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Geoffrion's gala night a bittersweet affair

by Staff
Geoffrion ceremony
Montreal Canadiens legend Bernie Geoffrion passed away hours before his number was to be formally retired at the Bell Centre.

Bernard Geoffrion was a man of his word. Marlene Morenz's first date with him was a night at the fights, a boxing card presented at The Forum. Looking up towards the rafters, the young right wing, already known as "Boom Boom" for his thundering slap shot, made the girl who would agree to become his wife a promise. His number would one day hang alongside that of her father, the legendary "Stratford Streak", Howie Morenz.

On Saturday March 11th, 2006, exactly 69 years after Morenz lay in state at center ice at the Forum, Geoffrion's promise was fulfilled. His family was there, wife, children and grandchildren. So were teammates from his glory years with the Montreal Canadiens and 21,000 fans intent on celebrating the career of one a hockey icon.

The only person missing was "The Boomer" himself, who succumbed to the ravages of stomach cancer in the early morning, just hours before what was scheduled to be the biggest day of his life.

Everything about Geoffrion was big, his shot, his voice, his heart and his injuries. He was one of the sparkplugs of the legendary Canadiens teams of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a live wire who kept fans on the edge of their seats.

In his first game with the big team he made a splash, scoring the first of the 451 goals he would record over 16 NHL years. The following season he scored 30, tops on the team and took home the Calder Trophy, given to the NHL's top rookie.

Other individual honors accrued during his playing years. Geoffrion led the League in scoring twice. He won the Art Ross Trophy in 1955, but it was a bittersweet triumph. With Maurice Richard suspended following the stick-swinging brawl with Hal Laycoe, Geoffrion surpassed "The Rocket" to claim the title despite the boos of Montreal fans more upset with NHL President Clarence Campbell than with the flamboyant right-winger.

Geoffrion played through numerous broken noses and picked up hundreds of stitches in his 16 years in the NHL, nothing unusual for the era, but kept coming back, always as strong and determined to give his all for the team.

He once had a teammate remove a cast from his leg and came back to play when he couldn't stand sitting idly by as a spectator any longer. In 1958, a collision in practice resulted in Geoffrion coming so close to death that he was administered the last rites of the Catholic Church. Told he was out for at least the rest of the season after life-saving surgery, "Boom Boom" was back in the harness within six weeks, ultimately scoring the goal that gave the Habs the Stanley Cup that spring.

In 1961, Geoffrion became the second man to score 50 goals in an NHL season, winning the Art Ross once again and also being declared the recipient of the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP.

Fiery and determined on the ice, Geoffrion was just as passionate away from the rink. When things were going well he was the life of the party, always in the thick of things when there was fun to be had. No one was safe from his wisecracks and shenanigans. A night on the town wasn't complete without "The Boomer" climbing onstage with the band, enthusiastically vocalizing for the enjoyment of all present.

A born entertainer, he provided welcome relief in the dressing room and during the long train trips between games.

"He made us all laugh," said Emile "Butch" Bouchard, Habs' captain during Geoffrion's early years with the team. "It's important to take the game seriously, but sometimes a good laugh is just as important."

A big part of six Stanley Cup victories and one of a dozen players who were a part of the five straight Montreal victories from 1956 to 1960, Geoffrion retired following the 1963-64 season. He took a job coaching the Quebec Aces of the AHL and led them to consecutive first-place finishes before being wooed back to active status with the New York Rangers.

After two seasons on the ice with the Blueshirts, Geoffrion retired and briefly took over the Rangers' bench. He was the coach of the Atlanta Flames, guiding the expansion franchise into the playoffs in his second season.

Bernie Geoffrion
Geoffrion, affectionately nicknamed "Boom Boom", played a big role in the Canadiens' six Stanley Cup victories during the 1950s.

He returned to the Canadiens, succeeding Scotty Bowman as coach, but resigned after only 30 games, returning to Atlanta, a town that had fallen in love with him and accepted him as one of their own. The affection was reciprocated and the Geoffrions have lived there ever since.

The news that the Canadiens were to honor his number came in October. As was his habit, Geoffrion took over things at the press conference announcing the retirements of his No. 5 and the No. 12 that both Dickie Moore and Yvan Cournoyer wore with distinction. He cracked jokes and traded good-natured insults with the assembled media members, showing that while he may have become older, he certainly hadn't changed.

Until the day before his number was retired, Geoffrion had planned on taking part in the festivities. He decided upon the date for the tribute, intentionally choosing a night when the Rangers were in town. He also maintained weekly contact with Réjean Houle, the Habs' point man for veteran affairs, adding to the list of relatives he wished to have in attendance and making sure everything was proceeding as it should.

A week before the big event he underwent routine surgery and doctors discovered his most recent ailment. On Friday, it was announced that Geoffrion, too weak to take part in the festivities, had entered a hospice, but insisted that the events take place as scheduled, not to mourn his imminent passing but to celebrate the joy he both got from and brought to those who knew him.

It was the one party Geoffrion wasn't able to liven up. With his wife, children and grandchildren seated on the ice, joined by numerous teammates, a film of his career highlights was shown with Sinatra's "My Way" never seeming a more appropriate soundtrack.

His sons addressed the crowd and the entire family lent a hand in hoisting the banner with the No. 5 up to the rafters where it took its place alongside the No. 7 retired since Howie Morenz's death almost 70 years ago.

A standing ovation lasting over four minutes built and swelled, fans repeatedly ignoring the MC Richard Garneau's attempts to continue the ceremony.

Bernard "Boom Boom" Geoffrion's greatest desire came true on Saturday evening, but despite his insistence that it was to be a happy occasion there were more than a few misty eyes in the house.



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