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'Boom Boom' Geoffrion was larger than life

Canadiens great, who would be 85 Tuesday, brought color to game

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist/Historian

MONTREAL -- A decade after his passing, on what Tuesday is the 85th anniversary of his birth, he remains one of the most engaging, charismatic personalities in the history not just of his Montreal Canadiens, but the NHL as a whole.

Bernard "Boom Boom" Geoffrion was a Technicolor figure in what then was a black-and-white hockey world, a character whose fractured English was spoken with a baritone that thundered as loudly as his legendary slap shots.

Memories remain rich in Montreal of Boom Boom, so nicknamed by a 1950s Montreal sportswriter for the sound of the puck hitting first Geoffrion's stick, then the boards.

Photos of the Hall of Famer are on display throughout the Canadiens' Bell Centre home, his on-ice achievements celebrated -- even if they sometimes can't keep pace with the mischief this bon vivant got into off it.

The honor roll:

* Six Stanley Cup championships won: 1953, then 1956-60 inclusive.

* The 1951-52 Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.

* Twice winner of the Art Ross Trophy, in 1954-55 and 1960-61, as the League's top point-scorer.

* Recipient of the 1960-61 Hart Memorial Trophy as the player voted to be most valuable to his team.

* Second player in NHL history, behind teammate Maurice "Rocket" Richard, to score 50 goals in a season, that coming in 1960-61.

* Eleven appearances in the NHL All-Star Game.

There is Geoffrion's unofficial record that never will be matched: Between 1951-60, the Canadiens a championship finalist for 10 consecutive years, Boomer was the only player to appear in all 53 games played in the Stanley Cup Final.

But Geoffrion's unabashed love of life and all that went with it is what still stands out since his passing -- from his cheesy Miller Lite beer endorsements on TV and in print advertising, to his curly later-years perm, to his 1966 appearance with New York Rangers goaltending teammate Eddie Giacomin on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."

(Rehearsal went perfectly but on live TV Geoffrion rifled a shot into Giacomin's throat, leaving him without a voice for a week. "Probably the worst injury I had," Giacomin later told me. "I couldn't fall down with millions of people watching but at the commercial break I sure felt it.")

Geoffrion died in Atlanta 10 years ago next month, lost to stomach cancer at age 75 on March 11, 2006.

In a sad twist, his passing came 12 hours before the Canadiens retired his No. 5 jersey in a ceremony that had been arranged months previously. Boomer's number was raised to the rafters of the Bell Centre that night above his widow, Marlene, their three children and his extended family.

On the red carpet that night were a son, Danny, and a grandson, Blake, both of whom had gone on to play briefly for the Canadiens, in 1979-80 and 2012-13 respectively.

Fittingly, Geoffrion's banner was hoisted beside the No. 7 of his late, legendary father-in-law, Howie Morenz, who decades ago had been voted by sportswriters as the greatest hockey player of the first half of the 20th century.

"I look at the number of your father up there," Geoffrion once told Marlene. "One day, mine will be beside it."

If the slap shot existed before Geoffrion's day, it was Boomer who is credited with popularizing it. 

But it was on March 16, 1961 with a close-range shot, one skittering inside the goal post without great velocity, when the Montreal native was made most famous, his 50th goal of the 1960-61 season coming against Toronto Maple Leafs rookie goalie Cesare Maniago, an emergency call-up.

The Forum crowd went bonkers, celebrating Boomer's achievement in a way they hadn't recognized his 1954-55 scoring title that gave him a one-point edge on Rocket Richard, his friend and iconic teammate.

Richard had been suspended by NHL president Clarence Campbell for the final three games of that regular season, and the Stanley Cup Playoffs, for a stick-swinging, linesman-punching melee against the Boston Bruins. The Rocket was on the sidelines when Geoffrion finished the 70-game season with 38 goals and 37 assists.

Maniago wept a decade ago when I called him to reminisce about Boomer, with whom the goalie had become strong friends and forever linked for having surrendered his 50th goal.

