The Greatest NHL Dynasty
For five seasons, from 1955-56 to 1959-60, the Montreal Canadiens dominated the National Hockey League like no other team before or since. They did it by winning five straight Stanley Cups with a roster that controlled every aspect of the game, climaxed by an eight-game sweep of the opposition in the two rounds of playoffs in 1960. Throughout the Fifties decade, they made it to the league finals an unbelievable 10 straight times. And they might have even won six championships in a row if not for Maurice Richard’s suspension at the end of the 1954-55 season.
On March 13, 1955, at Boston Garden, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard was involved in a vicious fight with Bruins defenseman Hal Laycoe, in which he cracked his stick across the face and shoulders of Laycoe. Then grabbing another stick from a Montreal teammate, he crashed that one over Laycoe’s chest. Reaching for third stick, Richard brought that one down on Laycoe’s back. Finally brought under control by linesman Cliff Thompson, Richard knocked the official unconscious with two blows to his face.
At his hearing three days later, chaired by NHL President Clarence Campbell, Richard received the bad news: He would be suspended for the rest of the season and the entire playoffs. Even worse, with three games left to play in the season, Richard (always a high goal-scorer) was set to win his first-ever Art Ross Trophy for most points. The evening after the hearing, in a game at Montreal with the Detroit Red Wings, a mob of Canadiens fans rioted, forcing the Habs to forfeit the game to the Wings. You can catch the details on an earlier blog article from January, 2014: The Richard Riot... and Aftermath. Teammate Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion then passed Richard on the last game of the year, 75 points to 74. At 34 years old, Richard never got another chance to lead the league in total points.
Following the 1954-55 season, the Canadiens front office fired coach Dick Irvin, considered the culprit who riled up Richard once too often in his 15 years coaching the Canadiens. Irvin was then replaced by Hector “Toe” Blake, a good friend and linemate of Richard’s in the 1940s on the Habs “Punch Line” with Elmer Lach. One of Blake’s jobs now was to tone the Rocket’s temper down. One way of doing that was giving him the responsibility of being team captain, which Richard assumed after the current captain, defenseman Emile “Butch” Bouchard, retired one season later.
During their five straight championship years, the Montreal Canadiens had on their roster 10 players who eventually made it to the Hockey Hall of Fame. They were goalie Jacques Plante; defensemen Doug Harvey, Tom Johnson, and Butch Bouchard; forwards Jean Beliveau, Bernie Geoffrion, Bert Olmstead, Maurice Richard, Henri Richard, and Dickie Moore. If you include coach Toe Blake and GM Frank Selke, that’s 12 in the HHOF from ONE TEAM! They also had the best defensive forward in his day, Claude Provost, a lifetime Canadien for 15 seasons. He has the distinction of winning the most Stanley Cups of anyone not in the Hall of Fame: nine.
The Habs finished first in four of the five championship seasons by winning 45, 43, 39, and 40 games in their 70-game schedules. On three occasions, the second-place teams were a distant 24, 19, and 18 points behind. Maurice Richard began to play a lesser role due to injuries. He would miss a total of 96 regular-season games during the five seasons. So, others had to pick up the pace. And they did.
Three times, the league top scorer was a Canadien. The NHL’s MVP in 1955-56, Jean Beliveau came into his own by netting 47 goals, while slugging it out with opponents to the tune of 143 minutes in penalties. Combined with 41 assists, he won the Art Ross Trophy, nine points better than Detroit’s Gordie Howe. Star left winger Dickie Moore won back-to-back scoring titles in 1957-58 and 1958-59, including a record 96 points in the second year, a mark that stood for seven seasons. Despite bad knees and injured shoulders throughout his career, he played with a fierce competiveness that his teammates admired. He played the last three months of 1957-58 with a cast over his broken wrist.
Goaltending is always extremely important on any championship team and the Canadiens had the best in Jacques Plante, who took the Vezina Trophy for the least amount of goals scored against in all five of those years. His averages were 1.86, 2.00, 2.11, 2.16, and 2.54. On most occasions, he was well-ahead of the second-place finisher.
Three minutes into the game on the night of November 1, 1959 at Madison Square Garden, New York Rangers forward Andy Bathgate unloaded a backhanded shot at the Montreal net. The result: the puck ripped into Plante’s face. Seven stitches later in the trainer’s room, Plante told coach Toe Blake that he would not go back out unless he could wear the same fiberglass mask that he had been using all season in practice. Plante wasn’t kidding. Up to that point in his career, he had sustained 200 facial stitches, a broken jaw, and 2 broken cheekbones. Frowning, Blake gave in. He had no other choice. Plante was the only goalie dressed, a common practice at the time. Montreal won 3-1, the first of an 11-game unbeaten streak with Plante wearing his mask. Combined with the seven-game unbeaten streak prior to the game against the Rangers, the Habs stayed unbeaten for 18 games.
Plante was a cocky, confident individual blessed with quick reflexes. He was a stand-up goalie who quite often came out beyond his crease to cut down the angles. He was a superb skater, an excellent puck handler and a roamer. He was also an innovator. When the opposition would step over center ice and fire the puck around the boards, Plante would stop it for his defense. He was the first goalie to raise his arm on an icing call to let his defensemen know what was happening. On occasions when the puck was between Plante and an opposition player who was hoping for a clear-cut breakaway, Plante would skate out and merely freeze the puck. No one had seen a goalie play this way. He could also pokecheck puck carriers.
Doug Harvey was the game’s top defenseman in the 1950s, winning the James Norris Trophy four of the five championship years. The other season went to teammate Tom Johnson, an excellent defenseman in his own right. The smooth-skating Harvey quarterbacked the Habs mighty power play that was so powerful in the Fifties that the Canadiens would often score more than one goal during the man advantage. The league changed the rules for the 1957-58 season to allow the penalized offender back on the ice after a goal was scored. The season before, on November 5, 1955, Jean Beliveau registered a Hat Trick in 44 seconds on Boston’s Terry Sawchuk during one power play.
Starting in 1951-52, Harvey made the NHL All-Star team 11 consecutive seasons, 10 of those on the First Team. “He was the best defenseman of our day,” ex-Leafs captain George Armstrong said. “He was like Bobby Orr, only a shade slower,” noted Howie Meeker, another ex-Leaf. Harvey 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 had his own ways of doing things. If he had the puck when the Habs were forming up on the power play, and he didn’t like something, he’d dart behind the Montreal 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 forward who would race towards the goal.
Along with feisty Detroit Red Wings star Ted Lindsay, Harvey helped established the first NHL Players’ Association in 1957 to combat the unfair treatment of players in relation to salaries, pension funds, endorsements and moving expenses when traded. Although the union disbanded a year later, Canadiens management and the NHL brass in general, never forgave Harvey.
A few days before training camp in the fall of 1960, Rocket Richard decided to retire. For the next four seasons that opened up the Sixties, the Habs finished first three times in the standings and third once. But, every time they were beaten in the first round of the playoffs. The Toronto Maple Leafs were the new dynasty in town, taking three championships in a row from 1961-62 to 1963-64. Then, to get back on track, Montreal took the next two, and four of the next five.