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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Doug Harvey: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Six-time Stanley Cup champion keyed Canadiens' unstoppable power play

by Wayne Coffey / Special to NHL.com

At the NHL's annual meeting on June 6, 1956, league governors voted 5-1 to enact a rule change that would have a dramatic impact on how hockey would be played. Until that point, when a team had a man advantage, the power play would continue for the full duration of the penalty, even if the team scored a goal (or two, or three).

The trouble was that the Montreal Canadiens, possessors of arguably the greatest power play in League annals, would routinely carve up their undermanned opponents as if they were a Sunday roast, doing it with dazzling puck control and speed to match. Eight times during the 1955-56 season the Canadiens scored twice on power plays. Once, on Nov. 5, 1955, they scored three times in 44 seconds - all by Jean Beliveau - while having a 5-on-3 advantage against the Boston Bruins.

 

Video: Doug Harvey led Candiens' deadly power-play unit

 

And thus was Rule 26c born:

If while a Team is "short-handed" by one or more minor or bench minor penalties, the opposing Team scores a goal, the first of such penalties shall automatically terminate.

The change unofficially became known as "The Canadiens Rule," but might also have been called "The Doug Harvey Rule." While it would be silly to suggest that Harvey, who many regard as the greatest defenseman ever to play who's not named Orr, was the sole reason the Canadiens power play torched so many opponents, it's true that Harvey was its unquestioned hub, a selfless conductor who controlled the tempo of play and the backbeat of the game.

 

DOUG HARVEY CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,113 | Goals: 88 | Assists: 452 | Points: 540

 

Whether he was behind his own net or drawing a forechecker to him as he opened up ice for his forwards, Harvey was a master at knowing when to speed the tempo up, and when to slow it down, braiding a chess master's forethought with a streetfighter's grit.

Above all, Harvey prized possession of the puck. He was not a guy who was going to bang it off the boards and hope for the best. What was the chance of something bad happening if the puck was on a teammate's stick?

"I'm not throwing any pucks away," Harvey said. "I'm trying to do what's best for the team. That's why I take my time and make the play."

Tom Johnson was Harvey's longtime defensive partner, and the Norris Trophy winner in 1958-59, the only season between 1954-55 and 1961-1962 that Harvey did not win it.

"He could have played center, he could have played left wing, he could have played goal," Johnson said. "There was no part of the game he couldn't do."

Born on Dec. 19, 1924 and raised in Montreal, the 5-foot-11, 187-pound Harvey was a standout in football and even more so in baseball, starring for the Ottawa team in the Border League for four seasons after serving in the Canadian Navy during World War II. Harvey hit .344 and was one of the most feared sluggers in the league, drawing interest from the Boston Braves, but there was no way he was going to be lured away from hockey, particularly after he helped the Montreal Royals win the Allan Cup as Canada's premier senior hockey team in 1947.

"Doug Harvey can skate with the best of them, is big enough to horse around with any of those NHL hard guys, handles his stick expertly and has a head on his shoulders," the Montreal Gazette reported. "He is also something of a blue line general and an organizing force for the Royals."

The scouting report turned out to be prophetic, as Harvey made the Canadiens out of training camp in 1947, replacing Frank Eddolls, who had been traded to the New York Rangers. Wearing Eddolls' No. 2 sweater, Harvey began what would become one of the most storied and influential careers in Canadiens history, a run that not only included six Stanley Cup titles, but almost unprecedented two-way dominance, as Harvey's skillful puck-carrying and surgical attacks made him a dynamic force on the vaunted 'Firewagon Hockey' attack.

Though he never scored more than nine goals in a season, Harvey had seven seasons with 30 or more assists, showing an unerring gift for setting up such big Montreal guns as Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Dickie Moore, Bernie "Boom-Boom" Geoffrion and Beliveau.

"He changed the whole game," Geoffrion said.

Geoffrion's opinion was virtually unanimous, which explains why Harvey was a first-team NHL All-Star 10 times and set a record (later eclipsed by Bobby Orr) by winning seven Norris Trophies. About the only thing Canadiens GM Frank Selke didn't like about Harvey was his unyielding and sometimes even fierce negotiating style when it was time to renew his contract. In an era when most players took what they were given, Harvey pushed hard for what he knew he was worth as the league's premier defenseman, and along with Detroit's Ted Lindsay, questioned NHL owners about how the players' pension funds were being handled.

Dissatisfied with the response and convinced there would be strength in numbers, Harvey and Lindsay reached out to possible allies on the other four teams and moved ahead with an effort to form a players' association.

"We figured we could do better by the pension plans if we had an association and our own legal advisors, so we started banding together," Harvey said.

League owners, predictably, were less than enthused about the fledgling union, and faster than you can say "Norma Rae," the association dissolved and Harvey and Lindsay, an eight-time All-Star and a future Hall of Fame player, found themselves on new teams, Lindsay traded to the Chicago Blackhawks and Harvey to the New York Rangers on June 13, 1961.

In return for Harvey, the Canadiens received defenseman Lou Fontinato, a 30-year-old enforcer who led the league in penalty minutes in his first season in Montreal. Denying the trade had anything to do with Harvey's union activities, Selke insisted the 36-year-old Harvey was not the player he had once been, not the most credible argument after Harvey won the Norris Trophy in his first season with the Rangers (1961-62).

To Harvey, who was named player-coach of the Rangers in his first season, Selke's motivation was as transparent as a piece of Plexiglas.

"It had to do with union activities," Harvey said. "I was a first-team All-Star and won the Norris that year. You don't give away a player like that."

 

It was Harvey's seventh and final Norris Trophy. He helped the Rangers finish 26-32-12 and earn the team's first postseason berth in four years, but asked out of coaching duties after one season, preferring to be able "to go out and take a beer with the boys."

Harvey played one more year with the Rangers, and then was left unprotected in the 1963 intra-league draft, beginning a period in which he played for three American Hockey League teams before finishing his career at the age of 44 with the St. Louis Blues in 1968-69. He made one last visit to the Forum when the Blues faced the Canadiens for a second straight year in the Stanley Cup Final, but the Canadiens won the title in a four-game sweep.

It was a fitting venue to wrap things up for a kid from Montreal who is almost universally acclaimed to be the greatest defenseman in the fabled history of the Canadiens, a stature not at all diminished by the sad end to his life.

Harvey, a hard-living man, died of cirrhosis of the liver a week after he turned 65. The date was Dec. 26, 1989, almost a quarter-century after league governors instituted "The Canadiens Rule," in a bold attempt to mitigate the impact of the game's greatest power play, an exquisite ensemble of hockey harmony and dominance, conducted, as ever, by No. 2, Doug Harvey.

The only team that voted against the rule change was the Canadiens. It was the team that had Richard and Beliveau and Geoffrion and Moore up front, and the peerless Harvey at the point, so how could Frank Selke not be outraged?

"In all the years of Detroit's dominance, and their almighty power play, there was no suggestion of such a change," Selke said. "Now the Canadiens have finally built one, and you want to introduce a rule to weaken it? Go get a power play of your own!"

 

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