The two girls are about 17 and cute and are wearing their hair in the short, neat style you see all over Montreal. They recognize the handsome kid in the sports car right away. They smile and giggle and wave. Yvan Cournoyer, who is stopped at a traffic light and is busy manipulating the automatic window controls of his $7,100 Corvette Sting Ray, notices them and smiles back for a moment, with the same cheerful grin he has just given the 10 youngsters who stopped him for autographs as he left a hockey practice at the Montreal Forum. "Everybody here loves hockey," he says, "Everyone seems to know who you are. You can see that, eh?" You can also see that Yvan likes the idea of people knowing who he is.
The light turns green, and Yvan presses the gas pedal down into the plush carpeting on the floor. The motor roars loud enough to be heard over Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, who are making another very loud noise on the radio. The back wheels spin for a second in the snow and slush of St. Catherine Street, and the driver smiles with pride as the green car races away from the young hockey fans. Yvan likes fast driving, too.
On this winter weekday he has a special reason to drive fast. He is on his way to buy clothes. But not merely to buy them—to study them, to caress them, to exchange them and have them adjusted until they are just right for both his Continental wardrobe and his powerful build. Yvan drives to the Place Ville Marie, an underground shopping center full of fashionable stores and wealthy business people and more pretty girls wearing short hair and miniskirts, although it is 5° below zero outside. He parks his car and enters Holt-Renfrew Ltée., one of the very best stores in the area. "Monsieur Cournoyer," someone says. He is immediately surrounded by four salesmen. It is well known in Montreal that Yvan likes nice clothes nearly as much as neat girls and fast cars.
His problem of the moment is a $17 baby-blue sport shirt that does not fit properly. "The neck size is all right," he says, "but the shoulders are too tight." This is understandable, for Yvan has the shoulders of a small bull on his taut and muscular 5'7" body. As notable as the shoulders are his large wrists, which have been strengthened by long shooting drills with a homemade two-and-a-half-pound steel puck to the point where Yvan now possesses one of the best wrist shots in hockey. A young salesman begins searching the shelves for a suitable shirt. While he waits, Yvan spots a pair of light-green slacks with a single square pocket, sleek lines and a rope-textured belt. He tries them on and buys them for $25.
The young clerk still can't find the right size shirt, but now another clerk, speaking quickly and smoothly in French, has Yvan's attention. He brings out a hand-tailored calfskin jacket. "Beautiful," Yvan says, "but I've got one just like it."
Cournoyer is 23 and single and makes something like $18,000 a year playing right wing for the Montreal Canadiens, the Stanley Cup champions of 1966. He lives in Lachine, a suburb of Montreal, with his family, and his father needs no financial help from him. This leaves Yvan in an excellent position to save money. But he is an exciting hockey player who is just beginning to get a real chance to become a star. He has many good years ahead in which to worry about saving. For the moment he'd just as soon spend a little. He works hard at the game he plays for his living, and he enjoys its reward: a kind of suspended and untroubled state of happiness in the town that is the ultimate goal of every French-speaking kid who even thinks about playing hockey in Canada. "Playing for the Canadiens," Yvan says, "is like a dream for me."
To most outsiders there is a magical quality about the whole Montreal hockey scene. A tradition, a heritage, a mystique remain with the team and the city even in years like this one, when the Canadiens are struggling just to stay above the .500 mark and are in imminent danger of losing the cup in the April playoffs. Separate and somewhat mysterious, Les Habitants are swarthy, dashing men whose native tongue is foreign to the ears of most hockey fans and who only occasionally deign to speak the fluid, accented English that makes them seem even more distant from the mere mortals who oppose them in the National Hockey League. Other teams skate; the Canadiens fly. Other teams have heroes; the Canadiens have demigods, of whom the greatest was Maurice (Rocket) Richard. English-speaking Canadians are important to the team, of course, yet the flavor of the club, like that of Montreal itself, is distinctly French. If a number of so-so hockey players have slipped in among the gods, the heritage still lives. Surely La Belle Province will produce yet another marvel to repel les étrangers and lead Montreal back to the top. In fact, many people around Montreal hockey have already decided that the new star will be Yvan Cournoyer.
Pete Morin has coached and owned hockey clubs in Montreal for 17 years. "In that whole time," he says, "I've only seen two kid players that I knew would definitely make it as successors to the Rocket. One was his brother Henri. The other, whom I first spotted when he was 15, is Cournoyer."
"Cournoyer had the shooting ability of an NHL star when he was 16," says Claude Ruel, the Canadiens' chief scout for eastern Canada, who coached Yvan in junior hockey. "From the first day I laid eyes on him I knew he'd make it. He's a natural scorer, always going to the net and always thinking when he's in front of it. You've either got that scoring knack or you haven't, and Yvan's always had it." Ruel pauses and then adds the highest compliment available to him: "Like the Rocket."
Such comparisons naturally embarrass Yvan. "The Rocket was everything in hockey to me," he says. "I guess it was the same for most kids in Montreal. Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull, sure, they're great players. But you can't tell many people who grew up here that the Rocket wasn't the greatest that ever lived. How could I ever compare to him?"
