The Greatest Team Ever?

Originally published in Rinkside in 2006

By Lucas Aykroyd

“Great” is a term that’s bandied about far too easily these days. You can rightfully complain when it’s applied to some lame pop band or over-hyped first novel. But when it comes to the Great Gretzky, the Great Houdini, or the Great Wall of China, you won’t get too many arguments. The 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens fall into the same category.

Now, everyone has a favorite candidate for the greatest hockey team of all time. Some would point to the 1950’s Montreal dynasty that won five straight Cups, starring Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Jean Beliveau, and Jacques Plante. How about the Gretzky-era Oilers or the oft-underrated New York Islanders that preceded them? International hockey aficionados might push for the Soviet Red Army teams of the 1970’s or early 1980’s, who boasted the likes of Vladislav Tretiak, Viacheslav Fetisov, and Boris Mikhailov.

But the 1976-77 Canadiens, who captured the 20th Stanley Cup in franchise history, had an awe-inspiring consistency that is tough to beat.

Most Cup-winning teams experience ups and downs as they forge their identities. Last year, for instance, the Carolina Hurricanes endured a three-game regular season losing streak three times, and had to battle to oust the Edmonton Oilers in a thrilling seven-game finals. So what about those ‘77 Habs? Among journalists, there are few better authorities on the topic than Red Fisher, who covered the team as the Montreal Star’s sports editor.

“When you win 60 games, tie 12, and lose only eight in an 80-game schedule, there are no defining moments in either the regular season or the playoffs,” said Fisher. “It’s a defining season. They were simply too good, losing only two games en route to the Stanley Cup.”

Montreal’s 132-point regular season record remains the highest total in NHL history, and even with today’s addition of a point for an overtime or shootout loss, that mark could stand for some time. That’s equally true for the modern-era record of eight losses. And no Montreal team since has scored more goals in one season (387), won more road games (27, though the 1977-78 club matched that), or established a better overall winning percentage (.825).

Still, mere statistics don’t convey the full impact of what this team meant. These were the days when the Canadiens were still known as the Flying Frenchmen (only one American, Bill Nyrop, appeared on the roster that year). Their exploits were touted proudly by both Quebec nationalists and longtime Montreal supporters right across Canada. Their high-octane offensive style was often seen as an antidote to the Philadelphia Flyers, who had brawled their way to the Cup in 1974 and 1975 before being dethroned by the Habs in 1976. But Montreal, in its prime, could excel in a physical game as well, and had the goaltending to triumph in tight affairs.

It’s easy to visualize superstar Guy Lafleur racing down the ice to score on a slapshot or goalie Ken Dryden making a kick save. However, the architect of Montreal’s four straight Cups in the late 70’s typically shunned the spotlight. Sam Pollock, Montreal’s general manager, was renowned for his drafting and trading skills, which came through, for example, in his acquisition of Lafleur with the #1 overall pick in 1971. Pollock traded Ernie Hicke to the Oakland Seals to get their first-round pick, and then sent Ralph Backstrom, an accomplished but aging center, to Los Angeles to help the Kings finish ahead of the last-place Seals.

Perhaps the best tribute to Pollock’s savvy came in 1977 from one of his fiercest rivals, GM Bill Torrey of the New York Islanders: “Look at his ledger sheet. Look at what he’s gotten and at what he’s given up. Sam’s never made a bad move, never come out on the losing end of a trade. So who would want to deal with him? The only thing I could safely exchange with Sam Pollock would be Christmas cards.”

Scotty Bowman got just as much respect behind the Montreal bench. The veteran coach had already won two Cups with the Canadiens, not to mention serving on the victorious Team Canada coaching staff in the inaugural 1976 Canada Cup. A master of line juggling and psychological tactics, he didn’t always endear himself to his players, but he knew how to get the most out of them.

Captain Yvan Cournoyer, the speedy “Roadrunner” who won 10 Cups with Montreal, had no problems with Bowman’s approach: “You see, I had Jean Beliveau as my first captain and Henri Richard as my second. You learn that the captain is the guy between the coach and the players. You give your best on the ice, but you also serve as an intermediary to communicate if another guy is not happy. Business is business. Bowman was the coach and I was the captain, and the team’s got to win, no matter what.”

