Doug Harvey: Greatest of Them All?

With more and more new hockey fans enjoying the game we feel it’s more important than ever to look back at some of the game’s greatest. When discussing all-time great defensemen Bobby Orr’s name is always the first mentioned, as it should be, but the list directly below him is crowded. Names like Nicklas Lidstrom, Denis Potvin, Serge Savard, Duncan Keith – there are many arguments for the next greatest ever. One name to always include in that list, and maybe even at the top of the list is the legendary Doug Harvey.

A few months ago I was asked by my son’s two hockey coaches, two young men in their thirties, to name the best hockey player of all time. I knew the answer they were expecting: Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, maybe even Gordie Howe. I smiled, paused for emphasis, and answered Doug Harvey. Whaaatt??? Are you crazy??? How could you even think……

Sadly, I understood. The legacy of Doug Harvey has been seriously diminished, tarnished by the leaders of the game he loved so dearly.Basically, cast aside by the media, Harvey has few defenders left so I decided to do some research. What I found is astounding.

Doug Harvey Wins Another Norris Trophy

Doug Harvey defenseman
Doug Harvey (THW Archives)

The Norris Trophy was established in 1954 and first awarded to Red Kelly of the Detroit Red Wings. Seven of the next eight years it was garnered by Doug Harvey, six of those with the Montreal Canadiens and the seventh when he came to the New York Rangers as player/captain and head coach. In his seventeen-year career in the NHL, he was named ten times to the First All-Star team and once to the Second, won seven Norris Trophies and six Stanley Cups. Some of his teammates on the Canadiens were Jacques Plante, Tom Johnson, Maurice Richard, Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau, Boom-Boom Geoffrion and Dickie Moore, arguably the best team in history.

Harvey was the key to their attack. Most impressive was his ability with the puck. Doug’s flawless defensive style resulted in repeated turnovers, as he proved almost impossible to beat. Having picked the oncoming forward’s pocket for the puck, he would maintain control, ragging it, waiting patiently for a forward to break loose upon which he would hit him with a pinpoint pass creating another odd-man rush. With his ultra-calm manner and surgeon like passing precision, he single-handedly changed the game. The sportswriters of the day tagged what evolved as ‘fire wagon hockey’.

Doug Harvey and friends
Toe Blake, Gerry McNeil, Doug Harvey, Maurice Richard (Photo: Dennis Kane)

Players of his era remember Harvey as the quarterback of the greatest power play of its time. Beliveau, Bert Olmstead and the Rocket up front, Harvey and Boom-Boom on the points. This potent combination could score two or even three goals in a single two-minute penalty;  so much so that in the summer of 1956 the NHL owners changed the rule so that once a single goal was scored the penalty ended and the player returned to the ice.

In 1960, after winning yet another Stanley Cup, being named the Norris winner and a First Team All Star, Harvey was traded to the New York Rangers. Therein lies the clue to why the legacy of one of the greatest players of all time has been all but abandoned by the league.

Off-Ice Work

Let’s look at the off-season of 1956 when Ted Lindsay and Harvey formed the first player’s union to fight for player’s rights. The league at that time was infamous in its disrespect for even the stars of the time.  Furious that the owners had not matched the $900.00 per year pension contributions as promised these archrivals who had fought bloodied battles on the ice joined forces to organize the players. Each player kicked in $100.00 and the union was started. By 1960 Harvey was traded to the Rangers, Lindsay was traded to the Black Hawks and the union was scuttled. Further proof of the vengeance of the owners is that his # 2 Habitant jersey, one he wore proudly for all those years, was not retired until October of 1985. After many years battling alcoholism and now penniless, Doug Harvey passed away on December 26th, 1989.

Here is a video of Doug in action.

As a kid, I played my hockey in N.D.G. Park, Doug’s home base. He was playing in the Forum by then but came out at least once a week, put on his skates, threw a puck on the ice and challenged all of us to get it off him. I will always remember how we scrambled around as he deked in and out of the ten or twelve of us laughing the whole time, as we never did get that damn puck away from him. Thank you, Mr. Harvey, for all the great moments we shared watching you in the bleu, blanc et rouge. We will never forget you.

Originally written in 2010

17 thoughts on “Doug Harvey: Greatest of Them All?”

  1. bobby orr is the greatest defenceman – and player – in the history of the national hockey league. However, I have no problem whatsoever seeing harvey receive more recognition. In my view, he was one of the top 5 or 6 players, period, in the NHL’s history when he played and he deserves to be on that first team all-star defence pairing alongside Orr. If it hadn’t been for his erratic behaviour later in life, he would probably be more highly regarded than he is (and if he’d been more beloved in the press gallery, he might well have won a couple more norrisses – though a couple gentlemen named kelly and pilote might beg to differ). Anyways, the man, from what I have heard, was bipolar and that surely explains a few things. Still, he was an incredible talent and was, literally, a man among boys when he played on behalf of the junior canadiens against the soviet national team in 1965 – even though he was well past his best.

  2. A local priest in Ontario was Doug’s cousin and I was fortunate as a kid to hang with the Habs in the lobby of the Royal York Hotel in Toronto whenever the Habs played the Leafs. I was there as a guest of Father Owen Johnson and his cousin Doug. I would be hard to convince me that there was ever a greater defenceman in the NHL. Being from Bobby and Dennis Hull’s home town it is nice to see the Hawks welcoming Bobby back, with open arms, after the years of being chastized by the former Hawk owners…go Chicago.

  3. I too spent many hours as a kid playing hockey in N.D.G. park. I lived across the street, two blocks from where Doug Harvey grew up. He was a legend in west end Montreal. Bobby Orr’s career coincided with Expansion. There were many players in the NHL after 1967 who would never have made an Original Six team of Doug Harvey’s time. Not to take anything away from Orr, but Harvey was the greatest defenseman of all time.

Comments are closed.