In January, I sat down with former Montreal Canadiens owner J. David Molson and his wife Claire Molson to look back on the Habs’ glory days of the 70s; a time when the Habs weren’t just expected to make the playoffs, they were expected to win the Stanley Cup.
To read the first part of my visit to the Molson’s home, please see Remembering the Canadiens of the 70s with David Molson, where we discussed the first NHL expansion, the early importance of team chemistry and the legendary Hector “Toe” Blake.
As we sat in their living room, the walls lined with Canadian art and volumes of hockey history, we continued on the thread of Toe Blake, a man the Molsons greatly admired and respected.
Hector “Toe” Blake
Toe Blake was head coach of the Montreal Canadiens for 13 seasons from 1955-1968; he retired as the winningest coach in Habs history and 2nd on the NHL all-time list with 8 Stanley Cup victories, including 5 in a row in his first years behind the bench. Mr. Molson remembers him fondly; the two shared 3 Stanley Cup victories together. As Mr. Molson describes him, “He was a very warm and loving person but you didn’t see it. He was even a bit shy in a way.”
Shy, perhaps, in his day to day dealings with people but when it came to the frenzy of game-time, he was as passionate as any player: “I remember Red Storey was ref-ing a game,” said Mr. Molson. “And Blake didn’t like a call he made. We lost the game and Toe was so incensed that after the game he hopped the boards and crossed the ice to go and hit him.
He was in his rubbers and lost his balance,” he continued with a chuckle. “Toe fell just before he could hit him. He was still fined $5,000, which was a big amount.”
Mrs. Molson was quick to add with a laugh, “His wife was so upset because Toe had promised her a fur coat. As she saw it happen she said, ‘there goes my fur coat.’”
These are the memories the Molsons cherish about their time with the Canadiens organization. While hockey is most assuredly a business, the Molsons have always considered hockey a sporting venture, one that recognizes the cultural value of the team as well as the personal relationships that were developed during that time. The family-like atmosphere made those years special, and different from what we see today.
In their final years with the club, the Molsons noticed a shift in their relationship with the players, one that according to the Molsons, changed the face of the game forever.
The Players Union
In June 1967 the NHLPA was successfully formed with Bob Pulford as its president and Alan Eagleson as its executive director. The mandate was to ensure players received the funds to which they were entitled and essentially protect the NHL players of the six NHL teams.
While both Mr. & Mrs. Molson acknowledge that the Players Union did great things for the players in terms of protecting them and ensuring fair salaries, the Union itself created a schism between players and ownership that hadn’t existed previously. “It took away team solidarity,” Mr. Molson mentioned as Mrs. Molson added, “You know, Alan Eagleson was the first outsider to be allowed in the Canadiens dressing room. It upset the whole balance.”
For all the benefits that came with introducing a Players Union, it’s hard to deny the shift in alliance we see today. Eagleson is one of few blotches on the storied history of the NHL and his intrusive involvement in the NHL players union introduced a separation between owners and players that might have been avoided, while still establishing a union to protect its players.
Mr. Molson remembers being part of a bunny hop train through the ballroom and lobby of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel with Henri Richard and the rest of the team, not to mention Senator Molson’s wife, during one post-Stanley Cup victory celebration. It stands as one of his favourite memories of his time with the Club. It’s difficult to imagine today’s owners sharing their team’s victory the same way but that might simply be a repercussion of witnessing three lock-outs since the 1990s. That said, there’s new hope in the City of Montreal now that the Molsons are back in the game.
Return to the Fold
For all the differences between the glorious Canadiens of the 70s and today’s edition, there are similarities. After 8 years, the Montreal Canadiens fell back into the Molson fold when Geoff Molson and his brothers bought the Canadiens from American businessman George Gillet Jr. Like David before him, Geoff Molson was just slightly older, at 38, when he became President of the Montreal Canadiens, in 2009.
The Molsons are happy to see the Habs back in the family. Mrs. Molson noted that the Habs “are the face of Montreal” while Mr. Molson acknowledged that the Molsons have “been positive for hockey in this city.” Certainly, Montrealers were pleased to see their beloved franchise return to the hands of Canadian business owners, let alone Montrealers, who are not only invested in the team and its success but who genuinely care about their players and fans.
Thank you for everything and good luck…merci beaucoup et bonne chance Raphael Diaz. #GHG
— Geoff Molson (@GMolsonCHC) February 3, 2014
For their part giving up the Canadiens in 1971 was one of the most difficult decisions they ever made. They loved the Forum, the team and the game itself. However, the FLQ and political climate, unfortunately not unlike today, were influencing factors in their decision. Still, they never lost their love of the game or the team and both Mr. & Mrs. Molson spoke with excitement when I asked them about the team’s current lineup.
The Habs 2014 Edition
When I asked if there were any players in particular they enjoyed watching neither hesitated: “I like Subban because he’s a great athlete,” said Mr. Molson. “He’s so versatile. He can play forward, defense. He could probably play goaltender too.”
“He reminds me of Doug Harvey,” said Mrs. Molson. “[Harvey was] an innovative defenseman who adapted to each situation. He didn’t have a pattern.” She remembers Harvey charging up the ice alone, heading towards the net while everyone wondered what he was doing. “Subban is that type of creative hockey player that is so exciting to watch. You can’t put him in a box.” They also like Breadan Gallagher and Carey Price, who is on the verge of reaching his potential here in Montreal.
The future is in the right hands both on and off the ice. With the Molsons at the helm, Montrealers can once again feel confident that the team will reach great heights. It’s tough to imagine how today’s team can match the Montreal Canadiens of its glory days but we keep hoping and the team keeps trying. The fact that the Molsons were willing to share their memories of the organization with me, reminds me that there are stories worth remembering even if we can recognize that there are still memories to be made. I am happy and thankful to be part of the legend, past, present and future.