Fifty yards down the corridor from Boston Coach Don Cherry's office, the Montreal Canadiens are celebrating the 4-1 victory over the Bruins that wrapped up their third straight Stanley Cup championship, their ninth in the last 14 years and their 21st in all. This is how they are celebrating in their Boston Garden locker room:
Pierre Larouche, a newcomer to the Canadiens—and to winning—is alternately guzzling champagne and squirting it at his teammates, most of whom are sipping beer from cans.
Larry Robinson, the imperial defenseman who almost singlehandedly ruined Boston last week as Montreal broke open the series by winning the last two games by the same convincing score, is trying to convey the sadness he feels for the vanquished Bruins. Now, he says, "They will have to spend their summer vacations answering the most depressing question of all: 'Why didn't you win?' "
Guy Lafleur, the dynamic goal scorer, is telling linemate Steve Shutt to hurry and get dressed, that the real party will begin when the Canadiens' charter lands in Montreal.
June 4, 1978
Mario Tremblay, the 22-year-old right wing who did not even dress for 10 of Montreal's 15 playoff games, but who had scored two goals—including the Cup winner—in Thursday night's sixth game, is speaking in French to some journalist friends. He is telling them that he hopes his two-goal performance will convince General Manager Sam Pollock not to ship one Mario Tremblay off to Colorado or Cleveland or—no, Sam!—St. Louis when Pollock conducts his annual fire sale of slightly used hockey merchandise next week.
Scotty Bowman, the coach who has led the Canadiens to four Stanley Cups in his seven seasons in Montreal, is strangely subdued. For once, he has nothing to say about the officiating. He is even quiet about Boston Defenseman Brad Park, whom he had singled out as being a sneaky, dirty player. Bowman, whose contract with the Canadiens has lapsed, asks a friend, "If the Canadiens don't give me the new contract I want, where should I live in the States?" Bowman says he is weary of coaching, and, indeed, within the next few weeks could well become the general manager of the New York Rangers, the Colorado Rockies or the St. Louis Blues.
Bob Gainey, the peerless defensive forward, shadow and body checker, is quietly disagreeing with the Montreal fanatics who feel that the 1978 Canadiens rate as the best team of all time. "I don't think that this team has the same drive that last year's team had," Gainey says. "This team played a lot of games—too many, in fact—by the score. Once the game was under control, this team didn't work as hard. Last year's team played every game until the tank was empty."
Red Fisher of the Montreal Star, who has covered every Canadien team for the last 24 years, is agreeing with Gainey. "This team didn't have a Beliveau or a Henri Richard at center, a Rocket Richard and a Boom-Boom Geoffrion at right wing. And as good as Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe are on defense, I don't think any one of them is a Doug Harvey. To me, any of those Canadien teams of the late '50s—when Montreal won five straight Stanley Cups—was better than this '78 team."
Ken Dryden, the lawyer-goaltender, is disputing Gainey's thesis and not commenting on Fisher's. "This team had more depth and better flexibility than any of the Cup champions I've played on," Dryden says.
Savard, who works alongside Robinson and now has played on seven Cup teams in his 11 seasons with Montreal, seconds Dryden's opinion. "What really makes this club the best of them all is the fact that we don't have even one bad apple on it," Savard says. "For togetherness, this is by far the best group I've ever been around. When a Lafleur doesn't have a big head, when a Lafleur doesn't have a Rolls-Royce with a chauffeur, when a Lafleur doesn't go popping off in the newspapers, well, nobody does. That's the difference. We have to win, and we do win, but we don't win the way the Yankees win. We don't make noises about it."
In his office down the hall, Cherry, the beaten coach for the second straight year, is winding down from his eight-month high. "You know what really bothers the hell out of me about the damned Canadiens?" he says. "It's that they are really a bunch of good guys. I couldn't even work up a good hate against them if I tried for a month. It's easy to work up a hate for a club like Philadelphia. And I suppose—well, I know—that it's pretty easy for teams to work up a good hate against the Bruins. But hating the Canadiens is like hating your mother."
