So, it's been a minute since my last Montreal Canadiens history article. At first the playoffs needed to take precedence, and then I needed some time to grieve over what I feel was a premature exit by my beloved team. Having now gotten over this, due in part to the destruction of the Senators at the hands of the Penguins, I turn to our storied past to help me cope with the disappointment. Many fans of other teams around the league love to say how us Habs fans "live in the past," but I say that they are just jealous of the degree to which our team's history is better than theirs. It's fun to live in the past when your past is amazing, and isn't fun if your past is mediocre.
If you've read my first article on Sam Pollock, you've been introduced to his genius, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. In the 1970-71 season, Sam Pollock set his eyes on the prize (pun intended) of the first overall pick in the 1971 draft. The draft was particularly interesting because there were two future legends that would be eligible: Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne. Either one would have been a fine selection, but legend has it that Pollock had his heart set on Guy Lafleur long before the draft itself.
The problem was that the 1970-71 Canadiens were not in a position to be getting the number one pick. In fact, they won the Stanley Cup that year. Despite the team being quite successful, leading scorer Jean Beliveau was 39, playing in what would be his final season, and Pollock knew he needed to get some talent to replace him in the lineup. While the team had a great core of players, it needed a show-stopper and Pollock was looking at Guy Lafleur to be that guy. Since that was what he wanted, it was imperative that he make a move to get the pick that he would need in the draft.
So, Sam set his sights on a team that is no longer a member of the National Hockey League: the California Golden Seals. If you don't know NHL history well, yes that was an actual team and you are right to laugh at their silly name. The Seals were quite a poor team in 1970-71 and it seemed they were poised for last in the NHL and thus the first overall pick. Figuring the Seals were bound for the last placed finish, Pollock persuaded Seals owner Charlie Finley to trade their first overall pick and Francois Lacombe to Montreal for the Habs' first round selection and Ernie Hicke. Many have said this was simply an example of Pollock taking advantage of an inexperienced owner, but you can't argue with the result.
While the Canadiens now had the pick they wanted, the Los Angeles Kings began to play even more poorly than the Seals. Pollock was in danger of losing his first overall pick, which was unacceptable to the Habs GM. Pollock decided to try and give the Kings a little boost so that they would not wind up "winning" the first pick in the subsequent draft. He offered the aged-but-valuable Ralph Backstrom to the Kings, receiving in return Gord Labossiere and Ray Fortin. You've probably never heard the names Labossiere and Fortin, because they were both completely inconsequential players. Backstrom was instrumental in helping to lead the Kings out of the basement, finishing just ahead of the Seals, giving Montreal the first overall pick.
After his team won the Stanley Cup, Pollock was faced with somewhat of a dilemma. While he had originally planned on getting Guy Lafleur, it had begun to seem as if Marcel Dionne would be an equally good pick. He hesitated somewhat between the two, but ultimately used the first pick to select Le Demon Blond. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now I would be remiss not to inform you of the statistical differences between Dionne and Lafleur. Dionne finished with more career goals and more points than Lafleur, and it could be argued that Lafleur was surrounded with more talent than was Dionne. But, Dionne never won a Stanley Cup and Lafleur won five of them. If the benchmark for greatness is championships, surely Lafleur is the greater player, but we'll never know if things would have been different with Dionne in a Habs jersey. It may not be wise to wonder, as the Habs got a generational talent that led the team to five championships.
As you may know by now, I like to compare the past and present. You may also know it is absurdly early and unfair to compare Marc Bergevin to Sam Pollock. I do like that Bergevin seems to value draft picks the way that Pollock did; evidenced by his moves so far. He also hilariously fleeced the Dallas Stars this year by trading Erik Cole for Michael Ryder and a third-rounder. Just stop for a minute and think about how awesome that was. Only time will tell if we can one day put the two GMs in the same breath, but I like what I see and I believe that he has some of the same qualities.
Amidst all of the post-mortem analysis of the Habs season, I will now resume regular posts about the history of our team. As we wait for next season I think that there is no better remedy for the disappointment of elimination than revisiting the storied past of the bleu, blanc et rouge. That said, I salute this year's edition and I am as excited for the future of this team as I am proud of its past.
|Part I: Fleecing the Bruins||Part II: Drafting Guy Lafleur||Part III: Trader Sam|