Welcome to the fourth article in a series spanning 10 (almost 11) decades of the history of the Montreal Canadiens. Throughout this series, we’ll be taking a look at the history of the oldest hockey team in the NHL from their inception to where we are today. This week we’ll be taking a look at the 1940’s, but before we do that, be sure to check out parts one through three below.
Without further adieu, let’s jump right into it!
The Habs were struggling both financially and on the ice prior to the start of the 1940-’41 season. Ernest Savard tried and failed to buy the team from the Canadian Arena Company, who in turn, decided that the team was in desperate need of a shakeup after missing the playoffs for several years in a row. Tommy Gorman was hired as the Habs’ new general manager and former Toronto Maple Leafs bench boss Dick Irvin was brought on as the new coach.
Johnny Quilty proved to be the best of Gorman’s new hires for the team, becoming the first Calder trophy winner in team history, scoring 18 goals in his first season. After placing in the sixth and final qualifying spot for the playoffs, the Canadiens fell to the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round after an incredibly tough series.
The beginning of the 1941-’42 season was a similarly uncertain one for the team, as one of their primary investors suffered a heart attack and subsequently sold his shares. The team was very nearly moved to Cleveland were it not for the efforts of Gorman to keep the Canadiens afloat. Despite adding impact players such as Emile Bouchard and Buddy O’Connor to the team, it was Joe Benoit who leads the team in terms of goal scoring with 20 goals during the regular season. For the second year in a row, the Canadiens were in the final qualifying spot for the playoffs, and would eventually fall to the Detroit Red Wings despite some promising goaltending by rookie Paul Bibeault.
Not only was the NHL reduced to what would become known as the ‘Original Six’ before the regular season started, but Maurice Richard joined the Canadiens as a rookie at the beginning of the 1942-’43 season. Richard’s inaugural season ended after just 16 games, unfortunately, as he suffered a broken leg.
The Canadiens continued to improve despite this loss, thanks in part to the ‘Punch Line’, consisting of Toe Blake, Joe Benoit, and Elmer Lach, who achieved a combined total of 174 points through the regular season. The Canadiens faced off against the Boston Bruins, and despite strong performances from Bibeault, Blake and Lach, the Habs were eliminated in game five during overtime with a 5-4 loss.
Maurice Richard replaced Joe Benoit in the Punch Line during the 1943-’44 season after Joe Benoit joined the military. Goalie Paul Bibeault was replaced by Bill Durnan, and went on to play for Toronto upon his return. Richard, who was quickly becoming known as ‘The Rocket’, played an incredibly impressive season, scoring 32 goals and earning 54 points.
The new Punch Line helped the Canadiens to finish out the regular season in first place, and helped them win the Stanley Cup during the playoffs, with a combined total of 48 points in nine games. Richard was also able to boast 12 goals of his own during the playoffs, cementing him as one of the best players on the team.
The 1944-’45 season was a remarkable one for the Montreal Canadiens, despite losing their chances at the Stanley Cup to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs. Maurice Richard scored 50 goals in 50 games throughout the regular season, with a total of 73 points. Elmer Lach and Bill Durnan won the Hart and Vezina trophies, respectively.
Thanks to the combined efforts of the Punchline, the Canadiens finished first place in the league with a total of 80 points. The Habs tallied 228 goals while only 121 were allowed during the regular season. However, they were also the most penalized team in the league with a whopping 376 total penalty minutes throughout the course of the season.
Joe Benoit returned to the Canadiens at the beginning of the 1945-’46 season after the conclusion of the Second World War. The Punch Line once again dominated the league with a combined total of 69 goals and 145 points throughout the regular season. Bill Durnan’s four regular-season shutouts earn him a third straight Vezina trophy, tying with former Habs star George Hainsworth.
After finishing first in the league for the third straight year, the Canadiens crushed the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins in quick succession during the playoffs to earn their second Stanley Cup of the decade. This was once again thanks to the efforts of Bill Durnan, who maintained an incredible 2.07 goals-against average, and the Punch Line, who scored 19 of the team’s 45 playoff goals.
Tommy Gorman retired at the beginning of the 1946-’47 season, and was replaced by Frank Selke, who served as the Canadiens’ GM until 1964. Due to continued financial strain, Selke sold the rights to several players, including former goalie Paul Bibeault, prior to the start of the season.
For the fourth year in a row, the Vezina trophy was awarded to Bill Durnan. Durnan was not the only Canadien to win a trophy this year, as Maurice Richard won the Hart trophy for the first and only time in his career. The Canadiens placed first in the league for the fourth year in a row, however, they fell to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round of the playoffs.
The 1947-’48 season was a complete disaster for the Canadiens. Not only did they lose Toe Blake to a broken ankle, which would force the 36-year-old to retire to a coaching position, but Maurice Richard lost part of his season to an injured knee. Despite this, he still managed to score 28 goals and was able to boast 53 points for 53 games. For the first time since 1940, the Canadiens missed out on the playoffs.
Both Emile Bouchard and Elmer Lach suffered injuries early in the 1948-’49 season, with Bouchard breaking his jaw in a collision with another player and Lach suffering a knee injury. The rest of the team, including Richard, struggled throughout the season, however defense was on point, allowing only 126 goals during the regular season.
Durnan’s goaltending also played a major role in the Canadiens’ success for the season, with 10 shutouts and a 7-1-2 record. This feat earned Durnan his fifth straight Vezina trophy. After an incredibly tough playoff series, the Canadiens fell to the Detroit Red Wings in game seven by 3-1.
The 1949-’50 season was another successful one for Bill Durnan, who claimed eight shutouts during the regular season and maintained a 2.20 goals-against average. Despite being the best goalie in the league, and winning his sixth straight Vezina trophy, Habs fans booed him in the stands. Durnan went on to retire at the end of the season. After 68 years, Durnan is still considered one of the best goalies ever in the NHL.
After struggling in the previous season, Maurice Richard found his way without his Punch Line teammates and earned 65 points during the regular season. Over the course of the year, he scored 43 goals, ranking fourth in the league for scoring.The regular season ended in controversy for the Canadiens, as defenseman Ken Reardon threatened Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Cal Gardner in response to a previous altercation from when Gardner played for the New York Rangers. Reardon was forced to pay a bond that would be returned to him at the end of the season to ensure he wouldn’t injure Gardner.
The Canadiens played an incredibly tough series against the New York Rangers, who took a 3-0 lead. The third game in the series would be the final game for Durnan, who was pulled from the net and replaced by back-up goalie Gerry McNeil in order to shake up the team. Despite a big win in game 4 of the series, the Canadiens were defeated by the Rangers in game 5 with a 3-0 victory.