With the 2016 Winter Classic featuring two bitter Original Six rivals, there’s no better time to take a look at a bit of folklore often repeated by Bruins (and Leafs) fans. Apparently it helps some fans better accept each of the 24 Stanley Cups earned by the Montreal Canadiens. We are pleased that published author and hockey historian Liam Maguire has agreed to share with us the definitive article on the subject that he wrote a few years ago. Be sure to share with your Bruins-loving friends. Listen to Liam’s Ultimate Hockey Show 11 am. – 1 pm. Saturday’s on Rogers 1310 AM in Ottawa.
OTTAWA, ON. — The question regarding the Habs and their so called French Canadian ‘advantage’ is routinely botched up. Here’s the gist of a story I first wrote on this in 2007.
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 was one of the more popular methods. Financial aid was another, facilitating moves to other cities, etc. Bottom line, when a team was in trouble the league would do it’s best to try and figure out a way to help.
In 1936, the Montreal Canadiens nearly folded. The Depression had already claimed several franchises including 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 province of Quebec in a special draft. There was one rider however. None of these players could have already been previously signed, which in those days meant, to an A, B or C form. The letters meant different levels of commitment to a team but either way, those players already signed to those form were not eligible.
I put this fact in for hockey fans so they had an idea of how you could lock a player up in those days, in some cases in an extreme scenario in terms of age, ie. Bobby Orr. Orr 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.
What was the deciding factor in the Orr’s signing with Boston, you ask? Well, the late Wren Blair had bird-dogged the family for nearly two hockey seasons and as Orr approached 14 years of age, Mr. Blair knew other teams were sniffing around so they made Bobby’s Dad an offer he couldn’t refuse. Yes, some of it included cash but the turning point in the negotiation was an agreement to stucco their roof and buy the Orr’s a car but not anything beyond a 1957, in other words nearly five years old. That’s what it took to sign Bobby Orr in March of 1962. And with that signing he became a Boston Bruin, for as long as they wanted.
Back to the French Canadian help offered the Habs. From 1936-1943 Montreal protected 14 players through this special draft. Unfortunately none of them ever played a minute in the NHL. Reason being, anybody who could tie their skates and chew gum at the same time was already long signed by other NHL teams including the Canadiens who certainly weren’t going to survive solely with this rule. The hope was that there would be a spark from signing a French Canadian kid, even better if he could play a bit.
The thought was that this could help attendance and thereby help Montreal. It never did.
What really helped Montreal at that time were two shrewd moves. One, a trade with the Montreal Maroons which brought them Toe Blake and two, the signing of Elmer Lach to a C form, who was from Saskatchewan by the way. He was signed after the Rangers passed on him. Lach attended their camp first.
There were other moves which turned their fortune around. The key one being the rest of the league passed on Montreal GM Tommy Gorman’s offer of a trade for what seemed to be a very brittle but explosive goal scorer name Maurice Richard. Richard suffered injury after injury in his first three years of pro. Gorman tried to unload him but nobody wanted him. Needless to say Richard’s coming out party in 1943-44 and the subsequent effect he had on the game in the next 17 years has been well documented but suffice to say, these were the three major reasons for the success of the Habs over a nearly two decade span – not some bullcrap 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 than they were in 1936.
The last two pieces of the puzzle for the Habs greatness 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 something else was going to be needed for the franchise to rise to the extreme greatness they would see in a few short years. Thank you Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto owner Conn Smythe fired Frank Selke Sr. and Montreal quickly hired him.
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 ‘a farm system.’ 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.
In Beliveau’s case it didn’t matter because he told the Habs to get stuffed anyway. He was happy in Quebec and there were only two players in the NHL making more money than Jean who was in the QSHL. That was Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe. Beliveau had signed a B form with Montreal in 1946. The difference between the B and the C form was the B allowed you to play as an amateur anywhere for anybody, in other words as long as it wasn’t a pro league.
Beliveau signed with the Quebec Aces in the Quebec Senior Hockey league after his junior days in Quebec. Despite the fact he was paid the league itself was viewed as a non-professional league. Until Montreal made the bold move to purchase the entire league, turn it pro thereby nullifying Big Jean’s contract with them meaning his only option at 22 years of age was to join Montreal.
The final piece of the puzzle in getting him signed, Montreal GM Frank Selke had the quote of the decade in 1953 when as he put it, “I opened up the vault and said help yourself Jean!” Great quote. Beliveau signed a 5-year, $110,000 contract with a five-figure signing bonus, unheard of money in hockey at that time.
The move in 1947 was the hiring of Sam Pollock. Pollock came under the tutelage of Selke and finally in 1964 became his successor as GM of the Canadiens. The year previous in 1963 the NHL finally realized there was glut of players, post Second World War 2, that were coming of age to play in the NHL and even with the A, B and C form system stones were being left unturned. For the first time a 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 signed to commit to a team. Ken Dryden was a draft pick of the Boston Bruins. Boston traded Dryden to Montreal. In 1963, the French Canadian rule was brought back for the Montreal Canadiens. It was not necessary, no question about it but Selke and Pollock worked a sweet deal and got it back on the books however the same rules applied. The player could not have signed a C form with any other team.
From 1963-1967 the Montreal Canadiens did not select anybody with the opportunity. Finally in 1968 they did. A goalie named Michel Plasse. 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 and by flipping players in Montreal’s farm system that had been so expertly set up years before by Selke and ran by Pollock, for draft picks. Players like Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Mario Tremblay, several others, were selected with picks that Pollock acquired through trades.
I challenge people to tell me any player Montreal signed due to a French Canadian rule that played in the NHL prior to Michel Plasse in 1968. Tell me one Hall of Fame player they signed with this rule that helped them win a Stanley Cup. What you have here is an urban legend passed down by disgruntled anti-Hab fans, trying to gleam onto any shred; any thought that perhaps Montreal had an unfair advantage.
Marcel Pronovost is a Hall of Fame defenseman born in Quebec, turned pro with Detroit in the 1950’s. I interviewed the late Mr. Pronovost in Florida at the NHL draft several years ago. He told me when Detroit came calling, they made a great offer, his dad loved it, he loved it and he signed. A week later Montreal knocked on the door and tried to pry him away from Detroit but he was signed so no go. Same with Bernie Parent who signed with Boston; Dave Keon who signed with Toronto, Camille Henry who signed with the Rangers along with Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert. I mean it’s idiotic and ignorant and frankly just suits people’s agenda’s to state something they know absolutely nothing about.
I welcome any comments.