. Other records that team still holds: most points in a season, with 132 and fewest losses, with the aforementioned eight.

Many members of the Canadiens from that team have gone on to influence the league by coaching and managing other teams. Larry Robinson won a Cup behind New Jersey's bench. Jacques Lemaire is one of the league's most respected and successful coaches. Doug Risebrough and Bob Gainey have become well-regarded general managers. There are many others.

Last year, on the thirtieth anniversary of that team's Cup win, I had the privilege of speaking with several members of it to reminisce and talk about how their legacy has changed the game. Here's some of what they had to say:

Rick Chartraw:
"I remember a funny story one time. I think it may have been a playoff game. It was the morning skate and we were playing Boston that night, and Boston was in town. We skated in the morning at ten o'clock and the other team would go on the ice at eleven o'clock for a warm up. Gerry Cheevers was sitting on the visitor's side of the rink at the Forum, watching us go through our morning skate. We had Kenny in one net and Bunny in the other. And the guys were just ripping shots at every corner, over shoulders, between legs, not taking anything off of them. And Gerry Cheevers...I was standing next to the boards...said, "The way you guys abuse your goaltenders, I'm gonna be sick." And we didn't think we were abusing them, and our goaltenders didn't either. It was their job to be challenged whether it was in practice or in games, to the nth degree. It was the way we did things. We did things at full throttle, whether it was practice or games. I think that's what made the games, for us...not easy...but easy to play at that level because we just always played at that level, whether it was practice or games."

"We weren't just the fastest team in the league, or the best puck movers, but we were also the toughest. We had ten guys on that team who could take on anyone else if need be and win. I think other teams, who years prior tended to try and take advantage of Montreal because they were known as just lightweight skaters, found out that we could play very very physically and if need be, go toe to toe with anyone in the league and come away winners. And we didn't just have all this talent, and leadership and a coach who understood the game so well and how to put players together, but we were also the hardest working team in the NHL. In practice, when you were doing sprints, everyone was hugely competitive. Guys were going as hard as they could, all the time."

"I just remember, sitting on the bench, there were times when...Scotty would stay very close to the vest and move lines in and out off the bench, and not be too animated as long as the game was close. I remember times when the guys would say, "Let's keep it close," so we could have peace on the bench. And then at the end of the game, we'd turn it on a little bit and get it to the next level and walk away with a win. The team was so good that we could play it that way sometimes."

Doug Risebrough:
"We're all here today trying to figure out what does team mean. And, to me, the best example of it was that era, when the Montreal Canadiens were a team. Why were we a team? We were a team because there was a tremendous respect for each other in the room. There was a respect that we were different, English or French, there were differences, but there was respect that we were all doing it together. As a young player, I thought the veterans on the team treated me outstandingly. They included me, they were interested in me. That wasn't the case in other organizations. It was a team in that you had a role, and if you did your thing, we'd all be successful. And everything that was pounded into us, and that came natural to the people that were there, was always a consideration of doing something that was good for the team. It was the best team, that had the best players in the league, and we all made sacrifices for the team. And the best players made more sacrifices, but they were the best examples."

"I remember the people more than I remember the games or the moments. And when the team is as good as it was, everyone thinks it must have been easy. Well, there's adversity in those years. You see people raw, and they need help. And you're there to help, or somebody's there to help you."

Steve Shutt:
"The memories that I have of that team is that we were a genuine team. Lafleur was no more important that Dougie Jarvis, and he wasn't treated any differently. And that might be the biggest difference between our era and hockey right now. I remember going into the dressing room and just being happy to go in there because they were a good bunch of guys and I genuinely liked them."

"You see the guys who've gone on in hockey and really have set the tone for the NHL for the last decade. All of these guys that have gone into the league and really defined the Montreal Canadiens' style, which is hard work and really compete in every game. I think you're going to see we made more of a difference when we retired than when we actually played the game."

Murray Wilson:
"We'd won the Cup in '76 and I guess we were a little cocky. But Scotty never let anyone get cocky for very long. He had different ways to cut you back to size. I remember training camp that year a little bit. Scotty basically said, "You think you're good, do you? Let's see how good you can really be." Montreal Canadiens training camp started off with one win the Stanley Cup. And it started on the first day. Other teams' aspirations maybe weren't that lofty."

"I've always wondered if they actually had a recipe for us and put the ingredients together? Or did it just kind of mold and meld its way as we went along as individuals, as hockey players, as performers?"

Ken Dryden:
"It's something that in some ways can be haunting. You don't really replicate that environment (when it's over). You can't do it for lots of reasons, yet you're stuck with that image inside you that draws you and drives you and you can't quite achieve again. But it's fun in the trying, and it just makes you better in everything else that you try."

"As the Flyers were winning, everybody wanted to be like the Flyers. So, I think it's important that we won. I mean, there are good teams, there are great teams and there are important teams. There are a lot of Stanley Cup winners, and many of them are great or near great teams. There are not very many that are also important teams. I think the Montreal Canadiens of that time were also a very important team."

So, as we watch a very good Detroit team try to oust the Stars tonight, let's raise a glass to that important team that thirty-one years ago today, finished the greatest season in NHL history.

No comments: