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Carbonneau embraced defensive role with Canadiens on way to Hall of Fame

Class of 2019 member won Selke Trophy three times, helped slow down Gretzky in 1993 Final

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

Guy Carbonneau walked outside to take the call, not recognizing the number from the 416 area code, and within a minute he was in tears.

"My wife came outside and found me crying, and she thought that maybe my mother had died," Carbonneau said, recalling the events of June 25. "It was Lanny and John, and they had just said, 'How's the day going?' and I replied, 'Well, it looks like it's going pretty good right now.'"

It had been Hockey Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald on the phone from Toronto, calling with John Davidson, the Hall's selection committee chairman, to tell Carbonneau that he'd been elected to the shrine as a member of the Class of 2019.


[RELATED: Carbonneau's versatility made him Hockey Hall of Famer, Gainey says]


"It's emotional," Carbonneau said. "You never dream of it but when it happens, it's huge. The call lasted maybe five minutes, long enough for Lanny and J.D. to congratulate me."

Carbonneau had long ago stopped wondering whether the call would come from the Hall of Fame. Forty years after he was a third-round selection (No. 44) of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1979 NHL Draft, and 19 years after he played the last of his 1,318 NHL games, he is going into the Hall of Fame.

The 59-year-old is a three-time Stanley Cup champion and three-time winner of the Selke Trophy, voted the best defensive forward in the NHL in 1988, 1989 and 1992. He had 663 points (260 goals, 403 assists) in 19 NHL seasons.

Carbonneau is one of five children born to Mary Ferguson, who will be at her son's Hall of Fame induction, and the late Charles-Aime Carbonneau, who died 20 years ago, six weeks before Carbonneau won his third Stanley Cup title. He was born and raised in in Sept-Iles, Quebec, a small port city at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence Seaway almost 600 miles northeast of the city where he became a star. To a young boy, the Montreal Forum seemed an impossible distance away, geographically and realistically.

Guy Carbonneau, age 15 as a midget-age player in Sept-Iles, and a few years later as captain with major-junior Chicoutimi.

Drafted in 1976 by Chicoutimi of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Carbonneau left home at age 16 to play 350 miles away in a city most famous as the birthplace of Georges Vezina, a pioneering Canadiens goalie.

"Jean Beliveau was the name I heard a lot as a boy," he said of the iconic 10-time Stanley Cup-winning center and former Canadiens captain. "As I got a little older, it was Yvan Cournoyer, Henri Richard and the Flower (Guy Lafleur)."

Carbonneau tore up the QMJHL in his third of four seasons with Chicoutimi, finishing with 141 points (62 goals, 79 assists) in 72 games.

"I got a call the day of the 1979 NHL Draft from Prof [Ron] Caron or Claude Ruel," he said of Caron, a Canadiens scout and assistant general manager, and Ruel, Montreal's director of player development. "They asked if I'd be happy if the Canadiens drafted me, and that was it. So, I went to play golf in Chicoutimi."

Guy Carbonneau prepares a stick for use in Chicoutimi.

Midway through the round, someone found Carbonneau on a fairway and drove him back to a clubhouse telephone; according to radio reports of the low-key draft being held in a Montreal hotel, he had been chosen by the Canadiens.

"I finished the round, but I have no idea how I played," he said with a laugh.

Carbonneau had not set foot in the famous Forum until his first Canadiens training camp in the fall of 1979, a 19-year-old preparing for his final season with Chicoutimi.

"In Sept-Iles, we got the Saturday night game on TV, but to be honest, I'd rather have been playing hockey than watching it," he said.

There were no development or rookie camps then, no assessment days or scrimmages. Carbonneau simply showed up at the Forum for training camp. He remembers being blown away "by all the crazy history." 

Frozen in his memory are the photos of the Hall of Famers above the dressing-room benches, a gallery that on Nov. 20, two nights after his induction, he will join at Bell Centre when his portrait is added. That evening, with the Canadiens home to the Ottawa Senators, he'll also to be added to the arena's upper-bowl Ring of Honor which celebrates every enshrined Canadiens player and builder.

"My first practice that camp, I had Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt as my wingers. I didn't touch the puck. Or if I did, I didn't want to," he said of the forwards who helped the Canadiens to their fourth consecutive championship in 1978-79 with a combined 206 points (89 goals, 117 assists).

Carbonneau impressed Canadiens brass, who told him to return to junior and focus on defense. He did that by scoring 182 points (72 goals, 110 assists) in 1979-80. Twice more he returned to Canadiens camps, each time returning to Montreal's American Hockey League affiliate in Nova Scotia, told to work on his two-way game.

After scoring 88 points in 1980-81 and 94 points in 1981-82, Carbonneau wondered whether his time in Montreal would ever come.

"At that point, I'm either playing in the NHL or I wanted to be traded," he said.

And in September 1982, the Canadiens traded forwards Doug Risebrough and Doug Jarvis, making room for Carbonneau. But his first NHL season was a challenge, to say the least. Coach Bob Berry was publicly critical of the rookie center, who had been a generously used goal-scorer in junior and minor pro but was now an NHL checker playing single-digit minutes.

