clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Doug Harvey: The man who changed the game

Doug Harvey is widely known in the hockey world as one of the best defensemen ever to play the position. It sounds odd to say, but even he falls into the category of greats that no one seems to talk about much.

Montreal Gazette

Not long ago I posted an article about Larry Robinson, and the ensuing discussion brought to light that there is another Habs great that isn't talked about enough these days: Doug Harvey.

Before guys like Bobby Orr and Larry Robinson came into the league, there was no more dominant force on an NHL blue line than the late Canadiens legend. I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't take you through the story of Doug Harvey, why he's one of the best ever, and why nobody seems to want to talk about him very much.

Don't let the anglophone name fool you: Doug Harvey was a Montreal native, and grew up playing minor hockey at Oxford Park in NDG. It may interest you to know he was apparently better at baseball, and especially football. He turned down offers to play both of those sports professionally, because he always wanted to play hockey for the Montreal Canadiens. When he made the Canadiens in 1947, it didn't take long for him to become one of the best on the team, and in the entire league.

In the Robinson article I talked about elite defensemen being like quarterbacks. Doug Harvey basically invented that role. He was a master of transitional play; unbeatable on defense with exceptional skating and passing which allowed him to turn seemingly anything into an odd-man rush for the Canadiens. Prior to him, there were no defensemen who could defend as well as him, then take the puck and turn up ice on a rush with ease. His precision passing made gaining the zone easy for his team, and he could also carry it in himself, move laterally and wait for his teammates to set up.

He was the first player who really figured out how to use skating and passing to create offense from his position, pioneering the puck-moving style of defense.

"The greatest defenseman who has ever played hockey, bar none." -Toe Blake

Of course, Doug had a pretty stellar supporting cast during his time in Montreal, playing with guys like Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, and even having Boom Boom Geoffrion as a defensive partner. He and Geoffrion formed part of a powerplay unit so good, it is credited with having forced the NHL to change the rules, so that players serving a minor penalty got let out of the box after a goal. The rest of that unit wasn't so bad either, featuring The Rocket, Beliveau and Bert Olmstead; but Harvey was the quarterback and he deserves as much credit as any of them for the sheer dominance they displayed.

The Norris trophy was first awarded to the Red Wings' Red Kelly in 1954 but after that it was Doug Harvey's trophy for several years. Over the following eight seasons, Harvey won it seven times, with his Canadiens teammate Tom Johnson in 1959 being the only other winner. Harvey had some injury problems in '59, without which he may well have taken eight straight before Bobby Orr even played a shift in the NHL.

The very likes of Orr, Robinson and other great offensive defensemen in the NHL may well be a credit to Harvey's offensive prowess. As part of the five straight Cup winning Canadiens teams, it is easy to understand why teams would eventually begin looking for more players who played the point like Harvey.

"He changed the whole game" -Bernie Geoffrion

What's really important to understand about Harvey is that his era was not one where defensemen were expected to score points. The 540 points he put up over his career was then a very high total at that position, and he really pioneered the role of offensive defenseman, while remaining the best defender in the league.

He challenged the conventional notion that his job was only to defend, and we owe him dearly for that as hockey fans. Would we have had Bobby Orr, Larry Robinson, or many others without Harvey? Would we have P.K. Subban? The mobile, puck-moving defenseman is now a hot commodity, and it's evolution as a position started with Doug Harvey. I think it's only fair to credit him with paving the road that many legends walked after him.

It may unfortunately be that the main reasons people don't talk about Doug Harvey have little to do with his performance on the ice. Often speaking out against the establishment, particularly in relation to player rights and salaries, Harvey didn't exactly make friends among the ownership ranks. Being a hockey player in that era was nowhere near as lucrative as it is now, players had far fewer rights. Doug took it upon himself to fight the establishment.

He carried the "trouble maker" label throughout his career due largely to his efforts surrounding unionization, and probably not lessened by his drinking habit. While the regime of the time claimed it was based on age and a diminished skill set, Doug always maintained that his trade to New York in 1961 had to do with his union activities.

I should note for your consideration of this argument that Harvey's seventh and final Norris win was in his first season with the Rangers. Alas, after 12 years with the Canadiens, Harvey spent a few good seasons in New York before winding out his career as an NHL/AHL journeyman, retiring after one final season with the Blues in 1968-69.

I think that much of the content on Harvey is perhaps more incomplete than it is infrequent. He does get widespread credit as one of the best defensemen ever, but he doesn't get brought up too much because I think some are afraid of where that leads. Here's a guy who made massive contributions to the game; on the ice by revolutionizing the defensive position, and off the ice as a champion for players rights. After retiring at 44, he wasn't filthy rich, and he was a hockey player by trade with no other education to speak of. He was basically shunned by the media, the NHL, and the teams he played for, and spent years after hockey battling alcoholism and mental health issues.

While it is surely not fair to affix blame for long-term alcoholism or mental health issues, I can't help feeling that more could have been done in his case. He was a huge part of helping his position and the entire game grow, yet he was truly forgotten about for years. He did step in and out of the hockey world in the years after his retirement, but from what I can tell he was often viewed more as a cautionary tale than a real contributor.

It seems to me that his was a case of a legend who retired, and was simply forgotten about by many people for some time. The Canadiens didn't retire his jersey until 1985, which in my opinion is far too long a wait, and should serve to demonstrate that it took some time for people to warm back up to him and bring him back into the fold.

If you Google Doug Harvey, you'll really see what I mean by incomplete coverage. When people do bring up his life after hockey, they often seem to be sugar coating it. For example, When inducted to the Hall of Fame, he chose to go fishing instead of attending the ceremony. Many have invoked terms like "free spirit" and "worry free" to describe his reasons for this, and I personally think that's a bit of a cop out. I have rarely heard anyone offer up the completely plausible conclusion, that this was one final act of defiance to the NHL: "Screw you guys, I'm goin' fishing." I can't say for sure, but considering he spent much of his career in disagreement with the league and ownership, it seems almost more likely than any other reason.

There are also some popularized misconceptions, like the story of him living in an abandoned rail car, which can serve to taint an amazing career. In reality, the train car he inhabited at the Connaught Park Racetrack was previously owned by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, and was used to transport royal guests. It was not the abandoned rust bucket that some would have you believe, but exaggerated stories like that have made their rounds for years. The point is, his life after hockey was not easy, and people may avoid talking about him because they don't want to taint his career by talking about his dark days.

And why would I want Doug Harvey's career tainted by talking about his battles with alcohol and mental illness? I don't, and I don't think talking about it takes away from his career whatsoever.

He fought for players rights before there was a massive organizational collective to do so, and he paid the price. He changed the way the game is played, tried to change the way it is run as a business, but he never got the Florida vacation home or the cushy TV analyst job.

In today's league, he'd probably be the head of the players' union, but in his day he was basically rejected for his efforts. He gave everything to the sport of hockey, and his story goes to show that not everyone who has done so gets to retire rich and healthy with no worries in the world.

Through all of this, he is still a pioneer, and one of the greatest defensemen that ever played the game. We owe it to him to remember everything. Rest easy, Doug.