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100 Greatest Players

Yvan Cournoyer: 100 Greatest NHL Players

'Roadrunner' used blazing speed to help Canadiens win 10 Stanley Cup titles

by Stu Hackel / Special to

Beep-beep … Whooosh!

For every hockey writer, broadcaster and fan who had seen a "Looney Tunes" cartoon featuring the Road Runner, the nickname was a no-brainer. Time after time, the animated little desert bird leaves the bigger, would-be predator Wile E. Coyote in the dust, causing him one calamity after another. Anyone who saw the NHL's fastest skater of the 1960s and '70s blow past flailing checkers instantly understood that, with the twinkle in his eye and his seemingly perpetual smile, Yvan Cournoyer really was hockey's "Roadrunner."


Video: Yvan Cournoyer won 10 Stanley Cup titles in Montreal


In plain language, perhaps Chicago Black Hawks rookie defenseman John Marks captured Cournoyer best durng the 1973 Stanley Cup Final. The Black Hawks had just eliminated the New York Rangers, but now they were facing a Montreal Canadiens team that had a totally different dimension to their lineup. "One step," Marks told Sports Illustrated's Mark Mulvoy, "and Cournoyer is gone. I thought I'd be able to skate with him the way I skated with the Rangers, but he's something else. He just disappears on you."

Beep-beep … Whooosh!

The Canadiens were on their way to their 18th Stanley Cup championship, and the "Roadrunner" would finish the postseason with a playoff-record 15 goals and the Conn Smythe Trophy -- which, he said, was "pretty nice to win" after NHL President Clarence Campbell presented him with the hardware as postseason MVP. But it was the big silver mug his team won that truly excited the Canadiens' No. 12.


Games: 968 | Goals: 428 | Assists: 435 | Points: 863


Cournoyer had plenty of reasons to get truly excited during his 15-plus seasons in the NHL. He played on 10 Stanley Cup champions, the same number as his hero and mentor, Jean Beliveau, and one fewer than the all-time leader, his teammate and predecessor as Canadiens captain, Henri Richard.

But because, as Cournoyer himself said, "My game was to score goals," perhaps the Montreal great he most emulated was Maurice "Rocket" Richard. Both were left-handed shots playing right wing who seemed to find a higher gear and a ferocious hunger to score once they got inside the offensive zone. Richard did it with strength, near-maniacal determination and raw power; Cournoyer did it with his skating.

"His game is offense and his arsenal includes roadrunner speed, excellent maneuverability and, most important, a high-velocity slap shot," Stan Fischler wrote in 1971 (in one of the earliest comparisons of the player to the cunning bird) as Cournoyer was just entering his peak seasons.

"His style was pure inspiration and speed," Journal de Montreal columnist Bert Raymond said decades later on the TV series "Legends of Hockey." "There's no game plan for that kind of player. You give them the puck, you don't know what they're going to do with it, but you know they're going to get the job done."

And so he did. Cournoyer scored 25 goals or more for 11 consecutive seasons and 40 or more goals four times, including a high of 47 in 1971-72. Countless times he'd grab a pass in the neutral zone and leave a defender in his wake as he rushed in alone on the goaltender.

"His shot, his skating, everything about him is full speed," said Hall of Fame goalie Gump Worlsey, who was a teammate in Montreal and an opponent with the Minnesota North Stars. "How do you stop anybody like that?"

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Cournoyer's race to 428 goals and 435 assists in the NHL -- plus another 64 goals and 63 assists in the playoffs -- began with his first pair of skates when he was 7 years old back home in Drummondville, Quebec, also Beliveau's hometown. He loved playing hockey so much that he snagged a job at the local rink to get more ice time and would build up his leg muscles by shoveling snow off the ice sheets around town.

He also found ways to strengthen his arms and wrists. His father was a machinist and gave his son steel pucks to shoot in the basement, which made the rubber ones on the rink feel weightless by comparison. As a teenager, he trained to be a machinist too, just in case his dream of a hockey career didn't come true. "I cut 10 steel pucks of different weight, 10, 12, 14 ounces, up to maybe one pound," he told Patrick Kennedy of The Kingston Whig-Standard. "I practiced every day, shooting 10 pucks left-handed, 10 right-handed."

By the time he was 18 and playing junior hockey in Montreal, his legs grew so muscular that he needed specially made hockey pants to fit over his massive thighs. In his final junior season, at age 20, he scored 63 goals and 111 points. That same season, 1963-64, the Canadiens called him up for a five-game amateur tryout, and he scored four goals.

Still, Cournoyer was rather short. He was only 5-foot-3 when he was 15 and topped top out at 5-foot-7. That posed some problems. "People were always telling me I was too small," he said to author Lew Freedman for the book "Original Six." "But I like the fact that I'm not big. It was always a thrill for me when someone would criticize my size. It was like a good fight to make it to the top. As a youngster, I remember a coach telling me I looked too small to play on his team. All I said to him was, 'Try me.'"

