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Stanley Cup 125th Anniversary

Yvan Cournoyer won't forget one that got away

Canadiens legend looks back on 10 Stanley Cup championships, elusive 11th, as hockey's greatest prize turns 125

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

Editor's note: The Stanley Cup turns 125 years old on March 18. To celebrate the historic anniversary, NHL.com talked to the players and coaches who dedicated their lives to winning the Stanley Cup, some succeeding, some failing, but all with incredible stories about their quest for hockey's ultimate prize.

MONTREAL -- As a boy growing up in Drummondville, Quebec, 60 miles northeast of the Montreal Forum, Yvan Cournoyer had an even bigger dream than winning the Stanley Cup.

It was to become a member of the Montreal Canadiens.

In 1979, the bullet-fast skater they called the "Roadrunner" would have his name tapped into hockey's holy grail for a 10th time, retiring that spring having played all 968 of his NHL games for the Canadiens over 16 seasons.

"I dreamed first of playing for the Montreal Canadiens, my team," Cournoyer said. "Once I got there (full time in 1964-65), the dream became winning the Stanley Cup. I learned that it's nice when you make the team but you have to work much harder to win the Cup.

"After you win, you feel like you're the best in the world. It's what every team wants. Look at the Pittsburgh Penguins (with two championships) in the 1990s, the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers (with four each) in the 1980s. You have the feeling that you'll win more than once. It's so nice, so good, the summer is so fantastic. You're proud to be the best in the NHL."

Cournoyer arrived in Montreal with the Junior Canadiens in the early 1960s, scoring four goals in his first five NHL games as a call-up in 1963-64. He would see just spot duty in his early years, used mostly on power plays by coach Toe Blake, but in time would develop into not just a brilliant forward who skated like he'd been fired out of a cannon, but the Canadiens captain for the final four seasons of his career.

Often playing badly injured, Cournoyer was part of Stanley Cup winners in 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1969, then again in 1971, 1973 and, as captain, four straight between 1976 and 1979. Cournoyer returned from 1977 back surgery to play a key role in Montreal's 1978 title, before a second back operation during his final season limited him to 15 games and forced his retirement, his name engraved on the Stanley Cup one last time.

Only former teammate Henri Richard, with 11 championships, has more as a player than the 10 shared by Cournoyer and the Canadiens' late, legendary icon Jean Béliveau.

Every Stanley Cup title, Cournoyer says, is special in its own way. But it's one that got away in 1967, the favored Canadiens upset in six games by the Toronto Maple Leafs, that he will never forget.

"We were sure we'd win -- we thought we had a better team and we knew they were older than us," Cournoyer recalled. "I don't remember all the Stanley Cups I won year by year, but I remember 1967 all the time.

"When you've already won the Cup (which the Canadiens had the previous two years), you think you're going to win it again. The mistake we made is that we didn't respect the Leafs. It was a good lesson for me to think, 'Hey, I know you can win the Stanley Cup, but you're going to have to work harder for it.'"

If 1967 slipped through Cournoyer's fingers, 1976 did not. The Hockey Hall of Famer includes among his most cherished memories the Canadiens' stunning Stanley Cup Final sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers that season -- not just for the title, but for what it perhaps meant more widely to the team.

The clenched-fist Flyers, who finished the 1975-76 regular season with 118 points, second-best to Montreal's 127, were two-time defending League champions and they proudly brought their Broad Street Bullies reputation into the Final.

"I think our winning as we did changed the game a little bit," Cournoyer said. "We had to win against them. They had a team built to intimidate and I think if we lost, many teams might have tried to copy how they were built, since they'd already won the Cup in 1974 and 1975 with that kind of play.

"We felt that all the other teams in the NHL wanted us to win. Everyone going into their building knew it was rough and there would be a lot of fights."

The speedy Canadiens defeated the Flyers 4-3 and 2-1 in Montreal. Then before Games 3 and 4 in Philadelphia, they brazenly sang along with Kate Smith, who in important games whipped the Spectrum crowd and the Flyers into a frenzy with her booming pregame rendition of "God Bless America."

Montreal earned 3-2 and 5-3 victories against the Flyers, whose fans were less than overjoyed when gloves didn't hit the ice during the final two games, the home team taking a tame 12 minor penalties to the Canadiens' 11.

"I don't think I've ever seen a team as ready for a series as we were for that one," Cournoyer said.

In his early seasons, a team needed to win eight playoff games to capture the Stanley Cup. That would become 12 and 14 in different formats following 1967 and later expansions, to the 16 victories required today. 

"And it's not just about winning 16 games," Cournoyer said. "Every single game is the most important, and it's every shift you play in that one game. And then you do that 16 times (and as many as 28). People don't realize how hard it is to win the Stanley Cup. You suffer because you play hurt."

As well as anyone, Cournoyer knows pain, his back finally pushing him out of hockey while his game was still in great shape.

The Stanley Cup, he said, "is so beautiful," as is what it means to hockey and the men who play for it. If the work involved to reach that perfect destination is beyond calculation, there is that magical instant, especially for a captain, when the sterling tower is placed in your hands.

"It's the nicest trophy in the world," Cournoyer said, and then he laughed.

"And I can tell you, at that moment, no matter how exhausted you are, it's not very heavy at all."

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