It may be difficult for a modern fan to envision, but entering the summer of 1955, the Montreal Canadiens were simply just another team in the NHL. Yes, under the leadership of Dick Irvin and driven by Maurice Richard, the team had made five consecutive Stanley Cup Finals. However, they had lost four of them: three to Gordie Howe’s Detroit Red Wings and one to Bill Barilko’s Toronto Maple Leafs.
The defeats placed the Red Wings level with the Canadiens at seven Cups apiece, with both clubs trailing the Toronto Maple Leafs by two. However, two of the Canadiens’ and Leafs’ victories had come prior to the founding of the Detroit club in 1926, meaning that in 1955, the Wings and Leafs were owners of seven Cup wins each in the Original Six era, with the Canadiens trailing with only five.
Indeed, it was James Norris’ club, coming off consecutive Stanley Cup championships, four championships in six years, and led by the best player in the world, that was primed to ascend to the summit of the hockey pantheon. No one could have foreseen then that the Red Wings would not win the Stanley Cup again for 42 years, least of all that this drought would be primarily due to the Montreal Canadiens.
Frank J. Selke had been hired in 1946 by a Canadiens team coming off two Stanley Cups in three years. Despite these successes, the new general manager saw storm clouds on the horizon. In Detroit, an 18-year-old kid from Saskatchewan named Gordon Howe was about to make his debut, coming off a 48-point season in 51 games in the USHL the year prior. In Toronto, the Maple Leafs had amassed a team featuring the likes of Ted Kennedy, Howie Meeker, and Bill Barilko that would go on to win four of the next five Stanley Cups.
The brewing storm was readily apparent to Selke because he had seeded those clouds. Prior to his hiring by the Habs, he had been the assistant general manager of the Leafs under Conn Smythe, acquiring the aforementioned talent at the behest of his boss. Additionally, during his first pre-season as Canadiens general manager, Selke chanced to take a scouting mission to the Detroit farm club in Omaha, Nebraska. There, he noticed the 18-year-old Howe ... and that the Detroit Red Wings had failed to place him on their protected list.
The gentleman that he was, Selke stopped to chat with Red Wings GM Jack Adams on his way back to Montreal:
“I can tell you that you have an Omaha Knights player who is better than any of the protected players on your negotiation list,” warned Selke. “You have one day to claim him, otherwise the Canadiens will sign him.”
Knowing that the Canadiens were not in the same position as their rivals with regard to the future, Selke undertook an ambitious expansion of the Habs’ farm system. Before Selke’s plan could fully manifest, they would have to manage with the aging team built by Dick Irvin and Tommy Gorman. The inevitable decline of Gorman’s core was accelerated by a career-ending injury to Toe Blake in 1948 and the early retirements of blue-line stalwart Ken Reardon and six-time Vezina Trophy winner Bill Durnan in 1949 and 1950, respectively.
In three years, the Canadiens had lost three Hall of Famers, and so failed to win the Stanley Cup for six consecutive seasons between 1947 and 1952. As Selke himself lamented in 1950 during his fifth fruitless season with the club, “I’ll trade anyone for someone I think will strengthen the club.”
But Selke’s system would find replacements. Doug Harvey and Tom Johnson for Reardon, Dickie Moore and Bernard Geoffrion for Blake, and Jacques Plante for Durnan. By the start of the 1954-55 season, Selke’s club was once again on the cusp of greatness. Harvey was a three-time First Team All-Star who had finished second in Norris Trophy voting the previous season, Geoffrion was coming off his first point-per-game campaign, and Moore and Plante had come of age in the 1953 playoffs, taking their roster spots once and for all. 1953-54 also saw the much heralded arrival of one Jean Béliveau to the team.
The cusp of greatness is not the same as greatness, and for all of its talent, neither the ‘53-’54 nor the ‘54-’55 teams were able to overcome the hated Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. In particular, the 1954-55 season had ended in turmoil for Les Glorieux. A promising campaign had been derailed by the events of March 13-18, resulting in Maurice Richard losing the scoring title, as well as the Canadiens losing their talisman for the playoffs and having home-ice advantage wrested from their grasp by the rival Red Wings. The latter would prove of grave consequence, as Montreal, sans Rocket, lost the Final in a seven-game series in which the home team won every match by two or more goals.
The Canadiens had amassed a roster so fast and skilled that the way they played inspired a new term: “firewagon hockey.” They had made the finals for five consecutive seasons. By all regards, one more year of maturation and development should have seen the breakthrough so dearly sought against Detroit — barring the unlikely event of another Richard Riot.
As he evaluated his team during the summer of 1955, Frank Selke was taking no chances.
As described by D’Arcy Jenish in his book The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory:
Selke knew this group could outskate anyone, Detroit included, and watched with dismay as Irvin pushed the players to pound the Wings into submission. He was convinced that his coach had contributed to the Rocket’s periodic eruptions, that Irvin had kept his high-strung superstar emotionally riled and ready to snap at the slightest provocation.
It pained him deeply, but Selke decided that Irvin had to go.
Who could replace the great innovator? Irvin had 25 years of experience, multiple Stanley Cups, and had been one of the first coaches to use the short shift and the regular line change. One of the first to use a fourth line and to pull the goalie for an extra attacker.
