Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - Montreal Canadiens - 1964-69
Spotlight
One on One Turning Point

Turning Point - Montreal Canadiens - 1964-69
The 1968 Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens.
The 1968 Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens.
(Photo by Hockey Hall of Fame)
While the Montreal Canadiens' dynastic years of the 1950's and 1970's certainly overshadow the decade sandwiched in-between, the Montreal Canadiens were no less powerful during the 1960's.

When eliminated by the Chicago Black Hawks during the semi-final in 1961, it was the first time the Canadiens had lost a playoff series since 1955. Yet, they perservered, and in 1964-65, not only reached the final again but also won the Stanley Cup. They repeated in 1965-66 and reached the final in 1966-67, only to be defeated by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Yet, they were back in the final again in 1967-68 and won the Cup, and did the same in 1968-69.

The turning point for this 'forgotten dynasty' was the team's ability to consistently reinvigorate the line-up with great players so that the team was never suffered a lull from being in a re-building mode. The strategy was meticulously orchestrated first by general manager Frank Selke and later by his replacement, Sam Pollock. The team never aged. As older players saw their skills erode, strong young players were slowly introduced to the roster. There was no hurry to rush a junior star into the ranks of the NHL. Players like Yvan Cournoyer spent time in the American Hockey League, and when summoned to the Canadiens, spent long periods of time on the bench, watching the action and securing some powerplay activity.

"We're always trying to look ahead two or three years," stated Sam Pollock. "If we see a player, even a star player, who is showing signs of losing his touch, we go after young people in the hope that when the star is finally through as a player, we'll have somebody ready and waiting to step in. Usually the most we'll ever change in one year is one player, sometimes two."

This philosophy kept the Montreal Canadiens a powerhouse for nearly forty years, starting with a first-place finish and Stanley Cup win in 1943-44 right through to a first-place divisional finish in 1981-82 season. During that time, the Habs finished first overall up to 1966-67 or first in their division post-1966-67 a remarkable 23 times, and captured the Stanley Cup on 17 occasions.

Hector 'Toe' Blake and the Montreal Canadiens celebrating a Stanley Cup title in 1968.
Hector "Toe" Blake and the Montreal Canadiens celebrating a Stanley Cup title in 1968. (Photo by Frank Prazak/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The Montreal Canadiens had won a record five consecutive Stanley Cup championships between 1956 and 1960, but the following decade saw a changing of the guard. Mainstays moved on. Maurice Richard retired before the 1960-61 season had commenced. Doug Harvey was dealt to the New York Rangers in June 1961. Dickie Moore retired (temporarily) following the 1962-63 season. Tom Johnson was picked up by the Boston Bruins in the waiver draft in June 1963, and that same month, Jacques Plante, Don Marshall and Phil Goyette were traded to the New York Rangers for Gump Worsley, Dave Balon, Leon Rochefort and Len Ronson.

But there was more than just replacing those players that needed to be done. The fleet-footed Habs had been pushed around in the playoffs, and management realized that they had to add some muscle to the roster. In 1963-64, the Canadiens introduced a blueline that included Ted Harris, Terry Harper, Bryan Watson and lanky Jacques Laperriere, who went on to win the Calder Trophy after replacing the injured Lou Fontinato. To add toughness up-front, Montreal secured truculent John Ferguson from Cleveland in the American Hockey League. Each of these players would play pivotal roles in changing the culture of the Canadiens, providing more room for the finesse players to manipulate.

The Canadiens finished first in 1963-64, but were eliminated from playoff contention in the semi-final by the Toronto Maple Leafs. A considerable change was made during the off-season. On May 15, 1964, longtime general manager Frank Selke was replaced by his prodigy, Sam Pollock.

One of Pollock's first moves was to trade Billy Hicke to the New York Rangers, obtaining Dick Duff in return. The veteran Duff proved to be an invaluable piece of the surging franchise's puzzle. And the visionary Pollock also picked up a goaltender named Ken Dryden, who was the property of the Boston Bruins. Sending two players who never did play an NHL game, the crafty GM assured that success he would soon enjoy in the 1960s would continue into the 1970s.

Under Pollock's 14-season regime as general manager of the Canadiens, the team won an unprecedented nine Stanley Cup championships. And it is a fitting tribute to the man that so many players that he nurtured in the Canadiens' system not only starred but later went on to successful careers in hockey coaching and management positions.

So while the turning point isn't a 'eureka' moment, it is more about the shrewd management of a hockey team, maintaining its status as one of the elite franchises in National Hockey League history.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.