It’s certainly been a bad week for the hockey world, with the passings of Murray Oliver, Pat Quinn and Viktor Tikhonov, men who all made a substantial mark on the game.
And so did Gilles Tremblay, a fixture in the NHL since 1961. A strong-skating, top two-way forward for the Canadiens and later a winner of the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Foster Hewitt Award for broadcasters, Tremblay died on Wednesday at the age of 75.
Scotty Bowman first met the 17-year-old Tremblay as his coach for the Ottawa Junior Canadiens of the Quebec League and observed his NHL career. “He was a bit shy, but a nice kid,” recalls Bowman, “but from the time he stepped on the ice in junior, he could flat-out fly.”
Tremblay would top the 20-goal mark in the NHL five times but, Bowman says, “He didn’t have a big scoring touch in junior because he was always interested in backchecking – and that’s how he made the Canadiens (in the early 1960s). He became a shadow of Gordie Howe. He didn’t antagonize him. He skated with him and carefully checked him.”
Tremblay often matched up against the top opposition right wingers like Detroit’s Howe and the Rangers Andy Bathgate and was so effective Howe once said Tremblay deserved an All-Star selection.
It was Chicago’s Ken Wharram who gave Tremblay the most trouble. “Wharram was as fast as me, besides being a good scorer,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Against Howe, I could always get away with my skating ability. But if Kenny had a lead on me, I was not able to catch up. The same with Bobby Orr."
Bowman draws favorable comparisons between Tremblay and Bob Gainey, the game’s premier checking forward of the 70s. “They were the same type of player, very strong skaters,” says Bowman, “although Bob was bigger, stronger of course, and Gilles was better offensively. And, wow, he was a pure skater. He could skate like Bobby Hull,” who was generally considered the era’s most powerful skater.
He was so good offensively that Montreal coach Toe Blake inserted him on a line with Jean Beliveau and Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, and later with Beliveau and Yvan Cournoyer.
Hailed as a sure-fire star because of his powerful skating, Tremblay was coming off a 32-goal, 51 assist season for Hull-Ottawa in the Eastern Professional League when he debuted at the Habs training camp in 1960. However, he initially flopped. Tremblay was so anxious to make an impression that he ran up and down the hills of his hometown in Montmorency, Quebec, all summer and, he said, developed the wrong muscles. At camp, his skating was sluggish and the Habs shipped him back to the EPHL before the NHL season began.
He was recalled midway through the campaign, however, and given sweater Number 21, in which he acquitted himself well. Before the following season, 1961-62, he adopted a more traditional training method. It resulted in his most productive NHL season, scoring 32 goals, and his first big thrill, assisting on Geoffrion’s record tying 50th goal. He’d be a fairly consistent 20-goal scorer for the rest of his NHL career.
But Blake thought he should have been a 30-goal guy annually. Tremblay admitted he didn’t go to the net consistently, but didn’t want to be caught up ice and neglect his defensive responsibilities.
Another reason his production fell short was injuries, and he had a lifetime of them. In fact, he had become a hockey player as a child because of an injury. The youngest of 14 children, he originally excelled as a downhill skier until breaking his leg as a seven-year old. That led him to hockey although, he often laughed, his first skates were his sister’s white figure skates with pom-poms on the toes.
His worst injury as a pro came in 1964 when a check by the Maple Leafs’ Ron Ellis in December broke his leg. He missed the rest of the season, and was not part of Montreal’s first Stanley Cup championship run in five seasons. He was back the following season, now wearing Geoffrion’s old Number 5, and hit for 27 goals. He got four more, with five assists, in the Habs 10-game march to the Cup.
Following another Cup season in 1968, he developed an asthmatic condition that put his playing career in a tailspin. He was frequently in the hospital and heavily medicated, then released so he could play the next game. It wasn’t the best remedy – more rest might have worked better -- and Tremblay was forced to retire midway through the ’68-‘69 season. He never blamed the team or the doctors, however, acknowledging that he received the prevailing treatment of the time. He finished his playing career with 168 goals and 330 points in 509 games.
Soon, however, he was back at the rink in a new capacity. Hired to work as an analyst on La Soirée du Hockey on both TV and radio, he became the first French- speaking former athlete to make the transition to broadcasting. (See an example of Tremblay's work in the video below.) For the next three decades, he worked with all the great Francophone play-by-play announcers, starting with René Lecavalier, but had much to learn. “When I started,” he said, “it was just as if I was still on the Canadiens’ bench or that I was playing. I was talking about MY blue line or OUR net.”
Eventually, his keen eye for the game and its details was matched by his on-air delivery and when he was selected for the media wing of the Hall of Fame in 2002, the Canadiens honored him and symbolically hoisted his pale blue La Soirée du Hockey blazer to the Bell Centre rafters.
True to his team-first perspective, he shared his professionalism with others breaking into broadcasting. Among them was journalist Marie-José Turcotte, the first woman to do sports reporting on Quebec TV. She said on Ici RDI Wednesday that despite his pioneering role, “What I always appreciated about Gilles was his great humility...and every time I worked with him, I always liked to call him my Uncle Gilles."
He also became known for his great storytelling and his sense of humor. When NBC’s Pierre McGuire was breaking into broadcasting with the Canadiens English language radio, Tremblay helped ease his early jitters. McGuire recalled the pair walking through the Pittsburgh Civic Arena and Tremblay saying, “You know, Pierre, I scored the first NHL goal in this building, back on Oct. 11, 1967. We won the game 2-1. But,” Tremblay smiled with a twinkle in his eye, “it was unlucky for me because Jean Beliveau got his 400th goal that night.”
He never really sought the spotlight and may have been a bit unlucky. But Gilles Tremblay created his own hockey legacy.