Cherry shakes his head. "It's a funny thing, or maybe right now it's not such a funny thing," he says, "but three of my best friends in hockey are those three big Canadien defensemen—Robinson, Savard and Lapointe. I got to know them real well when I was one of Team Canada's coaches during the Canada Cup in 1976. All three of them like to have the odd beer, just like me, and we all spent a lot of time together sweating it off in the sauna. Believe me, there aren't three nicer gentlemen anywhere."
Maybe not, but with friends like Robinson, Savard and Lapointe, Cherry hardly needs enemies. After the Bruins had squared the series at two games apiece by winning Games 3 and 4 in Boston, Robinson, Savard and Lapointe—no doubt the three best defenders ever to play on the same team—shut off the Boston attack with their slick stick checks and bruising body checks, and then awakened the slumbering Montreal offense with their strong rushes and their precise long passes to breaking forwards.
"Those three guys never let us do anything," Cherry says. "Lafleur's lucky he never has to play against them. And their fourth defenseman—Bill Nyrop—is unlucky because he's lost in their shadows and people will never know how good he is."
The 6'3", 210-pound Robinson, who won the Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs, personally signaled the Canadiens' revival during the early moments of Game 5 Tuesday night at the Forum. Robinson had been one of the very few Canadiens to put out in both games at Boston, and now, back on home ice, he was even more menacing. He rattled two Bruins into the boards with hard body checks, and when some combative Bostonians tried to get at Lafleur after he had hit one of them illegally with the butt end of his stick, Robinson rushed to the scene and put an end to all overt threats.
On such occasions Robinson adopts a De Gaullish posture: he stands squarely in the center of the fray, towering over his opponents, and lets his scowl do the talking. Robinson fought regularly during his first few seasons with the Canadiens in the early 1970s, but he has not been challenged since one night two seasons ago when he came out of the dressing room with his skates untied and half-falling off and outpunched Philadelphia's Dave (Hammer) Schultz, then the NHL's heavyweight champion.
"I don't want to fight and hit all the time," Robinson says. "If I do, I'll end up being only 4'8"."
Cherry vividly recalls his first contact with Robinson. "I played against him the last year I was active with Rochester in the American League," he says. "Get this. The Canadiens had sent him down to Halifax because he couldn't skate well enough. He was really thin, maybe 25 pounds lighter than the tank he is now, and he had this real big Adam's apple sticking out and a ridiculous mop of hair. I took over as coach in the middle of that season, and the next time we played Halifax I told my guys before the game, 'Lookit, you got to watch that defenseman Robinson, number whatever-it-was.' One of my players said, 'You mean that big donkey who looks like a stork?' Forget what he looked like then. You could see that Robinson had meanness, that he could really hum the puck and really skate with it. You know, I never could understand why the Canadiens sent him down to work on his skating."
Why, indeed. In Game 5 Robinson took the puck behind his own net in the eighth minute of the first period. The game was scoreless at the time. Lafleur and Park both were in the penalty box, and Robinson had plenty of ice at his disposal. He started slowly, building speed, and by the time he reached the red line he was in full flight—"Like a runaway locomotive," Boston Goaltender Gerry Cheevers recalls. Robinson swooped around the overmatched Boston defense and bore in on Cheevers.
"I had to play the odds," Cheevers says. "I couldn't go out and challenge Robinson the way I'd have challenged most other players. He's got the longest reach and the longest legs I've ever seen, and he can fake you out like nothing. So I had to stay back in the crease and move across with him." It was a futile move: Robinson shot and scored.
That goal launched an all-out Montreal barrage against Cheevers, and in short order the Canadiens had their victory, scoring each of their four goals when at least one Bruin was in the penalty box, and taking a 3-2 lead in the series. For his part, Savard assisted on Robinson's goal and also helped set up goals for Pierre Mondou and Pierre Larouche.
