Friday, December 19, 2008

Retired Numers

Habs Honoured Elsewhere

A couple of nights ago, the Vancouver Canucks retired Trevor Linden's number 16. As a former and much-loved Hab (at the time, by me, anyway), his career and exploits have always interested me. His honour is well deserved.

His number retirement also prompted me to have a look around to see which other Canadiens alumni have had their numbers retired (or honoured) by teams around the league. The list is interesting and even a little longer than I had expected.

JC Tremblay – Quebec Nordiques (3)
His career with Montreal began like so many others in the 1960s on a defending Stanley Cup Champion. Groomed through the system on one of the junior teams stocked with C-form signees, he made the transition to the NHL right after making the successful transition fom winger to defenceman (a la Markov). He played 794 games over parts of 13 seasons with the Canadiens and hauled a massive 5 Cups. A key part of the "forgotten dynasty" of the late 60s, Tremblay was also an all-star in the NHL twice.

In 1972, he jumped to the upstart Nordiques of the WHA, where he became their first true star player. In fact, he played in every season the Nordiques competed in the WHA – leading them to the championship in 1977. Considering he entered the WHA at the ripe age of 33, his 424 points in 454 as a defenceman is truly impressive.

A great Hab and a great Nordique.

Rod Langway – Washington Capitals (5)
Langway came up with the Canadiens via the WHA at the very end of the 1970s dynasty. His ascent among the defensive corps came as Savard and Lapointe were winding down. The big three was morphing into Langway and Robinson. It never really happened as Langway was traded in a blockbuster with current coach Doug Jarvis and others for Rick Green and Ryan Walter. In parts of 4 seasons, he had amassed a respectable 127 points in 268 games. His +160 was a little more than respectable, I'd say.

It is said that trade made and saved the Washington Capitals. Langway was the first true star for that franchise. He played 11 seasons in all for the Caps. His point totals were respectable again. But he was quite the defenceman. He won two Norrises with the Caps and was even second in Hart trophy voting behind the mighty Gretzky in 1984.

Another great Hab (if short-lived) and the best Cap before Ovechkin came along. For his toil, he's been put in the Hall of Fame, too.

Marc Tardif – Quebec Nordiques (8)
In a move that would satisfy conspiracy theorists for years to come, Marc Tardif was selected with a special French Canadian pick by the Habs in the 1969 draft. By the end of the next season he was with the big club. But his stay would be short-lived. He too jumped for the glitz and galmour of the new WHA. His stay in Montreal was short: 2 cups and a 20-25 goalscoring role on a team with Beliveau, Cournoyer, Lemaire and a young Lafleur.

The WHA was where Tardif came to life: 666 point in 446 games, including a 148 and 154 point seasons when Esposito was the only player who could do such things. He was a one in a kind offensive talent in that way. As the Nordiques first captain in the NHL, he led them to a respectable beginnning in the league.

A great Nordique and a good Habs prospect.

Trevor Linden – Vancouver Canucks (16)
His Canadiens career was a shadow of what he did in total. Just over a hundred games with just over 60 points is respectable enough. His career elsewhere was remarkable.

With the Canucks, Linden played over 1100 games at full tilt. He was an 80 point man and a 30 goal man for years. He wore the Canuck jersey with honour and even lugged the team to the Stanley Cup final with 25 points in 24 games that year.

Always a gentleman, he has been a good ambassador for the league over the years. In Montreal he was highly involved in the community, as he was in Vancouver. A tribute to him is how quick he was to get in touch with his good friend Saku Koivu after his diagnosis with cancer.

A great Canuck and a brief Canadien.

Denis Savard – Chicago Blackhawks (18)
In recent Canadiens lore, is there a greater story? The local boy shoots out the lights in Verdun: 146 and more than 450 points in 3 years in junior but still not good enough for the Habs. Selected 3rd, not 2nd behind Wickenheiser (who we remember) and Babych (who we don't), he cobbled a Hall of Fame career for himself in Chicago.

Then, the hero that got away comes home. By the time he arrived in Montreal via Chris Chelios trade (bad trade, no two ways to look at that now), he was already a guaranteed Hall of Famer and 1000 point man. His 5 100-point seasons behind him, he nonetheless played an important role on the Canadiens for two seasons.

Finally, the triumph and storybook ending. In his third year, his most important role might have been raising the Cup, or coaching in the final. But whatever it was he played a role. He was a Hall of Fame player winning his first and only Cup (in Montreal). His hoisting the Cup is one of the most indelible memories of hockey in my mind. The way I felt at the time, and the way Denis clearly felt (honour, pride and complete joy written all over his face) – it was what winning the Cup is all about.

(Whenever I look at 18 Savard hanging from the rafters at the Bell Centre I see a spin-o-rama, a pass and a Gilbert Dionne goal. It's a nice coincidence indeed that Denis shares a name and number with a banner up there...)

