It was unfortunate that Doug Harvey didn’t live to see the day that The Hockey News 1998 list of the 100 Greatest Hockey Players ranked him in the Top Ten. Without any argument, he was the best defenseman of the Fabulous Fifties. And, what a career.
Not only an excellent hockey player, Harvey was a tremendous all-around athlete. Just shy of six feet and weighing in at around 200 pounds, he played a few games of pro football for a Montreal team as a devastating running back, in a league that was the forerunner of the CFL. He could also punt the ball a mile. At baseball, he was highly sought after by the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Braves, and the St Louis Cardinals, the two latter teams actually offering him contracts. But above all else, he loved hockey, the sport in which he could do it all.
A born-and-bred Montreal boy, Harvey played his junior hockey with the Montreal Junior Royals. Joining the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior League in 1945, he contributed immensely to their 1947 Allan Cup win. Then he played 24 games with the 1947-48 AHL Buffalo Bisons at the age of 22, before joining the Montreal Canadiens mid-season. At first, Harvey was far from a hit with the Habs fans and management. He played a relaxed style as if in a rocking chair. For a time, he was booed. He appeared lackadaisical, as if he wasn’t moving fast enough on the ice, although no one could catch him once he had control of the puck. He hardly ever roamed out of position. People soon realized he could control the tempo of the game, and the booing stopped. Others must have noticed him too because that’s when he became an All-Star.
Starting in 1951-52, Harvey made the NHL All-Star team 11 consecutive seasons, 10 of those on the First Team. He played 22 pro seasons, 20 in the NHL. He won the James Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman seven times out of eight seasons. He would collect assists in an era when it wasn’t fashionable for blueliners to do so, topping 40 assists twice and 39 in another season. A formidable penalty killer, he was also a defensive standout who could play it rough. In fact, opposing forwards hated going into the corners with him.
Harvey was an excellent skater, passer, and stick-handler. He quarterbacked the mighty Habs power play in the Fifties that proved so effective that the NHL had to change the rules mid-decade to allow the penalized player back on the ice once the power play team scored. Prior to that, the Canadiens were known to often score two or three goals during the man advantage, a continual embarrassment to the rest of the league. Harvey helped lead his team to six Stanley Cups, epitomized by five in a row from 1956-1960, with such future Hall of Fame titans as Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, Dickie Moore, Jean Beliveau, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, Henri Richard, Bert Olmstead, defense partner Tom Johnson, and netminder Jacques Plante.
Harvey had his own ways of doing things. If he had the puck when the Habs were forming up on the power play in his end, and he didn’t like something, he’d dart behind the net and start again, forcing his on-ice teammates to come back with him, as the two-minute clock ticked away. It used to drive his coaches--Dick Irvin and Toe Blake--crazy. Other times, he’d cradle the puck on his stick and entice opposing forecheckers to come and get him, then he’d fire a bullet pass to a streaking center or winger who would race towards the goal.
Harvey also had a threatening edge to him. In a 1956 game with the New York Rangers, he was upended from behind by forward Red Sullivan, who had a bad habit of kicking skates out from under opposing players, a very dangerous maneuver for anyone on the receiving end. The very next game the two teams met, Harvey took matters into his own hands by deliberately spearing Sullivan severely enough to send Sullivan to hospital with a ruptured spleen. With the Ranger player close to death, it’s reported that a Catholic priest was called in to administer last rites. After being out of action for three months, Sullivan came through it and continued to play until 1963. Unapologetic, Harvey wasn’t even penalized or suspended for his stick work because the officials didn’t see him do anything.
Along with feisty Detroit Red Wings star Ted Lindsay, Harvey helped initiate the first NHL Players’ Association in 1957 to combat the unfair treatment of players in relation to concerns such as salaries, pension funds, endorsements and moving expenses when traded. Although the union was disbanded a year later, Canadiens management and the NHL brass in general, never forgave Harvey, or Lindsay, for that matter for daring to establish such an organization. The Canadiens waited until 1961--when the team was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs after five straight Stanley Cups--to trade their star defenseman to the New York Rangers, despite Harvey winning his sixth James Norris Trophy his last year in Montreal. As player-coach in New York, Harvey then led the Rangers to their first playoff appearance in four years. He also won another James Norris, making him the only defenseman in NHL history to win the trophy in consecutive years with two different teams.
Harvey played one more full season in New York and part of another, dropping his coaching duties after the first season because he preferred to be “one of the boys.” Heavy into the bottle, Harvey moved around the minors for the next few years in Quebec City, Baltimore, St Paul, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City. At the age of 42, he played two games with the Detroit Red Wings in 1967, then was back to the minors when expansion showed its face. His last fling in the NHL was spent with the St Louis Blues; first, in the 1967-68 playoffs, helping his team to the finals where they were beaten by the Canadiens four straight, then the following regular season with the Blues. He retired before the playoffs started.
To the shock of many, Harvey was not elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972, his first eligible year, after the minimum three years off the ice. Chairman of the selection committee, former Habs GM Frank Selke, claimed he didn’t realize that Harvey had been retired for three years. Harvey didn’t buy it, suspecting that he wasn’t elected because of his drinking, his lingering in the minors long after he had lost his skills, and his leadership in the foiled 1957 Players’ Association.
“I don’t give a damn if they put me in the Hall of Fame or not,” Harvey said, once he heard Selke’s statement. A few months later, the ex-defenseman accepted a position with the Houston Aeros of the newly-formed World Hockey Association, the NHL’s mortal enemy, where he was instrumental in getting Gordie Howe and his two sons, Mark and Marty, to sign with Houston. In August, 1973, when Harvey finally made it to the Hall of Fame, he--just to snub Selke and others in management around the league--didn’t bother to show at his own induction ceremony.
From 1985 on, Harvey scouted for the Canadiens. He died on December 26, 1989, a week after his 65th birthday, of cirrhosis of liver, although he hadn’t taken a drink in three years. After decades of drinking, the damage had already been done.
Since post-World War II, the two best NHL defensemen--according to many hockey experts--have been Bobby Orr and Doug Harvey. Who was better? Probably Orr. In fact, in my opinion, Bobby Orr was the greatest hockey player to lace a pair of skates. Orr, ranked second, and Harvey, ranked sixth, were the only two defensemen in the Top Ten on The Hockey News 1998 list of 100 Greatest Hockey Players. To see Harvey placed in the sixth spot of such a prestigious ranking proves how important he was to the game of hockey.
Like Frank Sinatra, Doug did things his way.