It is often said that time is the ultimate cleanser. What is fact today will become a blur tomorrow. In the hockey world that statement can be all too true, especially when it concerns comparing past players with current ones. In the 1950’s prior to the arrival of Bobby Orr, the best defenseman in hockey was undisputedly Doug Harvey of the Montreal Canadiens. Prior to any league television contracts and when teams travelled by train rather than plane Harvey was controlling and dominating the game from his position on the blueline. Fans relied on the radio and Foster Hewitt to describe what was happening on the ice. Soon after cracking the Montreal lineup Harvey was mentioned frequently. “Harvey to Richard, Harvey has the puck, Harvey across ice to Beliveau, Harvey still has the puck” were a few phrases commonly heard when listening to a Canadiens broadcast.Doug Harvey changed the way the position was played. Today when you read about Bobby Orr many make that same statement about him, but it was in fact the play of Doug Harvey that made defense a more pivotal and potent position later ushering in the talented of the more offensive minded Orr who even wore Harvey’s number 2 while playing junior hockey for The Oshawa Generals.
Few remember that the NHL changed the guidelines for powerplays because of the potency of the Montreal Canadiens attack. With Beliveau, Richard, Dickie Moore, Boom Boom Geoffrion on the ice, and Harvey quarterbacking, one two minute powerplay opportunity could result in 3 goals for the Canadiens.
Today you often hear some “experts” say Harvey cannot be compared to Orr offensively citing his modest offensive production. If you drill down further you will uncover that Harvey’s offensive skills were formidable. Ever the consummate team guy Doug concentrated on setting up the players on the team who were actually paid bonuses to score goals. Make no mistake though that if a goal was needed Harvey could deliver it with a high tempo rush or a shot from the point. His skating ability and puck control skills combined with his shot blocking prowess and toughness were unequaled during his tenure with the Canadiens.
Rare film footage of Doug Harvey offers a small glimpse of his talent even capturing his execution of the Spin-A-Rama maneuver long thought to have been copyrighted by Orr and Serge Savard.
Most hockey fans know little about Doug Harvey despite all the Stanley Cups, Norris Trophies, and All Star selections. Younger fans will point to the current dominant player, Niklas Lidstrom, as the best not having seen Harvey, or Orr perform. Bobby Orr has the advantage of videos like The Best of Bobby Orr and The Canada Cup series as well as Legends of Hockey DVD tributes. There is very little footage of Harvey and he is noticeably missing from the Legends segments while all of his contemporaries are honored including Red Kelly and Marcel Pronovost.
Niklas Lidstrom and the Detroit Red Wings were provided a prestigious honor being recently named the Player of the Decade and the Team of the Decade respectively by the Sporting News. There is little question that both awards were given to truly deserving recipients. The Red Wings emerged from obscurity to again take their place as one of the NHL’s premier franchises with a decade full of league titles and a crate full of Stanley Cups. Lidstrom their current captain is considered the top NHL defenseman of his era, having won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman three consecutive seasons from 2000–01 to 2002–03 and again from 2005–06 to 2007–08. He has been nominated for the award a total of nine times in the past ten seasons, the first three times finishing as the runner-up, and has won it in six of the last seven (2004–05 had no winner due to the NHL lockout).
Gleeful of the honor, Detroit GM Ken Holland in a television interview said “Lidstrom is the best defenseman next to Orr ever to play the game.” No slight to Lidstrom, who will make the top 5 of all time, but he is not in the number two position. That place alone still belongs to Doug Harvey.
In the book Doug a biography by author William Brown, Harvey’s life is well chronicled including his bouts with alcoholism, bipolar disorder and his eventual death from cirrhosis of the liver. At his best Harvey was a gifted, charismatic, fun loving athlete, more skilled at baseball and football than hockey. He was a devoted team player who, along with Ted Lindsey stood up for his brethren by helping to form a players’ union. In retaliation the Canadiens traded Harvey the team captain to the New York Rangers where he won still another Norris Trophy as the best defender in the NHL. He won seven in his entire career.
Ironically it was the efforts of Harvey and Lindsay that allows today’s athletes the opportunity to sign lucrative contracts earning millions and enjoy solid pensions as well as sign free agent contracts unheard of in the “good ole days.”
Unlike Lidstrom and Orr, Harvey could dominate the game physically as well as with finesse serving up crunching body check and open ice hits to the opposition when the situation dictated it.“ No slight to Bobby Orr but Doug Harvey was the best defenseman ever to play the game “said Detroit Red Wing Hall of Famer Ted Lindsay. Lindsay it should be noted played on same team with Red Kelly and Marcel Pronovost both Hall of Fame defenseman.
Doug Harvey wore the number 2 throughout his remarkable career. He is the number 2 defenseman ever to play the game but some like Ted Lindsay says he was number one.