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Backchecking: Little-known Hab big part of Cup run

Terry Harper played 10 seasons for the Montreal Canadiens from 1962-72. (THN Archives)

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Terry Harper played 10 seasons for the Montreal Canadiens from 1962-72. (THN Archives)

By Alan Bass

The Montreal Canadiens won four Stanley Cups in five seasons from 1965-69. Every hockey fan knows the big names on those teams: Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, Henri Richard, Serge Savard and others.

However, it is often the depth players on a roster who help win championships.

Terry Harper, one of the team’s best stay-at-home defensemen, was such a player.

Harper, who played in four NHL all-star games and won five Stanley Cups, was born and raised in Regina, Sask. He played three seasons in the now-defunct Eastern Professional League before being brought up to the NHL by the Canadiens.

“It was fantastic, like a dream come true,” Harper said of playing for the legendary franchise. “The Canadiens had that mystique to them, that history of always being a top organization and a very competitive one. They didn’t win every year, but they were in the battle all the time.”

His first NHL game, though, was more a funny than a triumphant story.

“On my first shift in the league,” Harper recalled, “I fell down and Gordie Howe scooted right around me. I was so damn nervous. I still remember falling over backwards. In some ways, it must have been a good thing, because it got rid of my stage fright right away, playing against the best player in the league at the time.”

Despite his stumble, Harper was off and running; beginning a successful NHL career. Known more for his aggressive, physical play as opposed to posting points, Harper’s style of play was based on the Habs’ needs on the ice.

“It got me a job,” Harper said of his play. “Why not give myself the opportunity to be someone who can kill penalties and be defensive? You know, someone who can play in the last minute of a period and things like that.”

After brief stints with the Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and Colorado Rockies, Harper retired from hockey in 1981, finishing with 35 goals, 256 points and 1,362 PIM in 1,066 NHL games.

Life after hockey for Harper included a 10-year stint in real estate.

“Then I felt like I’d had enough,” Harper said, “and decided it was time to do something different.”

Harper began working for Little Caesars Pizza, the business founded by Red Wings owners Mike and Marian Ilitch. After many years of running stores, he sold them and moved into semi-retirement.

After his time in the pizza business, Harper briefly moved back into hockey.

“A fellow came over and said, ‘Can you help us try to get this roller hockey thing started here?’ And so I was sort of in hockey for a little bit,” Harper said.

Harper worked in roller hockey for a few years until the league folded, but he enjoyed it much more than if he had been working in the pros.

“I didn’t have to be away as often as if I were in ice hockey,” he said. “Also, the seasons were short and I enjoyed it.”

However, Harper does still cherish his NHL days and keeps in touch with many former teammates.

“The ones close by, they’ll stop by, we’ll maybe go skiing or something,” Harper laughed. “Jean-Guy Talbot, I talk to every year. He was my first partner, so I have to keep in touch with him.”

But Harper lived by one major piece of advice, which he hands down to anyone who is looking to be successful.

“The only advice I’d ever give someone is to never give up; don’t quit. It’s that simple. Keep working on it until you find a way to get there. That’s your goal. You want to do it and there’s a way somewhere.”

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