You know your team has had a pretty good run when the Hockey Hall of Fame puts out a 240-page coffee table book solely dedicated to the players on your team it has honored over the years. So we’ll understand if the Montreal Canadiens are a little reticent to retire the numbers of all the legendary players they’ve had over the years. After all, Nos. 1 through 5, 7, 9, 10, 12,16, 18, 19, 23, 29 and 33 have already been retired.
More than 32 years after his career with the Canadiens ended, Guy Lapointe was the latest Canadien to have his number go up in the rafters of the Bell Center, where his No.5 will stand alongside Bernie Geoffrion’s. Nobody would argue that Lapointe deserves to be up among the Canadiens greats, particularly since the two other members of, ‘The Big Three’ of Serge Savard and Larry Robinson have already had their numbers retired.
The fact is, the Canadiens could retire the numbers of a couple of players a year and it would take them more than a decade before they ran out. There are still some glaring omissions in the group. Here are the top five, in order:
JACQUES LEMAIRE (NO. 25): Lemaire is the only Hall of Fame player from the Canadiens dynasty of the 1970s to not have his number retired yet. He played 12 years with the Canadiens and won a mind-boggling eight Stanley Cups. He’s recognized as one of the best two-way players of his generation and was the defensive conscience for scoring stars Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt. No player on that dynasty team raised the level of his game in the playoffs more than Lemaire. He led all playoff scorers in the Canadiens Cup win in 1979 and was the Canadiens best player in the legendary 3-3 tie against the Soviet Red Army on New Year’s Eve in 1975.
NEWSY LALONDE (NO. 4): Lalonde was not only the franchise’s first superstar and the father of The Flying Frenchmen, but he was the best player of his era, period. Back when hockey made the Dead Puck Era look like an offensive free-for-all, Lalonde had 37 goals in 1919-20 and 33 in ’20-21. He won just one Stanley Cup with the Canadiens, but missed the chance to win another when an influenza epidemic cancelled the 1919 Cup final.
Lalonde was ranked as the 10th greatest Canadiens player of all-time in Habs Heroes, a book written by yours truly and published by THN to commemorate the franchise’s 100th anniversary.
BILL DURNAN (NO. 1): If Ken Dryden is among the numbers retired, then Durnan should be up in the rafters as well because their careers were remarkably similar, minus the Stanley Cups. Durnan won only two of those with the Canadiens, but in just seven seasons with the Canadiens, he won six Vezina Trophies and was a first-team all-star six times. He likely would have added to those numbers had he not been discovered as an NHL goalie until he was 28. “Durnan and Dryden, to me, are almost the same player,” hockey historian Ernie Fitzsimmons once said.
AUREL JOLIAT (NO. 4): Joliat came to the Canadiens from the Saskatoon Sheiks after the Canadiens grew weary of Newsy Lalonde’s contract demands and he, along with linemate Howie Morenz, went on to become a superstar with the Canadiens and laid the foundation for the powerhouse they were to become. For a modern-day comparison, think Doug Gilmour. Lalonde was 5-foot-7 and 135 pounds and outworked his opponents for every inch of the ice. Joliat won three Stanley Cups with the Canadiens and won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player in 1934.
TOE BLAKE (NO. 6): Blake was such a legendary coach with the Canadiens that it’s easy t forget what a great player he was. First, he was the center on the famed Punch Line, playing between Elmer Lach and Rocket Richard, both of whose numbers have been retired. An ankle injury that ended his career in 1948 prevented him from breaking Bill Cowley’s (then) all-time record of 548 career points. Blake won three Stanley Cups with the Canadiens, was a three-time first-team all-star and won the Hart Trophy in 1939. His two points per game in the 1944 playoffs (18 points in nine games) has only been bettered four times, three by Wayne Gretzky and once by Mario Lemieux.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: When the Canadiens get those ones retired, they might want to get around to Georges Vezina (No. 1), Steve Shutt (No. 22), Jacques Laperriere (No. 2), Gump Worsley (No. 1) and Frank Mahovlich (No. 27).