Selke preferred Roger Leger, head coach of the Shawinigan Cataractes, but both Maurice Richard and Reardon (now an assistant to the general manager) advocated passionately for former captain Toe Blake, who had been coaching in the USHL, AHL, and Quebec Senior Hockey League since his retirement. Here, Selke deferred to his players and his assistants. The GM and Blake had suffered a bitter falling out in 1949, but the Canadiens GM quickly put aside his differences and made peace with Blake at a meeting mediated by Reardon.
In contrast to Irvin, Blake was more of a player manager than a tactician. Dickie Moore in particular described his arrival as a “great blessing” for him. Blake, upon his arrival, had told the youngster, who had endured a fractured relationship with Irvin, that he “was going to play [him], now don’t worry about it.”
One of Blake’s first tasks was to figure out what to do with the Rocket. Richard was now 34, a man still full of the fire of his youth, but no longer as capable of both fighting and scoring at the same time. Selke and Blake met with Richard that summer to tell the symbol of the Canadiens that he could focus on scoring goals.
“You don’t have anything to prove either to the players, the fans, or us,” Selke told Richard. “You carried the club during the lean years and now it’s time for the younger players to help out, especially when it gets rough out there. Forget about the past. It’s the future — and you — we’re concerned about. Your heart is as young as ever, but you’re now thirty-four years old. Remember that. We don’t want you fighting a world of twenty-four-year-old huskies.”
Blake also hated to lose with a passion. Six games into the 1955-56 season, the Canadiens stood at 4-1-1, but had just dropped a decision to Boston. A sportswriter amicably said “you can’t win them all” to a visibly irritated Blake, only to be met by a surly “why not?” This trickled down to his players, as Blake himself would marvel:
“I’ve been in this league since 1934, but I’ve never known a hockey club as intensely serious as this Canadiens team. All season long, they’ve set their goal as the Stanley Cup. When we clinched [first place in the regular season], there wasn’t a ripple of excitement. They all said: ‘So what. The big one for us is the Stanley Cup.’”
The combination of Selke’s skill, Blake’s style and a roster which had been carefully crafted over half a decade resulted in 45 victories, 15 defeats, and 10 ties. With 100 points, the Canadiens finished the 1955-56 regular season 24 points ahead of second-place Detroit. Béliveau took home the Art Ross and the Hart trophies, Jacques Plante the Vezina, and Doug Harvey his second straight Norris. These three were joined by Maurice Richard on the First All-Star Team, with Tom Johnson and Bert Olmstead named to the Second Team.
The sheer brilliance of the 1955-56 team is perhaps best exemplified by their special teams. Floyd Curry and Donnie Marshall helmed a penalty-killing unit that allowed 12 goals on 300 opportunities. Yet they still paled in comparison to the power-play unit. Entering the season, a player would serve the entirety of a two-minute minor, regardless of how many goals were scored. After enduring a Harvey-Geoffrion-Beliveau-Richard-Olmstead unit for a year, league commissioner Clarence Campbell, New York Rangers GM Lynn Patrick, and Boston Bruins GM Muzz Patrick successfully campaigned to amend the rule to its current incarnation.
Selke, naturally, was irate:
“You might outvote me on this one, but you’ll never convince me of its justice. In all the years of Detroit’s dominance and almighty power play, there was no suggestion of such a change. Now Canadiens have finally built one and you want to introduce a rule to weaken it. Go get a power play of your own.”
The Canadiens achieved their goal of winning the 1955-56 Stanley Cup, slaying the Red Wings in five games in the Final. But the true testament to Selke’s team came the following season. Hampered by the aforementioned rule change and bothered by injury issues — Maurice and Henri Richard as well as Olmstead and Plante all missed some time, but the most significant blow was a injury to Geoffrion that limited him to 41 of 70 games — the Canadiens still managed second place in the standings. Finally healthy in time for the post-season, Blake’s men summarily rolled past the Rangers and Boston in series of five games each en route to their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
This story would play out for the next three years, as the Canadiens achieved an unparalleled five consecutive Stanley Cup victories.
In the summer of 1955, the Canadiens had rebuilt their talent pool from the meagre offerings of the late ‘40s, but had yet to navigate that final hurdle. Rather than be satisfied with the knowledge that the roster he had assembled would eventually mature and surpass the Red Wings’, Frank Selke took matters into his own hands and gave them a little push through the appointment of Toe Blake. Selke was simply following his own advice:
“But I say this: nobody has the right to delegate teams to first or second or third or anywhere else. Yet I hear our club officials telling everybody that we can’t lose. In time the players will start believing that nonsense. It’s dangerous and I wish it would stop.
The result of Selke’s diligence and bravery was a team described thusly by Bobby Hull:
“They were an awesome group, they just kept coming at you. Five after five, right down to their so-called third and fourth lines. They’d come back in their own end and they wouldn’t stop. They’d turn, and that Harvey would just thread the puck up to them. He was fantastic. Going into Montreal, if we could keep the score under double figures we considered ourselves lucky. We were chasing red shirts all night.”
Todd Denault, Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey (McClelland & Stewart, 2010)
D’Arcy Jenish, Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory (Anchor Canada, 2009)