MONTREAL - When the Hockey Hall of Fame announced their 2006 inductees, two men who wore the bleu- blanc-rouge were the only players to make the grade. Patrick Roy, the winningest goaltender in NHL history, was elected in his first year of eligibility with his equipment likely still damp from his playing days. Dick Duff, on the other hand, patiently waited 34 years for his long overdue Hall of Fame nod.
Duff, who played most of five seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, starred in the 1950s and 1960s. Not as familiar to younger fans, the 5-foot-7, 166-pound left-winger played a vital role on the Canadiens squads that won four Stanley Cups between 1965 and 1969.
Sam Pollock knew what he was getting when he acquired the 28-year-old Kirkland Lake, Ontario native. Trained at Toronto's St. Michael's College before moving on to the Maple Leafs at 19, Duff was quick, crafty and tough as nails. His dogged play and ability to handle himself against bigger opponents made him a favorite with both fans and teammates.
In an age when 20 goals made a player a star, Duff's three seasons of 26 goals or more made him one of the league's top snipers. He was also a proven winner with two Stanley Cups to his name and a reputation as someone who came to play, surpassing himself when the stakes got higher come playoff time.
Traded to New York during the 1963-64 season, Duff had trouble adjusting to life with a weak team and welcomed the news that he was bound for Montreal.
His career rejuvenated, Duff played 365 games as a member of the Montreal Canadiens, wearing La Sainte Flannelle with the same pride that he had worn Toronto's colours.
"The organization had internal leadership from Sammy Pollock and Toe Blake. Blake held you to the promise of playing to your ability," Duff remembered. "All it took was a word or two for him to let you know you weren't playing up to scratch.
"I liked Montreal. It was a nice city and the fans knew hockey. They knew who could play and they liked guys who made the effort." Duff said. "The work we put in there really paid off."
Initially assigned to a line that included rookie speedster, Yvan Cournoyer and Jean Béliveau, Duff dug the puck out of the corner, fought for it along the boards and fed passes to his teammates. He also managed to find the twine himself from time to time.
Come playoff time, Duff, as always, redoubled his efforts. The 1964-65 season ended on the best note possible, with the Stanley Cup returning to Montreal after spending five years away.
Strong down the middle, the 1960s Canadiens featured two centres Duff considers among hockey's all-time greats.
Dick Duff spent parts of six seasons with the Canadiens over the course of his 18-year NHL career.
"Big Jean, what a leader and what a great man. He knows how I feel about him," he said before moving on to the Pocket Rocket. " Henri Richard didn't say much but he had the heart of a lion. Pound for pound he may have been the toughest player I've ever seen. When he'd take the puck in the corner and head for the front of the net he didn't care who was in front of him, he was going to get there."
Assistant coach Claude Ruel, also comes in for praise. "He did a hell of a lot of work with the young defensemen and doesn't get as much credit as he's due. He had them out there constantly working the puck, moving it around endlessly, passing it around, getting it to the net. He'd put them through their paces until everything became second nature to them."
A couple of defensemen who made things easier for him, both on the ice and off, came to mind.
"I would be skating as fast as I could and all I had to do was put my stick on the ice and J-C Tremblay would hit it with the puck. I didn't have to look down or change my stride," he said. "Jean-Guy Talbot was invaluable on that team too. He was a fun guy and would joke around. He was tough and could play on the road. You need players like him on a good team."
As he had done throughout his career, Duff turned it up a notch when the postseason rolled around, always seeming to be in the right place at the right time. The wiley left-winger always seemed to find a way to force a turnover, slip a pass through traffic or bury the puck when the team most needed him to do so.
An established NHL star with a pair of Stanley Cup mentions on his resume when he arrived, Duff picked up four more during his tenure with the Habs, reinforcing his reputation as one of the greatest clutch players of his generation.
One of 13 players who played on all four of Montreal's Stanley Cup championship teams in the 1960s, Duff is the sixth of the group to be selected for enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He joins Béliveau, Cournoyer, Jacques Laperrière, Henri Richard, and Gump Worsley.
After leaving Montreal in the 1969-70 season, Duff played for Los Angeles and Buffalo before retiring in 1971-72. He spent a number of years in the Maple Leaf organization, appearing briefly as head coach in 1979-80.
Recognizing that he has been blessed in his life, Duff is more than pleased to spend time making things a bit easier for those less fortunate than himself. A Toronto resident for most of the past half-century, Duff is a long-time supporter of local charitable causes. He also plans to attend the Hector "Toe" Blake Golf Tournament on Aug. 31, an Alzheimer's related fundraiser at the Val-des-Lacs Golf Club, north of Montreal.
November 13, induction day, is already circled on two calendars. On that night, two men with links to the Montreal Canadiens join hockey's immortals. One was six years old when the other played his final NHL game. Both have earned the richly deserved honor.
Mike Wyman is a contributor to canadiens.com.