Actually, Yvan resembles the sainted Richard almost every time he takes a pass and begins a rush over the blue line. He skates swiftly down the right wing, looks to his left, then cuts sharply, without a wasted half-stride, and is suddenly in front of the goal, ready to fire his left-handed shot. That kind of move was Richard's trademark. Few who have followed him have executed it as well as Cournoyer.
However, the young Canadien is not yet a complete player. His defensive work is not up to the Canadiens' standard. This has prevented Coach Toe Blake from joining the chorus of delirious praise for Yvan. In fact, Blake refused to use Cournoyer on anything but power plays for the first half of this season, saying, "His checking is still too weak." Even so, Yvan has scored a remarkable number of goals. Indeed, he has been the team's leading goal-getter through most of the season. In recent weeks he has played intermittently on a line with Jean Beliveau, another of his idols, and John Ferguson, and he has been very good at times, but vulnerable at other times. One night in New York he set up as beautiful and smart a goal as you will see in a season—making a ferocious rush, dropping the puck for a trailer, Ferguson, and then screening Ferguson's wicked shot. The next week his gossamer defense contributed to a heavy defeat.
"I think I'm gaining experience that will improve me a lot," he says in his slightly hesitant English, which he began learning four years ago. "I watch the good checkers like Claude Provost and try to copy them. I've come to realize that checking is very important." Mainly it is important because he will not play very much if he can't check, and if he doesn't play he cannot shoot.
Yvan not only shoots hard and accurately but releases the puck with the instantaneous reaction that distinguished the Rocket and all mighty scorers. Yvan is so anxious to use this talent that some hockey men have accused him of shoeing too much. "There is no such thing as shooting too much," he replies to such criticism. "I think a player should shoot from everywhere, backhand or forehand, from any angle."
The development of a young hockey player in Canada is usually a long and often painful process. A boy with obvious talent leaves home at 15 or 16 to play with a team of strangers, often in a distant town. He generally leaves school at about the same time, staking his future on hockey. There are moments of loneliness and doubt for almost everyone.
But not for Yvan Cournoyer. He has never had to leave home, has never been unknown or alone or even particularly anxious about any part of his life. "I know I've been very lucky," he says. "Staying at home all through a career is a great thing." Yvan entered junior hockey at 14, after he and his family moved from Drummondville, Que. to the Montreal area. Soon he found himself in the finals of the Metropolitan (junior A) League playoffs. In the decisive game his Lachine team was trailing Verdun 3-2. With 30 seconds left he took the puck behind his own net, skated through the entire Verdun team and scored to tie the game. He scored again to win it in overtime, and the team owner, Pete Morin, recalls, "Already people were saying I was right about Yvan's future."
Midget, junior B, junior A—the standard but sometimes tortuous route of all young players—was a simple straight-line progression for Cournoyer. Each year he played better, was moved up in the Canadiens' system and was hailed by more and more Montrealers as one with a glorious destiny in the Forum. But then how could one ignore a compatriot who scored 63 goals in his final season as a junior?
"Of course, that made it kind of hard for me in the NHL," he says. "A lot of people said I should score 30 goals my first full year." But nobody seemed ready to give up on him when he scored only seven in 1964-65. Given more chances to play last year, he got 18. Early in March he reached the 20-goal mark, with a month of the current season still to be played, and it is unlikely that he will ever finish below 20 again. Improvement has been a constant factor in Yvan's life.
At one time he took baseball and golf seriously, but you will never see him on the pro tour as long as the pucks are going in for him and the good life in Montreal continues.
Yvan stops the Sting Ray in front of his house and enters. He takes off his snow-covered shoes at the door and puts on slippers. A large German shepherd named Princess greets him. He walks into a living room filled with tasteful, newly acquired furniture and tunes in a French rock 'n' roll station on his FM stereo set. It is the day before a home game, and he will spend it playing with the dog and resting in his own room, which is very cramped because one-third of it is occupied by a long metal clothes rack. The rack holds the overflow from Yvan's closet.
Montreal offers attractive girls and possibly the best discoth√®ques in North America to a young and single athlete, but Yvan enjoys them only in the off season. He speaks of the cavelike La Licorne and the space-age Mousse Spath√®que with relish and admits that dancing is another of his favorite pastimes. "But I don't go out much now," he says. "You could get in a lot of trouble if you did—this is a wild town. That's why I go steady with one girl. It keeps things quiet and easy. Tonight, for instance, I'll just have dinner at her house and then get some rest before the game."
Going steady may be a form of self-defense against other temptations for Yvan, but it is also a pretty pleasant habit. Jeannette Desrosiers is pert and charming and just wide-eyed and admiring enough around her famous friend. Yvan has been going steady with her for five years, but he says that it is much too early to think about marriage.
It is too early, really, to think about anything but scoring goals or choosing the right cashmere sweater or tuning up a sports car for maximum speed. Too early for responsibilities or worries. Too early for anything or anybody to interrupt this unbroken and idyllic dream, which just may wind up in a few years with the dashing young prince becoming king.