Starting in the year 2000 and for the next seven years I worked extensively on researching how every single player that played for the Montreal Canadiens, became a Montreal Canadien. Following is a story, first printed in 2007 with a few changes to update. I look forward to any response.
The Montreal Canadiens have won 24 Stanley Cups in their history. Depending on who you ask many of these were attributed to a special draft of French Canadien players that the Habs and only the Habs were able to partake in year after year through out the history of the NHL.
The question re the Habs and their so called French Canadian ‘advantage’ has been so botched up over the years you would think that the Canadiens should have won 30-40 Stanley Cups with this incredible advantage.
In the early days of the NHL, in fact through the first several decades of the leagues existence, many things were done to try and help franchises that were in trouble. Loaning players from one team to another, financial aid, facilitating transfers to other cities, all were moves that were done to sustain a franchise if at all possible. Bottom line, when a team was in trouble the league would do it’s best to try and figure out a way to help. Some of these decisions kept franchises afloat in modern times. In the era that is known as the Original Six, ( 1942-1967) the five remaining NHL teams were asked to help Chicago during a particular bad stretch for them in the mid 1950′s. In 1955 when things were at the most dire, Montreal made one of the more significant contributions when they made available a rookie on their roster named Eddie Litzenberger who not only went on to win the Calder Trophy as rookie-of-the-year with the Hawks but he was Chicago’s captain when they won their second last Cup in 1961.
The California Seals and the Pittsburgh Penguins were two other franchises who were helped by the NHL in the 1970’s and even as recently as this past decade the NHL has helped keep afloat Ottawa, Buffalo and of course the mess that is Phoenix.
In 1935 the Montreal Canadiens nearly folded. The Depression had already claimed several franchises including the older version of the Ottawa Senators. What the NHL’s brain trust decided to do was they would attempt to help Montreal’s attendance and thereby hopefully their bottom line financially so they decided that the Montreal Canadiens could take any two players from the Provinceof Quebec in a special draft. This fact is substantiated in the NHL Guide and Record book, at the front of each year’s guide, no matter which one you own, under the history of the league section.
There was one rider however. None of these players could have already been previously signed to a C form (confirmation form) with any other club. At this time in the NHL and right through the late 60′s amateur players were signed by NHL teams to A, B or C forms and then placed on their appropriate junior clubs or minor pro clubs depending on their age. There was no draft until 1963. The letters simply meant different classifications of rights that the parent NHL team controlled. One of the most extreme case of this was Bobby Orr. Orr who signed a C form three weeks before his 14th birthday with the Boston Bruins. He was so young his parent’s signature was required. When he turned 14 he began playing for Boston’s junior sponsored team, the Oshawa Generals. That’s how Orr became a Bruin.
The NHL Guide states that this special draft was only in place for three years. My research indicates that it may have been in place for as many as seven seasons however that is not 100% confirmed. My research indicates that not one player who Montreal protected during this time frame ever played a minute in the NHL. Reason being, anybody who could tie their skates and chew gum at the same time were already long signed by other NHL teams including the Canadiens who certainly were not going to survive solely with this rule. The hope was that there would be a spark of interest in the hockey fan base after Montreal signed one of these French Canadian players. It would be a bonus if he could play a bit. The thought was that this could help attendance and thereby help Montreal. Unfortunately it never did, in fact Montreal slipped even further into an abyss.
What really helped Montrealat that time were two shrewd moves. A trade by the Habs GM, appropriately a man named Savard, Ernest Savard, no relation to Serge, who made a deal with the Montreal Maroons which brought the Habs Toe Blake and a few years later the signing of Elmer Lach to a C form, who was from Saskatchewan by the way. He was signed after the Rangers and Leafs both passed on him. Lach attended their camps first.
There were other moves which turned their fortune around. Montreal’s GM in the 1940’s, Tommy Gorman, can thank his lucky stars his offer of a trade for what seemed to be a very brittle but explosive goal scorer name Maurice Richard was never followed up by the other GM’s. Richard, who had signed a C form with Montreal in 1938 suffered injury after injury in his first three years of pro. Gorman tried to unload him but nobody wanted him. This fact is substantiated in the movie ‘The Rocket.’ These were the three major reasons for the success of the Habs over a nearly two decade span – not some bull crap rule that although was well intentioned did nothing to extend Montreal’s stay in the NHL at that time. In fact they were even worse in 1940 when they missed the playoffs again finishing seventh with twenty-five points, five years after the implementation of this so-called ‘French Canadian rule.’
The last two pieces of the puzzle for the Habs success in the modern era as we know it happened in 1946 and 1947 respectively. With the French Canadian rule now rescinded and Montreal rolling with two Cup victories in a three year span another matter of good timing would help the Montreal Canadiens for years to come. Thank you Toronto Maple Leafs.Toronto owner Conn Smythe fired Frank Selke Sr. and Montreal quickly hired him as General Manager. Selke had a vision about a series of teams in the minor leagues that would be stocked with players that Montreal would sign to C forms. These minor league teams and the players on them were soon to be known as farm teams. This was the origin of the farm system as we know it today. It took the rest of the NHL 2-3 years to catch on to this idea but they did and they’ve all benefited from it but Montreal had a tremendous head start and in some instances they purchased the rights to an entire league to get a certain player. They did this for Jean Beliveau and Bobby Rousseau. Beliveau was an amateur player, playing for the Quebec Aces. He was quite content in Quebec playing senior hockey for the Aces as there were only two players in the NHL making more money than Big Jean, Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe. What the Canadiens did to finally get him was they bought the entire league, the QSHL ( Quebec Senior Hockey League) and turned it pro. Beliveau had signed a C form with Montreal in 1947. When Montreal GM Frank Selke was able to sign Beliveau in 1953 he offered up one of the best quotes in hockey history. As he put it, “I opened up the vault and said help yourself Jean!” Great quote.
The move in 1947 was the hiring of Sam Pollock. Pollock came under the tutelage of Selke and finally in 1963 became his successor as GM of the Canadiens. In 1963 the NHL finally realized there was a glut of players, post Second World War 2 births, that were coming of age to play in the NHL and even with the A, B and C form stones were being left unturned. For the first time a league wide draft was implemented. There was never any thought that this would one day become the life blood of the NHL. At the time the six NHL teams would draft in a rotating order any player who had not previously been signed. A player drafted in those early years who later was a high profile star for Montreal was Ken Dryden. Dryden was selected by the Boston Bruins in the second year of the draft, 1964. He indicated he was going the NCAA route, very unusual in those days. Montreal thought the lanky 17 year old had potential so they traded two of their draft picks in the same draft, Guy Allen and Paul Reid and traded them to Boston for Dryden’s rights.
The year before, the first year of the draft In 1963, the French Canadian rule was brought back for the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs negotiated for it and were successful in getting it back on the books but it provided little help.
I interviewed the late Sam Pollock for this story. “We never drafted one player under this rule allowance until 1968,” stated Sam Pollock. “All sorts of French players had been signing with other NHL teams for years. Marcel Pronovost with Detroit, Camille Henry and Edgar Laprade with the Rangers. Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert with the Rangers, Bernie Parent with Boston, even Toronto took Dave Keon from Rouyn-Noranda,” Pollock said.
I interviewed Marcel Pronovost for this story at the NHL draft in Florida in 2001. “Montreal only came to talk to me after I signed with Detroit,” said Marcel Pronovost. “I was happy to be a Red Wing and later a Toronto Maple Leaf,” stated Mr. Pronovost. For those of you with internet access you may want to check out this site;
Information on the draft year 1963 and subsequent draft years including Montreal’s priority protections can all be found here. This site which is extremely well done and organized will show that Montreal’s first priority pick under the French Canadian rule was Michel Plasse in 1968. In 1969, it was determined that this would be the final year of the draft in this manner and the sponsorship of Junior A teams would cease to be. All players were to be 20 years of age or older and they would be eligible for a Universal Amateur Draft. Montreal was given one final kick at the French Canadian can and they made the most of it by selecting Rejean Houle and Marc Tardif. That was it for the French rule. By then Sam Pollock or Trader Sam as he was known, was working magic year in and year out on draft day by flipping players in Montreal’s farm system that had been so expertly set up years before by Mr. Selke and ran by Pollock, for draft picks. Players like Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt and Mario Tremblay were selected with picks that Pollock acquired through trades.
That’s the history of how Montreal evolved from nearly dying in the mid 1930′s through the last of their glory days in the late 1970′s. The Habs had a pretty good run in the decade of the 1980′s, with one Cup, another trip to the finals and four trips to the semi-finals. The 1990′s, with the Cup in 1993 notwithstanding, were a much tougher time as we well know. That’s another chapter for another time. I hope this helps clear up any misconception. I believe this fallacy was born primarily by frustrated anti-Montreal fans who for decades suffered through parade after Stanley Cup parade. Feel free to go to my Ultimate Hockey website which can be found at www.ultimatehockeynetwork.com and email me any questions, thoughts or findings you may have had if you ever researched this urban legend.