Remembering Mario Tremblay’s ascent to becoming the youngest skater in Canadiens history
Largely remembered for his tumultuous time as head coach, Tremblay was the prototypical player who would help the Habs overcome the Broad Street Bullies.
For generations of Montreal Canadiens fans, the mere mention of the name Mario Tremblay brings back painful memories of one of the darkest moments in the history of the franchise — the public fallout between superstar goaltender Patrick Roy and his former roommate-turned-head coach. Tremblay’s legacy was sealed by the image of the spiteful glare he gave Roy when he finally pulled him on that fateful night against Detroit.
But what several generations of fans forgot, or never knew, is the 12 seasons that Tremblay played for the Canadiens. The 852 career NHL games, the 584 career points, and the 1,043 penalty minutes as one of prime agitators on four consecutive championship teams from 1976-1979. His style of play was a blend of offensive skill combined with fiery venom, making him the perfect response to the rise of Broad Street Bullies and their goon style that won them two consecutive Stanley Cups.
By the age of 15, Tremblay was already attracting attention of the fans playing for the Bleu Blanc Rouge de Montreal of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, with a rookie season of 80 points and 155 penalty minutes. But before the fans noticed him, the other QMJHL teams noticed him and tried desperately to recruit him. The Quebec Remparts were rumoured to have broken protocol by trying to entice his parents with a trip to Florida before recruiting was officially allowed to begin. The buzz around him was such that the League stepped in and ruled that Tremblay’s future team would be determined by a random draw — which Montreal won.
Certainly his offensive prowess made him a dangerous forward for Montreal, but his legendary short fuse, that would travel with him his entire career, also came to the forefront early in his junior career. To finish his rookie season, he was handed an eight-game suspension for hitting an official with his stick while arguing a penalty call. Tremblay defended his actions afterwards by saying, “I wasn’t trying to injure him. It was by inattention that my stick hit him. If I was trying to injure him he would not have finished the game.” (La Presse, 1973)
The following year he was on pace for a remarkable year offensively when an injury shortened his season to just 46 games. He still put up 100 points and 154 penalty minutes. Tremblay fought, a lot, which led some to question why given all the offensive talent possessed by the player. “He could get injured. In fact, I think he’s wasting his time fighting, there will always be others who are stronger. I don’t understand why (coach) Bedard lets him fight. He doesn’t send Gilbert Perreault or Rejean Houle to fight.” said Quebec Aces forward Jacques Locas.
Tremblay was the prototype for the next wave of talent headed towards the pros. He was anything but a one-dimensional player, capable of being a complete loose cannon when needed, but also knowing when to unleash the fury and when to just play and let his talent do the speaking for him. When the Saguennees de Chicoutimi were hosting a friendly exhibition against the Soviet Union in 1974, Tremblay was loaned by Montreal for the game, and he came out looking like a star against a talented team of Soviets who otherwise had their way with the Sags.
The Canadiens drafted Tremblay 12th overall in the 1974 Amateur Draft as a 17 year old. The 1974 draft was all about getting tougher, but not abandoning talent, and with Tremblay selected in the first round the team achieved what they were looking for. But it was not without controversy as Tremblay was drafted prior to his junior eligibility ending because he was classified as an “exceptional talent”. This allowed NHL teams to select those players sooner in a rule change that was vehemently opposed to by the junior teams, but who were powerless to stop their top stars from turning pro sooner.
Although some players selected in the 1974 draft said they would wait to hear from the World Hockey Association before deciding whether to sign with the Canadiens (Cam Connor, drafted 5th overall by the Canadiens, would sign with the Phoenix Roadrunners), there was no such hesitation by Tremblay. From the moment he was drafted by the Canadiens, his destiny was clear.
“I still can’t believe it. When Misters Caron, Bowman, and Ruel called me to give me the good news, I told them that I would train all summer to show up to training camp in the best shape I’ve ever been in. If I don’t graduate to the Canadiens right away, I’ll go play wherever they tell me to.” said a euphoric Tremblay to La Presse when he was reached for a reaction.
