The rich history of the NHL has provided a showcase for luminous talents of all pedigrees, at all positions, from Sid Abel to Sergei Zubov. The club of players who changed the game, however, is vastly smaller, and that explains why Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion has a singular place in NHL annals -- not because of his world-class nickname but the fact that he had more to do with popularizing the slap shot than anybody.
Just ask any of the goaltenders who had to stand in as Geoffrion, in his famous No. 5 Montreal Canadiens sweater, would crank up his vaunted slapper, with a full, torso-twisting windup that made the prevailing weapon of the day - the wrist shot - seem tame by comparison.
Video: Bernie 'Boom Boom' Geoffrion popularized slap shot
"Without a doubt, [the slap shot] turned some 20-goal scorers into 50-goal scorers," said Emile Francis, coach and general manager of the New York Rangers, the team Geoffrion finished his career with after his iconic, 14-year run in Montreal, where he helped the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup six times, five in succession (1956-60). "(It was) an enormous addition to the player's arsenal."
The night that the Canadiens retired Geoffrion's number, Dollard St. Laurent, a longtime defenseman and teammate, said, "He changed the game with the slap shot. Goalies were afraid to face him. He's the reason why goalies started wearing masks."
Geoffrion, whose nickname dates to his junior-hockey days, a takeoff on the sound his slap shot made when his stick slammed into the puck, and when the puck thundered into the boards, was quite enamored with his innovation.
Games: 883 | Goals: 393 | Assists: 429 | Points: 822
"When I slapped it, I thought it was the greatest thing ever," Geoffrion said.
A Montreal native, Geoffrion grew up the same way most hockey-loving youngsters in the region did, idolizing the Canadiens, and Maurice "Rocket" Richard in particular. He spent much of his childhood skating on a rink behind a neighborhood church, where he started experimenting with his slap shot at about 10 years old. It only got better as he got bigger and stronger, and by the time he hit the Quebec Junior Hockey League, he was piling up pinball numbers. At 18, playing for the Laval Nationale, Geoffrion had 52 goals and 34 assists in 34 games. A year later, he had 54 goals and 44 assists in 36 games and earned a call-up to the Canadiens. He would never forget the moment he met the great Rocket.
"The first time I sat beside him in the dressing room, I was tying up my skates and I looked up at Rocket and said, 'I doubt that I could ever reach your level, but Rocket, I hope one day to become like you,' " Geoffrion said. "If I was going to become somebody in hockey, it was going to be like the Rocket."
Geoffrion's impact on the NHL was as swift as his shot. After scoring eight goals in 18 games in 1950-51, he scored 30 goals in 1951-52, and neither he nor his slap shot ever relented. A two-time NHL scoring champion, Geoffrion would finish his career with 393 regular-season goals, and 58 more in the playoffs, including 11 goals and 18 points in 10 postseason games in 1957, when the Canadiens steamrolled the Rangers and Boston Bruins to capture the Cup.
He won his first scoring title in the 70-game 1954-55 season (38 goals, 37 assists), by a point over Richard, a distinction that unwittingly put Geoffrion in the midst of a fierce local tempest (tempete to French-speaking fans), after NHL President Clarence Campbell suspended Richard for the final three games of the season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a stick-swinging incident that ended with the fiery Richard punching an official. The decision infuriated Canadiens fans, who revered the legendary Rocket, an electrifying player whom they badly wanted to win a scoring title - something he had never done. When Campbell ignored warnings to stay away and attended the game on March 17, 1955, between the Red Wings and Canadiens at the Forum shortly after his ruling, fans pelted him with food and then fired a tear-gas bomb in his direction, prompting Campbell to declare the game a forfeit victory for the Red Wings. A spree of vandalism and looting ensued, as scores of Quebecois, who were convinced the decision was an example of anti-French bias, engaged in what became known as the "Richard Riot."
With the Canadiens needing to win their two remaining games to secure first place, Geoffrion was in an impossible spot, his team needing him to score, and fans openly rooting for Richard to hold on to the scoring title. In an interview with the Hockey Hall of Fame, Geoffrion said, "Doug Harvey told me, 'Listen, we came to win first place. You've got to score goals to help us win.' I said, 'You put the puck on my stick and if I have a chance to score, I don't care who I have to surpass. I get paid to play and score goals.'"
Geoffrion had a goal and two assists in the next game, and went on to win the scoring title. Many Canadiens fans were furious that he'd "stolen" the Art Ross Trophy from Richard, and were slow to forgive him for that.
"I can assure you that I had more heartbreak in winning the trophy than Richard had in missing it," Geoffrion said. "The Rocket never held a grudge against me. It wasn't my fault that Rocket got suspended."
Geoffrion had his most prolific season in 1960-61, when won the scoring title with 95 points and dueled with the Toronto Maple Leafs' Frank Mahovlich for the most goals right down to the final games of the season. Geoffrion moved ahead, scoring his 49th goal against the Blackhawks, before the Canadiens faced the Maple Leafs at the Forum. Teammate Gilles Tremblay beat Toronto's Bob Pulford to the puck in the corner and passed it back to Geoffrion, who fired a slap shot - what else? - past Maple Leafs goaltender Cesare Maniago.
The goal, at 14:15 of the third period, made Geoffrion the first player besides Richard to hit the 50-goal mark, and resulted in a standing ovation from Canadiens fans.
All, finally, was forgiven.
"Let me tell you, that was exciting," said Geoffrion, who also won the Hart Trophy that season.
Playing with the likes of Rocket's brother Henri "Pocket Rocket" Richard, Jean Beliveau, Dickie Moore, Harvey, Tom Johnson and goaltender Jacques Plante - all of them Hall of Famers - Geoffrion was a mainstay on teams that were almost deities in skates in French-speaking Quebec, but his time with his hometown team did not end particularly well.
Effectively nudged into retirement to make room for a promising young player, Yvan Cournoyer, Geoffrion coached the Quebec Aces in the American Hockey League before returning to play two final seasons (1966-67, 67-68) with the New York Rangers and then going back behind the bench, coaching the Rangers, the Atlanta Flames and finally the Canadiens in 1979-80. Through 30 games, Geoffrion had significant success, leading Montreal to first place, but he found the experience deeply distressing, not just because of front-office interference, but because he felt his son, Danny, a 22-year-old rookie who was the Canadiens' first-round draft choice (No. 8) in 1978, was not getting a fair shot.
Losing weight and stressing constantly about his son, Geoffrion walked away from what he thought would be a dream job.
As the sting eased with the passage of time, Geoffrion reflected on all the wonderful things that came to him through hockey. He got to fulfill his childhood dream by playing for the Canadiens, and with his hero, Rocket Richard. He became a breakout star and Hall of Famer (inducted in 1972) who was a pivotal part of six Stanley Cup champions, with Montreal winning five titles in a row - a record that may never be touched. He even met his wife, Marlene - the daughter of Canadiens legend Howie Morenz - through hockey.
It seemed entirely fitting that on March 11, 2006, the night Geoffrion's No. 5 was hoisted to the rafters and officially retired by the Canadiens, it was placed next to Morenz's No. 7. Marlene and the family were all there, but sadly, Geoffrion had succumbed to stomach cancer hours earlier, leaving behind the legacy of his slap shot, and so much more.
"Tonight marks the realization of his life's dream and brings closure to a magnificent career," Danny Geoffrion said at the ceremony. "Dad, your family loves you more than you'll ever know."
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