Cournoyer and Bowman both knew they could rely on Ken Dryden for the goaltending to do just that. The former Cornell and McGill scholar brought intelligence and intensity to his position, exploiting his 6-4, 210-pound frame and staying focused even when he didn’t face many shots. In 1977, Dryden won his third of five career Vezina Trophies and posted a 2.14 GAA in 56 games, with Michel “Bunny” Larocque as his capable backup.

“Dryden was a good competitor,” said Bowman. “We didn’t have to do very much with him. If he had a so-so game, you knew he’d come back strong the next time. He was a perfectionist. That’s what made him so good. It was the confidence he gave his team. He was very serious, and he knew his place on the team.”

“Ken Dryden was as important to Montreal in the 1970’s as Martin Brodeur has been to the Devils in recent years,” added Red Fisher. “Brodeur probably would be the first to admit that Dryden was even more important, considering the number of Stanley Cups Dryden won in a short career.”

When it comes to the ‘77 Montreal defense, Bowman has another interesting comparison to make: “You know what made this team so special? A present-day comparison would be maybe Anaheim’s defense with Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, two elite defensemen on the same team. Well, we had three of those guys. I don’t think any team has ever had three Hall of Fame defensemen like that.”

His allusion is to the trio of Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, and Guy Lapointe. Intimidatingly, the first two usually played as a pair. All were big men who could skate, handle the puck, and hit ferociously. Robinson’s 85-point outing in 1977 is still the team’s all-time best, and earned him that year’s Norris Trophy. Journeymen blueliners like Pierre Bouchard and Rick Chartraw just had to play solid, consistent games, and the “Big Three” would take care of the rest.

Meanwhile, Montreal’s 1976-77 group of forwards was replete with names that are still familiar, even including the ones who weren’t superstars.

Lafleur’s line had the wily playmaking center and defensive specialist Jacques Lemaire, as well as Steve Shutt, who set an NHL record for left wingers with 60 goals that year (broken by Luc Robitaille with 63 in 1992-93). The puckish Shutt always claimed he just collected Lafleur’s “garbage,” though he actually had plenty of talent. “The Flower” peaked with a league-best 136 points, fully justifying his reputation as the league’s greatest and most exciting superstar of the second half of the 70’s. The 25-year-old would capture the Hart, Art Ross, Lester Pearson, and Conn Smythe Trophies in 1977.

The duo of winger Bob Gainey and center Doug Jarvis could backcheck and protect leads like nobody’s business. Gainey, who serves as Montreal’s GM today, would go on to win four straight Selke Trophies, while Jarvis established the NHL Ironman record with 964 consecutive games played.

“[Gainey’s] line was plus-20 for the season,” said Serge Savard after Montreal won the ‘77 Cup. “You know what that means? That line was played to check everyone else’s top scoring line–Darryl Sittler, Gilbert Perreault, Marcel Dionne, Bobby Clarke–and they wound up scoring 20 goals more than they gave up. They’re the best Number Three line in the league.”

Then you had Cournoyer and Pete Mahovlich providing more offense, and outstanding two-way play from the likes of Doug Risebrough, Mario Tremblay, Rejean Houle, and Yvon Lambert. Suffice it to say that depth was never a problem for the ‘77 Habs.

Of course, it wasn’t as if 1977 was totally different from 1976 or 1978. Really, there was a sustained pattern of excellence.

“We didn’t just play one or two seasons together,” noted Cournoyer. “We played four, five, six, seven seasons with the same guys. We got to know their families. That’s why the Canadiens were always a close team.”

And with so many wins and individual exploits, it’s sometimes tough for members of this Habs group to remember what happened when, now being 30 years removed from the events. Nonetheless, plenty of memorable nights spiced up Montreal’s 1976-77 season.

On October 30, the Canadiens suffered their one and only home loss of the year, 4-3 versus Boston. November 6 marked a single-game high in goal production in an 11-3 thrashing of Chicago (equaled by an 11-0 blanking of Washington at the end of the year). On January 3, Montreal’s 6-4 victory over the Flyers ended a 20-game unbeaten streak for Philadelphia, as shots favored the Habs 55-27 and Guy Lapointe earned two goals and an assist. February 23 saw Guy Lafleur record a hat trick in a 4-2 win over Atlanta.

