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Doug Harvey: Uncanny talent to speed up or put brakes on any game

Thursday, 01.22.2009 / 9:31 AM / 2009 NHL All-Star Game

By Red Fisher - Special to NHL.com

Montreal Gazette columnist Red Fisher is in his 54th season on the Canadiens beat. Let's agree he is supremely qualified to name the 10 greatest Montreal Canadiens all-stars of all-time, which are all forwards and defensemen. Today's column considers No. 4 on Red's list, Montreal's greatest defenseman, Doug Harvey.

There was no union during most of Doug Harvey's playing career, but he was his own man. He feared neither constituted authority nor opposing teams. Win or lose, he refused to shake hands with opponents.
 
Harvey didn't socialize with them during the offseason, but he was one of them, so hardly anyone was surprised when Harvey's name was among the half-dozen players mentioned in the startling news chattering from my newspaper's telex machine in the late 1950s. National Hockey League players, the story reported, had formed their first-ever association.
 
Detroit left wing Ted Lindsay was its president, Harvey the first vice president. The aim was "to promote, foster and protect the best interest of NHL players." (Nope, no mention of a salary cap.) Lindsay explained: "Actually, we don't have many grievances, but we felt we should have an organization of this kind."
 
The association, Lindsay said, needed a better pension plan than the one in force at the time, calling for a player to receive $15 a month starting at age 45. Increased payments would be made on a graduating scale based on experience.
 
"I don't know anymore about it than you do," Canadiens GM Frank Selke Sr. said on the telephone a few minutes later. "I have no comment."
 
"Did you know it was coming?"
 
"No. I knew there was a meeting of some kind taking place in New York because Harvey asked permission to remain there after our game in Madison Square Garden, but that's all I know about it. Nothing more."
 
"Are you angry about it?" Selke was asked.
 
"I have no comment," he repeated.
 
The reality is Selke and others at the executive level were stunned by the report. Hockey players didn't do things on their own in the late 1950s. What they did was do as they were told. What they surely didn't do was form a union.
 
Selke was the most powerful general manager of his time -- short, steely-eyed, grey spikes for hair and carrying a big stick. He and other GMs made the rules and the players followed them -- or else.
 
"I have nothing to say," he said.
 
As you'd expect, Harvey couldn't stop talking about the group, which only one player in the six-team league had refused to join. Much of what he said appeared in the Montreal Star the next day. Selke was not amused.
 
"Why don't you run down the street and ask your friend Harvey about it?" Selke said when I telephoned him on another matter a few days later. "That was a pack of lies you had in your column. Harvey told you a bunch of lies."
 
"If they were lies, they're Harvey's, not mine," Selke was told.
 
"You may remember that I called you first and asked if you had any comment. You said no. That's when I called Harvey. He had lots to say."
 
"Lies," Selke said.
 
"My office door always has been open to you. I want people in my office I can trust," he said, punctuating his words by hanging up the phone.
 
It was impossible not to like Harvey the player, who was the NHL's best defenseman of his time and ranks all-time behind only Bobby Orr. Harvey was an integral part of six Stanley Cup-winning Canadiens teams, blessed as he was with the uncanny talent of either speeding up a game or putting the brakes on it. He controlled its pace more than any of the great stars who were part of the record five consecutive Cups the Canadiens won in the second half of '50s. He was the quarterback on the team's feared power play.
 
 
Harvey was this good: He was a runaway winner of the Norris Trophy as the League's top defenseman the first four years it was placed in competition, and then three times in the following four years -- the last one after he was traded to the New York Rangers following the 1960-61 season.
 
Selke, on the other hand, had no trouble disliking the off-ice Harvey, who danced to his own tune. In his time, players always promptly signed their contracts. Take it or leave it, pal. Not Harvey. Often he would wait until the last day of training camp before signing -- and only if he was satisfied with the money offered to him.
 
Night in and night out he would bring the complete package to the arena -- including those nights when he was hobbled with pain. Montreal was in New York for a game against the Rangers, a city in which the Canadiens won a lot more than they lost. On this night, though, injuries and illness had left the defense corps with only three bodies if you included Murray Balfour, a forward. Harvey, limping slightly, was among the walking wounded.
 
"Anything wrong with your foot?" I asked him shortly before the game.
 
"Naw, just a little stiff," he said.
 
"Have you had an X-ray?"
 
"Yup, nothing there," he replied.
 
"You've got only three defensemen," he was told. "What are you guys going to do?"
 
"I guess we'll play," he said with a shrug.
 
Harvey was on the ice for 51 minutes that night. He was in the penalty box for four minutes. The Canadiens won 3-1. Ten days later, X-rays revealed Harvey had been playing with a cracked ankle all that time.
 
"You mean you played 51 minutes with a cracked ankle?" I asked.
 

"Aw, it was nothing. Nothing at all."
-- Doug Harvey, on playing 51 minutes in a game with a cracked ankle

"Aw, it was nothing," he shrugged. "Nothing at all."
 
Harvey spent 13 seasons and part of a 14th (his first in 1947-48) with the Canadiens before he was shipped to the Rangers for tough-guy Lou Fontinato -- a trade that made no sense whatsoever, even though small cracks were starting to show in the dynasty. Harvey still was on top of his game, winning his sixth Norris even though the Canadiens had lost their bid for a sixth consecutive Cup.
 
The point is: Not only was he the NHL's best defenseman, he may have been hockey's brightest mind, too. Player-coach Harvey won a seventh Norris when he led the Rangers into the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. They fell to the Maple Leafs in six games, but the biggest reason for that was all of the games were played in Maple Leaf Gardens because Madison Square Garden had been taken over by a circus.
 
Several nights after the Rangers were eliminated, my doorbell rang after midnight. It was Harvey.
 
"What are you doing here, Doug? Do you know what time it is?" I asked him.
 
"Aw, gee ... 1 o'clock, I guess. Can I come in?"
 
"What brings you here?"
 
"Aw, I just wanted to let you know I'm quitting as coach."
 
"You're what?"
 
"I don't want to coach anymore," he said.
 
"Whoa! Hold it right there! Am I hearing right? Your team made the playoffs for the first time in four years. They've got banners hanging from the roof at the Garden saying, 'Doug, We Love You.' You're probably going to win the Norris again -- and you're telling me you want to quit as coach. Are you nuts?"
 
"I'd rather be with the boys," he said.
 
"Listen, in three years you could be general manager of that team. If you quit now, you're dead."
 
"Aw, Muzz (general manager Muzz Patrick) needs the job. He's got that big house in Connecticut ..."
 
"If you don't get the job, somebody else will," Harvey was told.
 
"Naw ... I don't think so," he said.
 
We argued for the next couple of hours and, looking back on it, my biggest mistake was trying to convince Harvey he was making a mistake. Anyone who knew him well understood if you said black, he argued white. If you said white, Harvey held out for black. Two days later, the Rangers announced that Harvey had quit as coach and would stay with the team as a player. He was with the Rangers in 1962-63, but 14 games into the 1963-64 season he was in the minors. Three seasons after Harvey quit as coach, Emile Francis replaced Patrick as general manager.
 
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.