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100 Greatest Players

Bob Gainey: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Defensive forward big part of Canadiens dynasty in late 1970s, only man to win Selke Trophy four times

by Stu Hackel / Special to

He had a two-inch gash on his forehead, a few inches above his left eyebrow. The eyebrow itself was stitched and swollen, but he seemed unconcerned. He smiled wearily but broadly, surrounded by rejoicing, white-shirted teammates and a gaggle of cameramen. PA announcer Claude Mouton elicited a huge roar from the Montreal Forum crowd, proclaiming the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1979 was "Robert … 'Bob' … Gainey!"

Celebrating that news, the players lifted Gainey on their shoulders, and the crowd's roar heightened. Still smiling but eyes down, clearly embarrassed by the attention, he half-waved to the crowd as Serge Savard handed him the Stanley Cup. He hoisted it over his head, photographs were snapped and the crowd roared even louder.


Video: Bob Gainey is only four-time Selke winner


As much as any gesture, that indicates the esteem the Montreal Canadiens had for Bob Gainey's play and leadership for 16 seasons.

"I can't think of anyone on our team who means more to us than Gainey," Savard said during the late '70s. "A few guys like Larry Robinson, Guy Lafleur and Guy Lapointe mean as much. But they're not more important than Gainey."

He was a cornerstone of the Montreal dynasty between 1976 and 1979, when the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup four consecutive times, and later their captain for eight years, including in 1985-86, when they recaptured the Cup. But Gainey was hardly a prolific scorer -- he finished with 239 goals and 501 points in 1,160 NHL games. What he did better than any forward of his generation was stop the opposition's prolific scorers.


Games: 1,160 | Goals: 239 | Assists: 262 | Points: 501


At age 24 in 1977-78, his fourth full NHL season, Gainey was the first recipient of the Frank Selke Trophy, given to the League's top defensive forward. He won the next three as well, and is the only four-time Selke winner. Had the award been around earlier, he might have won six or seven straight. Then he was runner-up in 1981-82 and remained a top 10 vote-getter for the next four seasons.

During that '70s dynasty, the Canadiens' mighty offense, led by Lafleur, grabbed the headlines, but Montreal also allowed the fewest goals in the League in each of its four straight championship seasons.

"They're the best-checking team in history, and Gainey's the key to it all," Boston forward Bobby Schmautz told Sports Illustrated after Montreal swept the Boston Bruins in the 1977 Cup Final, capping a remarkable season in which the Canadiens lost only 10 of 94 games (including the playoffs).

A year earlier, Gainey had spearheaded the Canadiens' smothering defense, which shut down the two-time defending champion Flyers and helped capture the Cup. Philadelphia had averaged a League-best 4.35 goals a game during the regular season and roughly the same in the playoffs -- until the Final, where Montreal limited them to nine goals in the four-game sweep. Discussing Gainey and his cohorts, Flyers winger Gary Dornhoefer said, "They've checked us so closely that you can tell what brand of deodorant they're using."

Gainey was still at it a decade later, leading the charge against the Calgary Flames in the 1986 Cup Final. After dropping Game 1, the Canadiens turned up the heat on the Flames in Game 2, when Gainey came out slamming every Calgary player in sight. "It got to the point where none of us wanted to touch the puck when Bob was on the ice," Doug Risebrough, one of the great '70s Montreal checkers but then with the Flames, told Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber years later. Gainey's checking proved contagious. "The Canadiens were watching Bob," Risebrough said, "and pretty soon [Brian] Skrudland started hitting and [Claude] Lemieux started hitting." Montreal won Game 2, turning the series in its favor, and won the series in five games.

His exceptionally fast and powerful skating propelled his solid 6-foot, 190-pound frame, and the curly-haired Gainey effectively shadowed the top high-scoring wings of the era, pounding and grinding them down to ineffectiveness. His "hockey smarts" allowed him to seal off the middle of the neutral zone, clogging the passing lanes, forcing turnovers that prematurely cut down enemy attacks. And his forechecking caused defensemen to move the puck quicker than they wanted.

"He took me off my game and made me play too quickly against Montreal," defenseman Denis Potvin of the New York Islanders said after they were eliminated by the Canadiens in the '77 playoffs. "I don't think I played nearly as well at a Bob Gainey tempo as I did [at my own]."