Frank Mahovlich – Toronto Maple Leafs (27)
Another Hall of Famer, Mahovlich had a long and winding road to Montreal. His NHL start came in Toronto at a very young age and with a Calder trophy. And, it wasn't long before his stature as star in the league was cemented. In 1961, he was even on the cusp of being the greatest goalscorer in league history at the ripe age of 23, with 48 goals with 2 games to go.

Frank's time in Toronto overall was both a success and a disappointment. Though he would win 4 Cups and be a constant first or second all-star, he would still get booed by portions of a demanding Toronto crowd. Lore has it that he was even booed during a Stanley Cup winners reception (imagine) because he was the superstar who did not score a playoff goal. His fractious relationship with Punch Imlach would even drive him to depression.

Leaving Toronto was a rebirth (the first one) for Frank. He joined his brother in Detroit and played on a line with Gordie Howe. He responded with renewed vigour and 49 goals. But Detroit was languishing and his time was not remembered by any Cup parades.

The Big M had his third win when he was dealt to Montreal midway through the 1970-71 season. This masterstroke from Pollock brought Montreal a Cup and stunted the development of the mighty Bruins. Mahovlich became a Habs legend almost instantaneously with an incredible (and league-leading) 14 playoff goals to go with 13 assists in 20 games. He did not disappoint the next season either with a massive 96 points, and then 93 the next season. He was again a key member of the 1973 Cup team with 9 goals and 14 assists in 17 games.

The Big M would have probably just about cracked the Hall of Fame with his Canadiens years alone. It is for that reason number 27 is so revered in our city.

A great Hab, Leaf and Wing. A great great player.

Rogatien Vachon – Los Angeles Kings (30)
Rogatien (Rogie) Vachon was one of the best Canadiens goaltenders in the history of the team. In 206 total regular season games, he won 110 and tied 30. In the playoffs, his meager 19 starts provided 14 wins. And his playoff average of 1.94 stands as one of the more impressive marks from team history.

But Vachon, who progressed through the ranks impressively, was often the victim of a bit of bad timing with the Habs. That is to say, he was good, but he had peers who were laying down Hall of Fame careers. First, he backed up Lorne (Gump) Worsley – a great veteran and Cup stalwart with whom Rogie shared one Vezina trophy. And just as he saw an open door for the starter role in 1970 then 1971, some kid from Cornell came and stole his thunder. Following Dryden's miracle cup run and subsequent dominance, Rogie was traded for next to nothing to LA where he would play out games in the number one role again.

His best years did indeed come in LA, as is evidenced by his jersey retirement (their first in franchise history). There would be no more Stanley Cups on the upstart Kings, but individual honours would roll. He was consistently named among the very best of LA Kings, often winning MVP of the team over a certain Marcel Dionne. He was also a league all-star and even came second in Hart trophy voting behind Bobby Clarke in 1975. Statistically great for that era, his 32 shutouts on the expansion Kings in an era with scoring galore are truly impressive.

The best Kings goalie ever and a great Hab.

Patrick Roy – Colorado Avalanche (33)
Unlike the other guys, plenty has been written here about the great Patrick Roy. He is one of 6 players to have his number retired by more than one team and is widely recognised as the greatest playoff goalie ever.

His career began in the most impressive fashion possible and ended with every record a goalie could hope to achieve.

Great great Hab and great great Av.

Tony Esposito – Chicago Blackhawks (35)
Finally, little Tony Esposito.

His time on the Habs was stunted to say the least – a mere 13 games in all. If Vachon was obstructed from getting starts, Esposito was near blockaded. He was way down the pecking order behind veteran star Worsley and young up-and-comer Vachon.

He was traded to the Blackhawks in 1969. In his first full season there, he was impressive indeed winning both the Vezina trophy and the Calder trophy. The next 14 years he would establish himself as one of the best and most unique goalies in the league. The Blackhawks never missed the playoffs over those 15 seasons, and that was no coincidence. Alas, they would never win a Cup either and Tony's sole Cup ring would remain the 1969 beauty he won as a back-up to Gump Worsley.

A momentary Hab and a Hall of Fame Hawk.

Finally, in researching this piece, I came across some hilarious information. It turns out that both the Wild and the Canucks in their infinite wosdom have retired numbers in honour of the fans of the team (Can you imagine?!?!?). Minnesota took number 1 out of circulation in 2000 (and have had stellar goaltending ever since) and Vancouver honoured the number 7 in October of this year – 7th man, get it???

So, in addition to all the players who have legitimately earned their number retirements, add Jyrkki Lumme (no doubt a fan of the Canucks) and Lemaire, Riseborough and Tremblay among others I'm sure who played for the Habs but support these teams.

Imagine, our number 7 is only dedicated to Howie Morenz. How do we survive knowing this as fans? And fans with retired numbers and Sundin, who will ever stop the Canucks now?

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