Tracers: Habs Win Stanley, Flush Coach

This is Henri Richard. The Pocket Rocket. During his storied NHL career Richard earned the reputation for being a quality 2-way center who could beat you any number of ways.

In 1971’s playoffs, he scored the most important goal of the entire season, went on a tirade that got the Habs coach fired, and unlike the other grey haired Habs, chose not to retire that summer.

1971 was a very interesting spring for hockey fans. Boston’s Bruins were the defending champions, but Montreal had a secret weapon in Ken Dryden. Although NHL history shows Montreal did win the Stanley, it was anything but a smooth spring.

Among the quotes that made headlines during the Stanley Cup playoffs, 1971 spring:

  • Al MacNeil (coach): “I have no comment on my decision to bench John Ferguson.” (Ferguson had fallen well down the depth chart by the mid-point of the playoffs and this particular quote came after Fergie was benched in favor of tiny speedster Bobby Sheehan. Ferguson spent the game in question on the bench, slamming his stick, yelling at MacNeil and finally leaving the bench after the Minnesota North Stars had scored their 6th goal of the night).
  • Henri Richard: “(MacNeil) is incompetent. The worst coach I’ve ever played for.”

The Habs turned it around during the playoffs and won the Stanley Cup in a wild game 7 against Chicago in their old stadium. Richard scored the tying and winning goals for the Habs.

The interesting thing about that time in Montreal history is how Sam Pollock handled the summer. He moved Al MacNeil to the AHL where he would coach the incoming prospects, hired Scotty Bowman to run the big club and protected both Jean Beliveau and John Ferguson from the Intra-League draft even though both players had retired. At the amateur draft that summer, Pollock called the names of Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Chuck Arnason and Murray Wilson (among others). He plucked L Yvon Lambert from Port Huron (IHL) in the reverse draft.

By the time Bowman arrived as coach in the fall, two of the biggest names in Habs history (Beliveau and Ferguson) were gone, but Lafleur had arrived as the future and the club didn’t miss a beat. Boston would win the 1972 Stanley but the seeds were in place for Montreal’s incredible romp through the 1970’s.

And much of the foundation was formed during those playoffs with a long forgotten coach. The rookies Al MacNeil introduced to cause such a stir among the veterans? Rejean Houle (who by then was a better 2-way player than Ferguson), Marc Tardif (an outstanding offensive winger), Peter Mahovlich (a huge center just starting to establish himself as the player we remember) and Phil Roberto (a highly ranked winger who didn’t develop).

I don’t think Al MacNeil made the wrong decision, but the Montreal Canadiens veterans had a difficult time accepting their new roles. It took Montreal about 5 minutes to re-tool. That’s depth.

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