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Canadiens mark may stand the test of time

by Randy Schultz
Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau
Hall of Famers Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau pose with the Stanley Cup in 1958.
Jean Beliveau figures one of his records is going to stay in the book for a very long time.

"I don't know if anyone will ever break our record of five straight Stanley Cup championships. I know it has been said that records are made to be broken, but with the NHL, the way it is set up today with free agency and all, it will be hard for one team to have a run at five straight Stanley Cups."

Those are the feelings of Hockey Hall of Fame great, Jean Beliveau, of the Montreal Canadiens' streak of five straight Stanley Cup Championships won between 1956 and 1960. Beliveau, who played for the Canadiens for 18 seasons (1953-71), was a member of that five-season run.

When the New York Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups between 1980-83, it brought up the debate as to who was the greatest team of all time. After all, the Canadiens of 1976-79 had won four straight as well. But the standard by which both teams are judged is the team that won five Cups, the 1956-60 Canadiens.

Over that span, the Canadiens sported a regular-season record of 198-95-57. Interestingly, the Canadiens had a better regular-season record in 1960-61 (42-14-14), the year their dynasty ended at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, than during any of the seasons they won the Cup.

During their five-year reign, the Canadiens compiled an astounding playoff mark of 40-9. Islander supporters note their team had to win twice as many series a year to nab the Cup. Hab boosters retort that the NHL of the 1950s contained more quality teams. But, in fact, the game was vastly different in the two eras, and comparisons are quite difficult.

The "Club de Hockey Canadien" always has been a dominate force in professional hockey. Dominated by tradition, they are well-known to millions of hockey fans throughout the world.

Frank Selke, a Hockey Hall of Famer, was general manager of the team. It was Selke who set up the farm system that provided the parent team with the talent it needed to win five Cups in-a-row.

Another Hall of Famer was coach Hector "Toe" Blake, who ruled the Canadiens with an "iron fist and a velvet glove."

This season marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of that great Stanley Cup run. Many memories of those great years have been kept alive by players like Beliveau, one of the most fabled of all Canadien players. Like many of his former teammates, Beliveau believes that it was the fans at the Montreal Forum who pushed their team to greatness.

"They were always critical of us," recalled Beliveau. "But we all accepted that as part of the job. I know that the late Rocket Richard felt that way. He always felt that no matter how he performed, he could always do better for them. And I think that's what he always tried to do.

"I think it was that way for some other players as well. We all knew that there was no other bottom line that the Stanley Cup. There is no doubt that playing in Montreal, there was a lot of pressure. The fans did get tough. Some nights, they're even worse. I might have scored three goals and people would ask 'why didn't you score four?' Another night I would score four and they would ask 'why didn't you score five?'

"It was the same way when we kept winning the Cup. The fans just expected us to do it every year. We did it for five straight, but lost out in the sixth. The fans weren't satisfied. We just couldn't win."

Kevyn Adams, who plays for the Carolina Hurricanes, this June appeared in his second Stanley Cup Final with the team in four years. He has seen just how difficult it was for the Hurricanes just to get there twice.

"It isn't easy," Adams said. "That's when I hear about the Canadiens winning five in-a-row, it's amazing. I don't care what era it was in. It doesn't matter if you had to win eight or 16 games in the playoffs, it's still a hard record to achieve."

Beliveau won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, was the league's leading scorer during the first year of the reign, was an NHL first team All-Star center four of the five years, and second team the other year. That year, the first team All-Star was teammate Henri "The Pocket Rocket" Richard, Maurice's younger brother.

Jean Beliveau
Beliveau was a top-flight scorer and leader on a very talented Canadiens squad.

"Probably the main reason the team was so strong was because of the farm system," Beliveau said. "We had so many good players and we were so well-balanced, both offensively and defensively. The forward lines were all shooters. That's why our goal scoring ability was so explosive. That's why it was no surprise that we led the NHL in goals each of those five seasons we won the Cup."

Beliveau admits that rules were different for teams back then.

"The power play was much different than it is now," Beliveau said. "The player being penalized from the opposing team would remain in the box no matter how many goals we scored. Sometimes we could score two or three goals with the man advantage. Because of us, that rule was eventually changed (which it was following the 1956 Cup Final)."

The former captain of the Canadiens pointed out that it was also a team effort by the Canadiens that won so many Cups.

"Many players to put personal goals aside for team success," Beliveau said. "Like Ralph Backstrom. He played most of his career at center behind myself and Henri Richard. He could have been a star on many other teams. But he stayed with us. We really didn't make too many changes with players over that period of time. Once you made the team you were on it. It was tough for young players to make our team.

"I would say that our farm teams were almost as strong as we were at times. Many could have played in the NHL right away, but just couldn't break into our lineup."

Beliveau also pointed out that the Canadiens had a very strong defense, led by the legendary Doug Harvey on the blue line and anchored by Jacques Plante in the nets.

"Doug was the best defenseman I ever saw play the game," Beliveau said. "Nobody could control the game the way he did. He could slow things down or speed them up.

"Jacques was the best. He could do so many things well. He had a good glove hand and great reflexes. If there was a big game on the line, you could count on Jacques to come through."

"Gentleman Jean" summed up his feelings about the Canadiens of 1956-60.

"It is a record that I, along with the rest of the players from that era, are proud of. It is a great team record. It is one that just may stand the test of time."



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