"His forechecking was exceptional," said Scotty Bowman, Gainey's coach in Montreal for six seasons. "He was so fast, he could get in on the defenseman -- and then he could get back. His back pressure as a back checker was always strong. He could hound teams up and down the ice. He could skate for miles; he could skate forever. It seemed like he never got tired."

Add to Gainey's attributes his marvelous penalty-killing. He was paired with Doug Jarvis as the first two Bowman sent over the boards. And for all his aggressive play, Gainey didn't take too many penalties.

Little wonder that the legendary Soviet Union coach Viktor Tikhonov praised Gainey during the 1981 Canada Cup, calling him "technically the most complete player in the world." Tikhonov, however, had to contend with Gainey as a rival, while Bowman had him on his side.

"Gainey is adept at neutralizing rival stars," Sports Illustrated's Jerry Kirshenbaum wrote in 1978. "Gainey has played against the NHL's hottest right wings -- the Mike Bossys, Rene Roberts, Danny Gares and Lanny McDonalds. The only high-scoring right wing who has escaped Gainey's attention is teammate Lafleur. Lucky Lafleur."

Not so. Gainey and Lafleur frequently went head-to-head during Canadiens scrimmages and, as Bowman recalled: "We had as many good scrimmages as we had games in some of those years. I think it helped Lafleur as a scorer and I think it helped Gainey. If you're checking Lafleur in a practice and you're doing pretty good, you can probably play against most guys."

Gainey scored 20 goals once during Bowman's tenure. "He didn't really care about his production," Bowman said. "Not scoring 20 goals was never a concern for him. He probably could have produced more offensively, but his role and duties were the responsibility of playing against the other team's best winger. That's what he did -- and he liked it."

Born Dec. 13, 1953, to George and Anne Gainey, Bob grew up in the hockey hotbed of Peterborough, Ontario. He credited George, a World War II veteran who punched the clock for 41 years at the local Quaker Oats factory, for inspiring his work ethic. Anne told author Ed Arnold for his book "Hockey Town" that she'd wheel baby Robert in his carriage to an outdoor rink where he'd sit and watch her skate. Perhaps that inspired him, too. She said he became "a fanatic" about hockey.

He was always "Robert" at home, but they called him "Bob" on the ice. He began as a 7-year-old defenseman for his church team and advanced through Peterborough's minor hockey program. At 15 he moved to forward and blossomed, playing a key role in getting his midget and juvenile teams to compete for championships in the same season, 1969-70, and already shadowing future NHL players like Rick Middleton, Eric Vail and Don Lever. "By then," Arnold wrote, "Gainey had become a dominant force, with size, his powerful skating style, fearlessness, bashing and excellent hockey sense."

He moved up to junior hockey with the Peterborough Petes, coached by the legendary Roger Neilson. "Playing for the Petes with a coach like Roger, who structured the Petes in team play, fit my style," Gainey told Arnold. "That was good for me." Gainey's checking got him named team MVP as the Petes won the Ontario Hockey Association title and a trip to the Memorial Cup final in '72. The next year, with Gainey injured, the Petes lost in the OHA final. 

Although Gainey was offensively limited, Canadiens executive Claude Ruel, who'd been watching closely, didn't care. "We had so many good players coming through the pipeline, but they were all scorers," Ruel said. "We lacked size. He was a good player, but he had no stats at all. If a guy didn't score goals in junior, you usually didn't draft him. I'd bet no one else had him ranked in the first round."

But Montreal did, selecting him No. 8 in the 1973 NHL Draft, eliciting more than a few "Bob who?" questions. He'd pour everything into the team. He'd work hard to improve his shot, have three 20-goal seasons in the '80s and occasionally contribute a critical goal. When he won the Conn Smythe in '79, his six goals and 10 assists in 16 games were third-best on the Canadiens, and he shut down the top scorers on the New York Rangers, Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs.

Beyond the stats, Gainey dispensed and epitomized toughness. The countless gashes and stitches were nothing: in 1984, as was typical, he played a series against the Islanders with one shoulder separated and the other dislocated. Like his father, he punched the clock every day.

"No player I ever covered has ever worked harder, hit harder or played through as much pain," Red Fisher wrote in the Montreal Gazette. "No player I have ever known has led better by example."

That's how Bob Gainey ended up on his teammates' shoulders.


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