The Robinsons, Savards, Lafleurs and Drydens aside, what distinguishes the Canadiens from the pretenders in the NHL is their exceptional depth. Or quality in numbers, as Bowman calls it, thinking about the Mondous, Larouches and Tremblays, who would be stars in other cities—Larouche, in fact, once was the star of the Pittsburgh Penguins—but are not considered mature enough to play regularly in Montreal.
"Over the last 10 years the Bruins have had 11 first-round draft choices," says Boston General Manager Harry Sinden. "Over that same period Montreal—because of all the deals Pollock has made—has had probably 30 first-round picks. The difference is about 19 players. In effect, the Canadiens have had two teams to play around with for 10 years, while everybody else has had only one."
In 1974 the wily Pollock used one of his five first-round selections in the amateur lottery to pick Tremblay, then an 18-year-old with the Junior Canadiens. In 1975 Pollock used one of his two first-round choices to take Mondou, a center for the Junior Canadiens. Then, last November, using a top draft choice in a reverse way, Pollock packaged his disappointing No. 1 pick in 1976, Peter Lee, and fading star Peter Mahovlich and mailed them to Pittsburgh in exchange for the 22-year-old Larouche and, of course, "future considerations."
Tremblay is a dogged board man and a tough fighter, Mondou is shiftier than even Lafleur, and Larouche is a sniper who two years ago scored 53 goals for the Penguins. Still, Tremblay dressed for just the last three games of the Boston series and only after Bowman decided that the Canadiens needed more heart and muscle against the Bruins. Mondou played mostly in spurts, unleashed by Bowman when the coach thought the Bruins were dragging. And Larouche sat out the first four games of the Boston series, dressing for the last two only after Bowman decided that the Montreal power play needed some pep.
"When there are guys like that sitting around and waiting to take your job, you keep your rear in gear," says Shutt. Gainey agrees. "Mondou's just about ready to play 27, 28 minutes a game," he says. "When he does, you'll be hearing his name a lot—just like you hear Lafleur's."
Jacques Lemaire, Shutt's center on the line with Lafleur, hardly thought it much of a joke when Shutt recently said of Mondou, "In two years this team will have a topflight center."
While Mondou and Tremblay are products of the Canadiens' system and have bided their time as irregulars, Larouche is not yet what Savard calls "a Canadien" and, in fact, may never become one. "Larouche is not used to hard work," Savard says, "because everything has always come too easy for him. He has the feeling that because he scored 53 goals one season for Pittsburgh, he should be on the ice with the Canadiens."
Bowman, for his part, berates Larouche mercilessly, on the ice and off. "I don't understand you," he snaps at Larouche. "The hardest thing to do in hockey is put the puck in the net, and you can do that blindfolded. The easiest thing to do in hockey is check, but you won't even try to do that. Pierre, I'll tell you this. Until you learn how to check, until you come onto the ice ready to work, you're not going to play too much for Montreal."
Larouche played only sparingly in the decisive sixth game Thursday night, but Tremblay—worried sick about his job security—scored his two goals and Mondou, taking a regular turn at center for the first time in the finals, directly set up two of the Montreal goals, one of Tremblay's, the other by Shutt. The final Montreal goal was credited to Rejean Houle, but it actually was accidentally tipped past Cheevers by one of his defensemen.
Although the Bruins scored the first goal, something they did in five of the six games, Montreal assumed total command early and checked the Bruins into submission, limiting them to a mere 16 shots at Dryden, who had to make only two testing saves.
Cheevers, the beaten goalie, tried to look at the series positively. "Last year we didn't beat the Canadiens in any of the games in the finals," he said. "This year we won two games. Well, next year we'll win four games." He smiled. "Now I know how Alydar must feel. We came close to the Canadiens, but we couldn't pass them."