Despite protests about his eligibility to return to his amateur team after getting drafted, the Canadiens expected Tremblay to return to his junior team for the following season. But, 12 days after his 18th birthday, he signed his first professional contract with Montreal after Claude Ruel and Ronald Caron observed him at his junior team’s training camp, and were convinced he was ready for the pros. “We decided to sign Tremblay, even at the risk that he can’t make the Canadiens, in order to not have him stolen from us by a team from the WHA. In fact the deal we had him sign under the table would not have been enforceable in a court of law, and we were worried that the WHA would catch wind of this”, said Ruel to La Presse about a non-binding agreement they had with Tremblay that he would not choose the WHA over the NHL.
A few days later, the Canadiens officially started their training camp and Tremblay wasted no time leaving his mark. Veteran forward Glen Sather chose to pick on the young rookie during scrimmage, and Tremblay did not shy away from the veteran in the least, resulting the two almost coming to blows. “He was hooking me from the start, and this time he brushed my ear. I’m young here and I need to prove that I won’t be pushed around by anyone.”
On the first day of his first training camp with the Montreal Canadiens, a barely 18-year old Mario Tremblay came to blows with veteran Glen Sather who decided to pick on the rookie during scrimmage. Tremblay would have none of it. (Photo credit: La Presse, 1974) pic.twitter.com/Bs9kac7qrn— Andrew Zadarnowski (@AZadarski) January 2, 2019
Tremblay didn’t just prove himself with his combativeness, but also with his scoring touch. After a couple of days of training camp, he was on top of the leader board for points in inter-squad scrimmage games. However, he was soon cut from the main training camp and joined the Nova Scotia Voyageurs in the AHL.
He quickly returned to the Canadiens for a preseason game against the Boston Bruins, a 4-1 loss where over 200 minutes of penalties were handed out. The Canadiens were not afraid to set the physical tone, especially Tremblay who came to the rescue of teammate Jacques Lemaire in the second period after Bobby Schmautz took a swipe at him. It would be Tremblay’s first pro fight against one of the best fighters in the league. “He didn’t touch me. Just look at my face. In fact, he should feel lucky that I just finished my third shift on the ice and that I was tired due to nervous energy. A few seconds earlier I almost scored a goal. He got his money’s worth because I managed to hit him right in the face,” said a brashly defiant Tremblay after the game. The new Montreal Canadiens, dubbed “cannibals” by the Bruins after the game, were starting to take shape, preparing to challenge the Broad Street Bullies for NHL supremacy.
Mario Tremblay would start the 1974-75 season in Halifax with the Voyageurs. “He proved to us that he had character and that he was loaded with talent. We want to give him the opportunity to gain a bit more experience and I think that’s normal under the circumstances, as he’s only 18 years old,” said Claude Ruel.
“He impressed me to the highest degree. He’s left the team, but with a youngster of that calibre, you never know what can happen. He might be back sooner than you think”, said Canadiens head coach Scotty Bowman who reportedly was quite upset by managing director Sam Pollock’s decision to cut the player.
By early November, Tremblay was leading the AHL scoring race with 10 goals and 18 points in 15 games. He was the most popular player for the Halifax faithful and a wildly temperamental opponent, racking up 47 penalty minutes — many of the five-minute variety.
Meanwhile, back in Montreal, the Canadiens were off to a solid start with a 10-5-6 record. But Bowman though that some veterans needed a wake-up call. On November 13, 1974, he recalled Tremblay and Doug Risebrough, the two top players on the Voyageurs.
As luck would have it, Tremblay’s first regular-season game was in Boston. He immediately got reacquainted with the Bruins, physically punishing Bobby Orr and Al Sims while playing on a rough line with Risebrough and Yvon Lambert. After the game, Bowman was pretty direct on what he thought about his two rookie players, “We should have called them up sooner”.
Returning to the Forum a few days later, Tremblay scored two goals against the New York Rangers and was named first star.
He would never again return to the AHL, spending the next 12 seasons as the Canadiens’ firebrand. He wouldn’t quite reach the offensive heights of his junior career, but still had three 30-goal seasons and remained offensively productive with 258 goals — good enough for 10th overall for the franchise sharing the leader board with names like Jean Beliveau, Maurice Richard, Guy Lafleur, and Aurele Joliat. Of course, he also made a career of staying true to his cantankerous nature by racking up 1,043 penalty minutes making him 7th most all-time and sharing that leader board with players like Chris Nilan, Lyle Odelein, Shayne Corson, and John Ferguson.
That, in a nutshell, was Mario Tremblay.