In Cournoyer's first few seasons with the Canadiens, coach Toe Blake used him almost exclusively on the power play, concerned that his questionable checking and defense at even strength would be a liability. Still, he thrived, scoring a big power-play goal in Montreal's 4-0 win in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against Chicago on May 1, 1965. He took a pass from Dick Duff while speeding through the neutral zone, then turned on the afterburners along the right wing boards, leaving Moose Vasko flat-footed and cutting in front of goalie Glenn Hall, beating him on the long side, giving the Canadiens a 3-0 lead.

Beep-beep … Whooosh!

Cournoyer scored 18 goals the next season, 16 on the power play. He had 25 the following season and a League-best 20 with the man-advantage. His offensive talent and hard work to be better defensively made Blake rethink things, and by 1967-68, Blake's final season as coach, Cournoyer took a regular shift, often with two larger teammates, Beliveau (6-foot-3) and John Ferguson (5-foot-11).

But Cournoyer learned to take care of himself, even against rugged foes like the rival Boston Bruins, who attempted to bully him. "Whenever I went in front of the Boston net, [defenseman] Ted Green would say, 'I'm going to chop your head off,'" he told Chris McDonell in "For the Love of Hockey." "If you're going to play in the NHL, you have to ignore that kind of intimidation. The best way to counter threats was to score goals and keep on scoring goals."

Which he did, averaging 39 goals in the six seasons between 1968-69 and 1973-74. And while he only averaged 17 penalty minutes per season in his NHL career, a couple of fights in '69 -- one against Brad Park of the New York Rangers and one in the playoffs against Glen Sather of the Bruins -- proved he wouldn't back down. He even took boxing lessons in the summer of 1970, and after Montreal's stunning upset of the defending champion Bruins in the spring of '71 (en route to its fifth Cup championship in seven seasons), Boston's Derek Sanderson said, "You can't scare Cournoyer off the puck anymore. He showed me a lot of courage in that series."

"He just loved the challenge of a game," said Ken Dryden, the Canadiens' rookie goaltending hero of '71, on "Greatest Hockey Legends." "And there was nothing he loved more than getting hit hard. You'd just see him bounce from the ice back up to his feet. You'd see this huge smile on his face that, 'Boy, I've gone through something there and, ooh, it hurt but, boy, it was great! And let's do it again!' And that was Cournoyer."

Selected to play for Canada in the '72 Summit Series, he scored three big goals, including the tying goal in the final game. And he started the sequence that led to Paul Henderson's series-winner, his No. 12 jersey prominent in the famous photo of the moment when he jumped into Henderson's arms. His game-winning goal in Game 2, Canada's first victory, was nearly as important. He took a pass from Park at the offensive blue line and beat the great Soviet defenseman Alexander Ragulin wide, jetting past him before "Rags" had even turned to stop him. Breaking in alone on Vladislav Tretiak with speed, Cournoyer's wrist shot from the bottom of the faceoff circle caught the goalie's five-hole.

Beep-beep … Whooosh!

Henri Richard's retirement in 1975 necessitated a players' vote for a new Canadiens captain. Cournoyer was their unanimous choice. In his years as Beliveau's roommate on the road, the great captain had imparted numerous lessons about leadership of a star-filled club, and Cournoyer had absorbed them all. Teammate Rejean Houle told writer Jack Clary that Cournoyer had a true knack for helping players remedy problems. "He seems to realize everyone plays better when their minds are clear," Houle said. "This and a willingness to boost a guy's confidence are his biggest contributions as our captain."

"He has the one key element a captain of the Canadiens must have," Dryden said. "Total respect from everyone, the coach, the players and management."

"As captain of the team, I played harder than I ever had played in my life," Cournoyer told writer Kevin Shea, and in his first season as captain, even though he had started to slow a bit and fall victim to injury, he scored 32 goals and led the NHL with 12 game-winners.

He captained the Canadiens through some highly emotional games in that 1975-76 season, including one against the Soviet Central Red Army. He scored a goal in the legendary 3-3 exhibition tie at the Montreal Forum that is hailed by some as the greatest hockey game ever played.

And that spring, he was handed the Stanley Cup by Campbell for the first time on the ice at the Spectrum after the Canadiens swept the Philadelphia Flyers in a climactic showdown between Montreal's high-level skill and Philadelphia's punishing physicality. It was the first in a run of four consecutive dominant seasons and championships for Montreal.

But back problems began to take their toll on Cournoyer. He scored 25 and 24 goals the next two seasons, but would only play in one of the dynasty's three remaining championship runs, the victory over Boston in '78.

When he finally -- and very reluctantly -- retired in 1979, only Richard and Beliveau had more goals for the Canadiens. And his former teammates never ceased to marvel at his determination, leadership and love of the game.

"I never met a man who enjoyed playing more than Yvan," forward Doug Risebrough said. "He had that great big smile and he smiled as much scoring goals in practice as he did during games."

"He would go through a wall; if that's what it took, that's what he would do," forward Steve Shutt said. "There was no question about it. And everybody who played against him knew it. And it didn't matter what you did to him. You could hit him over the head. It didn't matter. He was going to keep on coming at you."

Beep-beep … Whooosh!


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