Bernard Geoffrion had awakened at 5 o'clock on this mid-March morning in 1961 and glanced at his wife, Marlene. Her eyes were open.
"What's the matter," he asked. "Why aren't you sleeping?"
"I'm so nervous about tonight ... I can't sleep," she said.
"You're not playing the game, I am," he replied, "so go to sleep."
Geoffrion had scored his 49th goal in his previous game, the regular season's 67th, so now with the Toronto Maple Leafs visiting the Forum on the eve of St. Patrick's Day, he was one goal away from matching the astonishing record of 50 goals in a season, established 16 years earlier by Maurice Richard in 50 games.
The season's largest crowd at the Forum had come to see the Canadiens win. They were going into the game one point ahead of the Leafs with three remaining in the 70-game regular season. Mostly, though, they were there to see "The Boomer," playing in his 62nd game of the season, become only the second player in NHL history to score 50 goals.
The Leafs had put Bert Olmstead on Geoffrion. Olmstead, in a twist, was a former Canadien who had held Gordie Howe off the score sheet some years earlier when he had reached the 49-goal mark. And for two periods, Olmstead worked his magic, holding Geoffrion to only one shot in each period.
At the 14-minute mark of the third, Geoffrion was still trying for the goal. Jean Beliveau tossed the puck out to him from behind the net, and for once, Geoffrion was in front of Cesare Maniago without Olmstead to bother him. Maniago, who had been parachuted into the game from the Eastern Professional Hockey League to replace an ailing Johnny Bower, made the first move - leaving for "Boom Boom" what amounted to an empty net. His short shot hit the post. "I thought I was finished after that," Geoffrion was to mention after the game.
As it developed, Beliveau was to start the play leading to "The Goal," winning a faceoff in the circle, dealing to Gilles Tremblay, who in turn delivered a seeing-eye pass to Geoffrion, once again alone in front of Maniago. This time, Geoffrion didn't miss the open side of the net with his fourth shot of the final period, his sixth of the game. What followed, while the noise exploded from the sold-out crowd of more than 15,000, was an outpouring of emotion from the players. They leaped on Geoffrion in a red torrent, knocking him off his feet, pounding him on the back as he lay there, tousling his hair while a deluge of programs, hats and shoe rubbers rained onto the Forum ice.
Geoffrion, who was to win his second scoring title that season with a career-high 95 points, was in tears while enjoying the finest moment of a career that once brought him perilously close to death's door.
Years earlier, Geoffrion was being checked closely during a Canadiens practice. Andre Pronovost, a young player, was left staggering after bodychecking Geoffrion, who continued skating. A minute later, Geoffrion collapsed to the ice. Geoffrion, who played 13 seasons and part of a 14th with the Canadiens, was a great kidder, so at first the players thought he was having a little fun at their expense. He thrashed around while the players hovered over him.
"Get up," Pronovost said with a laugh. "Quit fooling around."
There was no response from Geoffrion. Sports therapist Bill Head rushed to Geoffrion, who by that time was breathing with great difficulty. Head immediately noticed this was no laughing matter.
"What happened here?" Head yelled. "Let's get him out of here and over to the hospital."
In a matter of minutes, Geoffrion was being wheeled into the Herbert Reddy Memorial Hospital across the street from the Forum, where a quick diagnosis pointed to a ruptured bowel. Even as he was being prepared for surgery, last rites were administered. The next day, team doctor Larry Hampson reported: "Geoffrion spent a comfortable night. He went through a delicate, painful operation that probably will keep him from playing again this season." Geoffrion left hospital six weeks later and, against the advice of doctors, insisted on returning to the lineup for a playoff series against the Boston Bruins.
He scored twice in the first game and was an important contributor to the Canadiens' third consecutive Stanley Cup among the record five in a row they were to win in the late 1950s.
Right winger Geoffrion joined the Canadiens for 18 games in 1951, won the Calder the following season as top rookie with 30 goals and 24 assists in 67 games, and went on to score 371 goals with Montreal and another 22 with the New York Rangers after coaching the Quebec Aces for two seasons.
Sadly, what he couldn't live with was coaching an NHL team. He had come out of retirement to play 117 games with the Rangers. Then, in a stunning move, he was behind the Rangers bench for the start of the 1968-69 season. But two months into it, ulcers forced him to quit. Four years later, he was named the Atlanta Flames' first coach, but left a little more than two years later. Too much pressure, he explained. Still, on Sept. 4, 1979, he was introduced as Canadiens coach - a successor to Scotty Bowman, who had quit in a huff after leading the team to four consecutive Stanley Cups. There were reservations from a lot of people about the appointment. If pressure had forced Geoffrion out of two previous coaching jobs, how could he handle the heat in Montreal?
It's true Geoffrion, the player, liked the media and they liked him because he always had something to say. He was entertaining, if only because he never allowed the facts to intrude into a good story, but coaching was another matter.
"This is the dream of my life," he gushed to a roomful of media persons. He had said the same thing after accepting the coaching jobs with the Rangers and Flames, but this time the "dream of my life" was with a dream team that had won four consecutive Stanley Cups.
"I'll do everything possible to win a fifth straight Stanley Cup with this team," he told his audience. "I've been trying to get back here for 12 years and, now that I'm here, I plan to finish my years here. I'm signed for three years, but if they like my work, I'll be here longer. I'm not afraid to face challenges. I'm afraid of nothing! Any questions?"
He was asked about his health. "Everywhere I go, people ask me about my health," he growled. "Let me just say this about my health once and for all: I'm sick and tired (he paused waiting for the laughter which came quickly) of answering that question. My health is 1,000 percent better than when I was playing. Now don't ask me about my health any more.
"What about your health?" he asked the reporter who had asked the question.
Geoffrion always knew how to work a crowd. Seven games into the season (six victories and a tie), Geoffrion already was feeling the heat.
"Those guys, they're gonna put me in my coffin," he told me.
Thirteen days before Christmas ... boom! he quit.
Reprinted with permission from the Montreal Gazette, this Red Fisher column originally ran in early 2005. For more insights about the Canadiens, check out the Gazette's hockey blog, www.habsinsideout.com.