Too Many Men
Forty years is enough time for something to be considered completely out-of-date, yet nostalgically glorified. This description is prominent when talking about a monumental hockey game which celebrates its fortieth anniversary today (May 10th, 1979). It was a Game 7 contest between the remarkable dynasty of the Montreal Canadiens and their neighbours to the south-east, the Boston Bruins, who themselves had experienced great success in the early part of the 1970s. As players such as Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, and Derek Sanderson had moved on from the triumphs the Bruins had achieved in 1970 and 1972 (Orr having just announced his retirement early into the 1978-79 season), the Canadiens’ lineup featured many familiar faces throughout the majority of the decade, such as Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lapointe, and Ken Dryden. Coach Scotty Bowman and the Canadiens were striving to win their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup (their sixth of the decade) and had beaten Don Cherry and the Bruins in both the 1977 and 1978 finals. In 1979, however, they would be pitted against one another in the semi-finals, due to the fact that teams were seeded based on regular season success without separating them by conference (twelve of the seventeen teams in the NHL that season would make the playoffs, with the four division winners receiving byes to the quarterfinal).
Game 7 is remarkable for both the context of where these teams stood historically, as well as the intensity of the game itself. The aforementioned 1977 and 1978 Cup finals series between these two teams weren’t the closest, with Montreal sweeping Boston with ease in 1977 (capping off a record season with sixty wins and only eight losses), and taking the 1978 final in six games, three of which the Canadiens won by three goals. However, this semi-final series was the only time during the Canadiens’ late 1970s dynasty where they were pushed to seven games. The Bruins were a team full of tough, scrappy blue-collar players, such as Terry O’Reilly, Peter McNab, the veteran Wayne Cashman, Mike Milbury, Bobby Schmautz, and Brad Park. Jean Ratelle and Rick Middleton were excellent scorers, and Gerry Cheevers and Gilles Gilbert provided durable and dependable goaltending. Cherry, three years removed from winning the Jack Adams trophy for Coach of the season, swapped Cheevers for Gilbert after the former stopped only fifteen of twenty shots as the Bruins went down 2-0 in the series. With Gilbert between the pipes, the Bruins won three out of the next four, including a monstrous 5-2 win in Game 6 to send the series back to the Montreal Forum for a win-or-go-home tilt.
The other week, I decided to watch the match again, from start to finish, void of commercials, just to put myself back in 1979 as a supporter of what was labeled a pivotal match for both franchises. With a Habs win, the dynasty would live on, and they would move on to the final for a fourth consecutive year, facing the impressive New York Rangers who had just eliminated their Long Island rivals in what was considered a surprise to some. If the Bruins won, it would be their third consecutive trip to the finals, and the chance to win their third Stanley Cup of the decade to cement their place as an elite team throughout the course of the 1970s.
With play-by-play coming from the late Danny Gallivan and Lou Nanne, it already had a legendary atmosphere. The gimmick of the referee and linesmen skating up to the grained cameras prior to puck-drop was common for Hockey Night in Canada feature matches, and the presence of the ever-assertive John D’Amico as linesman would ensure that the game would be umpired efficiently and diligently. The sold-out crowd at the Forum were all donning their Thursday best, not a piece of merchandise to be seen from the elegant spectators in Montreal, nor any advertising pasted along the boards or on the ice. As the puck was about to drop, I fought to place myself in the past; to be one of those eighteen-thousand faces that dotted the crowd. Here are some national and international facts and events that had recently taken place or would soon take place in 1979:
- Joe Clark would succeed Pierre Elliot Trudeau as Canadian Prime Minister a month after the match, putting the Conservatives back in power after last having had it under John Diefenbaker in 1963
- Inflation in North America was absolutely absurd, jumping to nearly 12% that year alone
- Average yearly income in the USA was approximately $17,500
- ESPN began on cable television
- Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was finally overthrown after being responsible for the murders of over a quarter-million people throughout the 1970s
- Iranian-US embassy hostage crisis
- Northern Irish troubles
- Michael Jackson released “Off the Wall”
- Joy Division released “Unknown Pleasures”
- Pink Floyd released “The Wall”
- Margaret Thatcher was elected as UK Prime Minister
- Films such as “Rocky II”, “Superman”, and “The Deer Hunter” were released
- Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs combine for fifty hits and eleven home runs in a 23-22 Phillies victory, nine days after this game 7 match
And so it began. Right off the bat, there was a frenetic pace of end to end rushes, dump-ins, high hits, and clinics of stand-up goaltending. It’s amazing to see how much more skilled Guy Lafleur appears to be compared to the other skaters; every time he possessed the puck, a crescendo-like buzz circulated around the Forum. The Forum was obviously a temple, arguably the greatest ice hockey palace there ever was, and for 1979, the multiple cameras positioned in varying spots picked up intricate angles that were pleasing for replays. The Canadiens dressed eight players that would go on to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and just watching many of them in their prime was exhilarating. Serge Savard made a splendid goal-line save on a whiffed Stan Jonathan shot in which Dryden was completely baffled, Bob Gainey bulldozed his way through Al Sims on the fore-check (classic Selke Trophy winner), and Yvon Lambert took a vicious hit from Milbury, causing him to nail his head on the glass behind the Boston net and fall to his knees, totally disoriented. Nothing a little smelling-salt won’t fix. Stan Jonathan also can be caught on the bench wedging a piece of gauze THROUGH his lower lip. That’s old-time hockey, folks.