It was when Jacques Lemaire succeeded Berry with 17 games remaining in the 1983-84 season that Carbonneau's NHL career turned a corner.

"We had some injuries, and I had started killing some penalties with Bob," he said. "Things were doing good. But when Jacques came up, he's the one who said to me, 'This is what I'd like you to do. My idea is to play you against the best players, but you'll have to be careful.'"

Carbonneau embraced the defensive role, never seeing his rebranding as a slap at his offensive skills. Play well without the puck, he reasoned, and offensive opportunities would present themselves, if not for him, then for his wings.

"I could have said, 'I wish the Canadiens had let me be a goal-scorer, somebody who put points on the board,'" he said. "For me, all I wanted was to play. To be on the ice, not on the bench. That defensive role gave me the chance to play 20 minutes a game."

Carbonneau was absorbing hockey IQ every day from Bob Gainey, the Canadiens captain from 1981-89. Gainey was voted winner of the Selke Trophy the first four times it was awarded (1978-81), and he, Carbonneau and rugged forward Chris Nilan formed a robust line in Montreal.

Carbonneau won his first of three Stanley Cup titles in 1986. He graduated to the Canadiens captaincy upon Gainey's retirement, sharing the honor with defenseman Chris Chelios in 1989-90, then having the duties alone from 1990 until he was traded to the St. Louis Blues following the 1993-94 season. Carbonneau was captain when the Canadiens won the Cup in 1993, their 24th and most recent championship.

That 1993 Stanley Cup Final against the Los Angeles Kings was his defining moment.

Center Wayne Gretzky had four points in Game 1 (two goals, two assists), a 4-1 Los Angeles win in which The Great One skated circles around Canadiens checking.

"Give me Gretzky," Carbonneau told coach Jacques Demers before Game 2, and Demers did so every chance his line matchups permitted.

In the remaining four games, Gretzky scored three points (one goal, two assists).

"That defined me because that's the way I am," Carbonneau said. "My idea was to have Gretzky so that (forwards) Kirk Muller and [Vincent Damphousse] could do what they wanted to do. Look, if I don't score, I don't care. But if Wayne doesn't score, then our chances are better, and Kirk and Vinnie can play more offense and not worry about it. I've always had confidence in what I can do."

Evidently, Gretzky didn't hold a grudge, sending a glowing text message to Carbonneau upon his Hall of Fame election.

"I don't remember what Wayne said to me in the handshake line," Carbonneau said with a laugh. "But he told me in his text that he was happy for me. That's the beauty of our sport. We're all trying to do the same thing, and that's win. Winning is different for everybody. I needed to play well defensively. Over the years, all the email and voicemail and texts that I've got, one thing that's come back a lot is respect."

Carbonneau played the 1994-95 season in St. Louis. It wasn't easy moving his wife, Line, and young daughters, Anne-Marie and Kristina, for what was almost a family pitstop. But he enjoyed his time in St. Louis that led to a trade to the Dallas Stars, his final NHL team. Acquired by former linemate Gainey, then the Stars general manager, Carbonneau won his third championship in 1999.

He played his final season in 1999-2000, throwing away virtually all of his equipment when the Stars lost a six-game Stanley Cup Final to the New Jersey Devils. 

"I told everybody, 'Guys, thank you. It was a good ride, but I'm done,'" Carbonneau said. "That year, I told my wife at Christmas that I was done. The day of a game, I was like a kid. But between games, I had no patience. I wasn't having any fun. I didn't want to go through another year of that."

But his final season was memorable for a special reason. A 1999-2000 Stars teammate, future Dallas captain Brenden Morrow, married Anne-Marie Carbonneau in 2002, the couple raising three children. Both daughters live in Dallas, and Morrow is expected to play with his father-in-law in the Haggar Hall of Fame Legends Classic at Scotiabank Arena on Nov. 17 during induction weekend in Toronto.

In 2006, the paths of Gainey and Carbonneau crossed again. Gainey, then the Canadiens GM, hired Carbonneau to coach the team each had been captain of, then fired him with 16 games remaining in 2008-09. His overall record was 124-83-23, and he guided the Canadiens to an Eastern Conference-leading 104 points in 2007-08.

Carbonneau recently signed a three-year contract with French-language network RDS, where he is a studio analyst. The network scheduled him to work the Canadiens game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Nov. 19, the night after his four-day Hall of Fame induction weekend that will keep him running from dawn until well past dark. 

Good-natured negotiations for the night off went nowhere, he joked, so Carbonneau will work that shift, be on Bell Centre ice the following night to be feted pregame by the team and the crowd, then head off on a vacation with his wife.

"When I grew up and started to enjoy hockey, the dream was to play in the NHL," Carbonneau said. "I don't think, when you're a kid, that you dream of being in the Hall of Fame. That's something that comes later. After I retired, I sat down and started thinking about what I accomplished. I was lucky to win three Stanley Cups and three Selke trophies. At one point, I was the best in my profession. I thought I had a chance. A small chance."

A two-decade wait, he'll tell you since that emotional phone call from area code 416, was worth every second.

Photos: Dave Stubbs/HHoF Images/Getty Images

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