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Cournoyer ready for latest in lifetime litany of surgeries

Hockey Hall of Famer to have operations on hands that scored 428 goals during 16 NHL seasons

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- Yvan Cournoyer will sign numerous autographs on his way into a Montreal hospital on July 3. The best he'll be able to do on his way out a few hours later is wave to his fans.

Cournoyer, a 10-time Stanley Cup champion, will have surgery on both hands. The left will be tweaked to increase flexibility in a thumb that's been rigid since a January wrist operation; two fingers on the right will be operated on to address carpal tunnel syndrome.

"The Roadrunner," as the Montreal Canadiens forward and Hockey Hall of Famer was nicknamed for his blazing speed, adds to a lifetime list of surgeries that now numbers about 15, though he admits he's lost track and the total could be higher.

"I don't count the scopes to my right knee," Cournoyer said with a laugh a few days before reporting for his latest surgical work, joking that he has a season ticket to the operating theater.

A robust keg of dynamite as a player whose massive legs gave him an explosive stride, the 75-year-old could be the real-life version of the kids game "Operation," which lets players use tweezers to remove everything from the "Adam's Apple" to the "Wish Bone."

With 178 pounds on his 5-foot-7 frame, Cournoyer played 968 regular-season and 147 playoff games from 1964-79, and was Montreal's captain during his final four seasons. He scored 428 NHL goals, plus 64 in the postseason, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility.

From memory, Cournoyer brightly does the hospital-gown inventory:

• Left shoulder operated on twice, first to "have some junk cleaned up" and again in 2005 for the insertion of an eight-inch titanium rod.

• Four back surgeries; two during his 16-year career, two more afterward.

• Right shoulder rebuilt in 2017.

• Left knee surgically repaired twice, fully replaced in 2006.

• A wrist operation earlier this year, and soon two more on his hands.

• A broken nose, broken collarbone, torn Achilles tendon "and other things I'm probably forgetting. And the knee scopes that I don't count."

It's the nature of NHL players to skate through discomfort for the good of their team, especially during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Cournoyer entered the 1973 postseason with a torn abdominal muscle, an injury he had numbed by an injection in his stomach before each of the Canadiens' 17 playoff games. He finished with 25 points (15 goals, 10 assists) to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs while leading Montreal to the championship.

While growing up, and during many offseasons, Cournoyer spent long hours developing formidable strength in his wrists and forearms by shooting heavy steel pucks that had been fashioned in his father's machine shop. But he believes it's simple wear and tear that brings him to the scalpel now.

"I've learned that many people have carpal tunnel just from typing or writing," he said of the syndrome caused when a nerve of the hand is pinched or compressed travelling through the wrist. "We use our hands every day of our lives. I played baseball, football, and there's been lots of golf. When you're 75, things catch up on you."

Indeed, the greatest inconvenience now is that the problems with Cournoyer's hands have kept him off his beloved golf course. He's played just nine holes so far this year; by now, he'd normally have played at least three times a week from the moment the last snow had melted.

"The more you golf, the more you want to play," he said. "But if you're hurt and you don't play, you don't feel like playing. It's no fun. Golf is hard enough when you're in shape. I don't want to use an injury as an excuse. If I'm no good, it's because of me. I don't want to complain on the golf course. I want to blame myself and not bother anybody."

As he spoke, a gardening crew of four was on his property north of Montreal, trimming cedars.

"I know my limits," he joked.

Cournoyer doesn't think he'll be doing much work around the house for a couple of weeks after his hand surgeries, saying that because he won't be able to drive for a bit, he'd be getting his wife, Evelyn, a chauffeur's cap and white gloves.

Evelyn never misses the chance for a reply, joking that with all the metal in her husband's bionic body, he'd be a good candidate for recycling.

Cournoyer remains a hugely popular figure in Montreal and far beyond, a Canadiens ambassador for two decades who is in constant demand on the banquet circuit, unable to walk more than a few feet without being stopped for photos or an autograph.

That will be the case at the Montreal hospital to which he'll report on July 3, "especially because everyone there is about my age," he said with a grin.

"Look, not one of my operations has been life-threatening. You fight through it, get better and keep going."

Then, laughing again: "Until the next one."

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