One way to understand how superior Montreal was to its competition in 1976-77 is to consider this statistic: on 29 occasions, the Canadiens won by four or more goals. Even in today’s wide-open New NHL, you’re unlikely to see that happen again.

“It was one of those seasons where the less you lose, the more you want to win,” said Cournoyer. “That was our emotional approach.”

Even though the captain underwent leg surgery in March and was unable to lead his team into the playoffs, the Canadiens maintained their level of urgency in the post-season.

First, they easily dispatched the St. Louis Blues in four straight quarter-final games. According to Larry Robinson’s 1988 autobiography, the most memorable part about that series was the heat and humidity in St. Louis: “They refused to turn on the air-conditioning at the hotel where we were staying. Serge [Savard] and I took our mattresses and sheets out onto the balcony and slept there. A series to remember. We won it quickly so we could go somewhere more temperate to dry out our equipment.”

Their semi-final opponents were the New York Islanders, and this matchup proved to be Montreal’s toughest test of 1977. New York forwards Bob Nystrom and Clark Gillies put tremendous physical pressure on the Montreal defense, and the play of goalie Billy Smith forced Dryden to be at his best. The Islanders always trailed in the series, but they refused to quit.

“If anyone thought we were going to blow the Islanders out of the series, they were dead wrong,” Pete Mahovlich told the Globe and Mail after New York cut its deficit to 2-1 with a 5-3 win on Long Island. Yet ultimately, Bob Gainey emerged as the hero in Game Six, dispatching the Uniondale upstarts with both goals in a 2-1 clincher.

In the finals, there was no doubt Montreal would come out on top, reeling off four straight wins over a hard-working Boston Bruins squad coached by Don Cherry. Probably the most talked-about incident involved Guy Lafleur allegedly shooting the puck at the head of rookie Boston defenseman Mike Milbury in Game Two after the two had clashed. Milbury, who wound up with a game misconduct, said afterwards: “I wish I had slashed his head off.” Looking ahead to Game Three, Boston enforcer John Wensink said: “If I get on the ice, Lafleur will not come out alive.” Fortunately, this turned out to be nothing more than talk, and the teams stuck to hockey.

“They’re the best team in hockey by a country mile,” Bruins GM Harry Sinden said of the Habs after the closing 2-1 victory.

During Montreal’s champagne-soaked celebrations in their Boston Garden dressing room after Game Four, there was already a sense of purpose about what lay ahead. While Francophone players sang “La Vie Est Belle,” Dryden quipped: “Just 120 days till training camp.” Robinson said: “I’ve had a very satisfying year. I did fairly well, but by no means did I do it all on my own. Look, I was raised on a farm—the only attention I ever got was from the animals. That big fellow over there [the Cup] is what’s important to me.” Scotty Bowman added: “There are a lot of superstars [on this team], but they don’t know that they are superstars.”

It was business as usual for the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970’s. And the ‘77 team was so overwhelming that for some fans, it was also business as usual. Benoit Legault, a travel writer who grew up and resides in Montreal, recalls: “These Habs were so strong that they were not the greatest to cheer for. I was 18 in 1976, having watched the Canadiens win the Cup about every second year of my life, so this was not the most thrilling year. The 1970-71 Cup was the best in my life, because that year they beat all the odds. In 76-77, the newpapers would actually be dismayed at every one of the eight losses. It was incredible.”

The 1977 team’s greatness inspired fans on the other side of the world. Szymon Szemberg, the media relations manager for the International Ice Hockey Federation, was growing up in Gothenburg, Sweden at the time, and eagerly consumed every scrap of Habs data he could get in the pre-Internet era: “In a little book, I kept notes of each Montreal game and every goal-scorer. I compiled my own team stats. I would call one of the Swedish newspapers, Aftonbladet or Expressen, early in the morning and ask them for last night’s NHL scores before I went to school. During the playoffs I stayed up and listened to the American Forces Network (AFN) radio from Germany because they carried the games live. Despite never seeing that team live, I knew exactly how they were playing, from the forward lines to the defense pairings.”

The feeling of inspiration carried over beyond 1977, beyond the last Stanley Cup in 1979 for this group. Nine players would end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and the majority have held down important jobs in the hockey world post-retirement. It was a special group of people.

And it’s entirely possible that 30 years from now, the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens will remain frontrunners for the title of the greatest team ever.

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