Indeed, Maniago and Geoffrion would be Canadiens teammates in 1962-63, the goaltender cut by Maple Leafs coach Punch Imlach when Maniago had the gall to ask for a $100 raise.

Goalie and sniper wore the same uniform again in 1966-67 with the New York Rangers, and again Boomer picked up his ribbing of the man who yielded his milestone goal.

A magnificent print of that goal being scored, taken by then-Canadiens photographer David Bier, was framed for years in Geoffrion's home in Marietta, Ga.

In conversation with and about Maniago, always, Boomer playfully added an accent to the second "e" in Cesare, giving it a French sound. 

With the Rangers, Maniago often would show the impact of Geoffrion's heavy shots in practice, which he felt through his equipment.

"Boomer would say: 'Cesaré, keep your head up!'" Maniago told me with a laugh, decibels boosted with a Geoffrion-blustered accent. "He'd say: 'I'm going to score another one and so what if we're on the same team!' And he did. In practice, there was many a day that he'd leave me black and blue.

"I bumped into Boom at the Boston airport years later and he said: 'Cesaré, I still see you every morning,'" Maniago continued. "He said: 'I take my coffee to the den, Cesaré, and there you are -- above my fireplace!'"

It wasn't just with Geoffrion that Maniago remains linked, his connection also strong to two Chicago Blackhawks legends. With the Rangers in 1966, Maniago yielded Bobby Hull's record-breaking 51st goal of the season, and in 1977, with the Vancouver Canucks, he was beaten for the 500th of Stan Mikita's career.

"It's not so bad to be remembered for Boomer's historic goal, no less two more," said Maniago, who stopped many more pucks than he missed on at least a few awful teams. "My favorite? A toss-up between Boomer's 50th and Hull's 51st. …

"I remember a training camp the Canadiens had in Victoria (British Columbia), then playing exhibition games as we worked our way back east. We played one in Trail (B.C., Maniago's hometown), and to fly out of Castlegar you take a sharp right to go up the Kootenay Valley.

"So we take off and we're heading straight for the peaks of the mountains. The fir trees seem to Boom like they're 20 feet below the wing, and he's crossing himself, moaning over and over: 'Is this how it all ends?'

"He had a complete joy for life and he lived every day to the maximum. Boomer was one of my all-time favorites and I'll never forget him. This is such a sad day. I'll shed more than a few tears for him."

Geoffrion would coach the Rangers to start the 1968-69 season but quit after two months because of ulcers.  

In the fall of 1972, he stepped behind the bench of the expansion Atlanta Flames, but was devoured by the pressure in two seasons.

And then, Geoffrion was introduced as the coach of the Canadiens for the 1979-80 season, Montreal having won four consecutive Stanley Cup titles, gunning for a record-tying fifth.

"This is the dream of my life," he told reporters at the news conference that unveiled him.

Two weeks before Christmas, he stepped down, unwilling to deal with the cauldron of Montreal hockey.

It wasn't the first time Geoffrion's health was an issue in the city. Beyond the usual cuts and bruises, he suffered a ruptured bowel during a 1958 practice and was rushed to the hospital across from the Forum where he was administered the last rites as he was prepared for surgery.

"My career is done," he told Marlene as he recovered, scared by his brush with death and well aware that his wife's father had lost his life to an embolism after having had his leg broken during a game at the Forum in March 1936.

Instead, Geoffrion returned for all 10 games of the playoffs, scoring six times and assisting on five more in the Canadiens' third of five straight Stanley Cup victories.

Boomer was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972, enshrined that year alongside Canadiens teammate Jean Béliveau and Detroit Red Wings superstar Gordie Howe. No one crowed more loudly about his induction than Geoffrion himself, and no one took that the wrong way nor expected anything less.

In a galaxy of stars, Boomer twinkled brightest, as always, a class clown when tension needed relief, a clutch performer when his team needed him the most.

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