The teams traded goals in the first period, but less than thirty seconds into the second period, Cashman tucked in a wrap-around between Dryden’s legs and would add another late in the second frame, giving the Bruins a two-goal lead with only one period to play. Gilbert was brilliant. In all sincerity, brilliant is an understatement. He produced larcenous saves off of the Canadiens’ snipers, making Don Cherry look very clever for his Game 3 benching of Cheevers. While fisticuffs never officially emerge, (much to the disappointment of many friends who I’ve forced to watch this masterpiece), both teams knew that they couldn’t afford any injuries, suspensions, or flat-out disadvantages as they clawed tooth-and-nail to move on to the finals.
The third period is what makes this contest so renowned. After further scintillating saves from Gilbert, Mark Napier one-timed a beautifully centred pass from Lafleur to cut the deficit to one. Moments later, another centering pass from ‘The Flower’ found Guy Lapointe a few feet inside the blue line, who sent a bullet up high on Gilbert to send the Forum into a frenzy. Unfortunately for Lapointe, he would get tangled up in the corner with only five minutes to go, twisting his knee and being forced to leave the game in a lot of pain. It is rather comical to see Larry Robinson pushing the distraught Lapointe on what can only be classified as the most atrociously ‘1970s’ stretcher, hovering just inches above the ground and skidding poorly along the ice.
Don Cherry was caught on camera, in what is now played before every segment of “Coaches Corner”, taking his sarcastic bows in front of the crowd while trying to appeal a hooking penalty given to Dick Redmond. The only other penalty given during the rest of the contest is the specific moment that immortalizes this game into ice hockey folklore. With the Bruins having gone up 4-3 with four minutes to go, thanks to another wrap-around goal Dryden poorly surrenders (giving Middleton two goals and two assists on the evening), the Bruins get caught with having too many men on the ice. To play that moment back as the Canadiens mount a forward rush, six Bruin skaters seen captured on the screen would cause even the mildest of hockey fans to smirk. Giving the defending three-time champions a chance to equalize with two-and-a-half minutes to go in a Game 7 on home ice was way too inviting, and who better to score the tying goal with 1:14 to go than Guy Lafleur. Gallivan’s play-by-play is world class; “Lafleur, coming out rather gingerly on the right side….” The crowd was in absolute hysterics, the Bruins looked defeated, the Canadiens energized, and overtime was still to come.
And what an overtime it was! With Lapointe’s injury, Robinson and Savard were playing heavy minutes, knowing very well that it would be necessary in order to win, and void of regrets if they should lose. The Canadiens were clearly the more offensively determined team, and they would ultimately outshoot the Bruins 52-30. Gilbert would continue to thwart the Canadiens efforts, though a few extremely close calls caused some fans to begin celebrating prematurely. Lo and behold, Yvon Lambert, who by today’s standards would probably miss the rest of the playoffs with an obvious concussion, would score the series-clinching goal nearly halfway through the additional period, burying a sharp feed from Mario Tremblay, a play wonderfully commenced from a Savard back-check. The series was over, and Montreal would be moving on to face the Rangers, who they would defeat in a 4-1 series to give them their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup.
After the season, Dryden, Lemaire, and captain Yvan Cournoyer, who missed a vast majority of the season due to back injuries, all announced their retirements. Those who stayed for the following year enjoyed further success in the regular season, finishing with 107 points, but would miss out on a chance to tie their own record of five successive Stanley Cups after being eliminated in the second round by the Minnesota North Stars in another seven-game classic. As for the Bruins, Cherry was fired shortly after their elimination, taking a job behind the bench with the dismal Colorado Rockies, before eventually commencing ‘Coaches Corner’ in 1982. New coach Fred Creighton and the Bruins would finish the 1979-80 season (now a twenty-one team league due to the WHA merger with the NHL) with an impressive 105-point total, only to also lose in the second round to the eventual champion New York Islanders.
Not only was the game itself a thrilling display of passion, grit, bone-jarring body checks, wicked hair, good saves (mostly from Gilbert, who was voted the game’s first star), and roof-rattling goals, but what it served to the National Hockey League towards the end of the 1970s and the imminent WHA merger closed out the decade with a classic that most definitely deserves to be honoured on its fortieth anniversary. In a decade that began with greatness from Esposito, Orr, Perreault, and Giacomin, and segued into Broadstreet Bully intimidation, this late 1970s duel gave the notion that while the finesse dynasty of the Canadiens was being tested, the future of the league had great promise. I highly encourage you to check it out if you’ve never seen any footage, better yet even heard of this bout. There’s a detailed YouTube video that encapsulates all of the highlights from the game, and can be found by simply typing ‘1979 canadiens bruins’. Happy 40th!