Remembering the Canadiens’ Late-’70s Dynasty

Remembering the Canadiens’ Late-’70s Dynasty

It’s unlikely the NHL will ever again see a team as dominant as the Montreal Canadiens’ dynasty of the late-1970s.

Between 1975-76 to 1978-79, the Canadiens won four consecutive Stanley Cups. They had the league’s best record three times, including their record-setting ’76-’77 campaign in which they finished with 60 wins, only eight losses and 132 points.

Nine players – goaltender Ken Dryden, defensemen Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe and forwards Guy Lafleur, Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire, Steve Shutt and Bob Gainey – went on to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Head coach Scotty Bowman and general manager Sam Pollock are also in the Hall.

They also won an impressive array of individual hardware.

Dryden won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie in each season of the Habs dynasty, sharing the honor three times with backup Michel “Bunny” Larocque.

Lafleur won the Art Ross Trophy as leading scorer three straight seasons from ’75-’76 to ’77-’78 and the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP in ’76-’77 and ’77-’78.

Robinson took home the James Norris Memorial Trophy as top defenseman in ’76-77.

Gainey won the first two of his four consecutive Frank J. Selke Awards as the best defensive forward in ’77-’78 and ’78-’79.

Savard won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance in ’78-’79.

Lafleur (1977), Robinson (1978) and Gainey (1979) were awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Awards and honors, however, only tell part of the story of the Canadiens’ dominance during that era.

They almost always won. A loss was a rare occurance. Of their 320 regular-season games, they won 229, lost only 46 and tied 45.

Back then there was no overtime to settle tie games. Given their considerable talent, it’s likely they would’ve turned at least half of those 45 tied contests into victories.

They usually finished so far ahead of everyone else in the standings it was almost unfair. In ’75-’76, they had 127 points, nine more than the Philadelphia Flyers in the overall standings. In ’76-’77, their 132 points were 20 more than the Flyers’ 112. The next season, their 129 points were 16 more than the Boston Bruins’ 113. By each December, their Norris Division rivals (Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals) were usually left in the dust.

In the postseason, they were just as dominant, winning 48 of 58 playoff games. They were only pushed to seven games in a series once, in the 1979 semifinal against the Boston Bruins.

The Canadiens were more than just their stars. They also had an impressive supporting cast.

Underrated Pete Mahovlich centered the Habs top line in ’75-’76, finishing second with 105 points. The season prior, he notched 82 assists, a franchise record that still stands. Rejean Houle was a reliable 50-point winger. The unbreakable Doug Jarvis was among the league’s top faceoff men. Two-way forwards such as Yvon Lambert, Doug Risebrough and Mario Tremblay could put up points and shut down opposing forwards.

The blueline contained big, physical rearguards such as Gilles Lupien, Pierre Bouchard, Bill Nyrop, Rick Chartraw, Brian Engblom and, in 1978-79, a rookie who went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Washington Capitals in Rod Langway.

Any style an opponent wanted to play, the Canadiens could exceed it. Play a run-and-gun and they outskated and outscored you. Employ a grind-it-out style and they would outwork you. Throw your weight around or try to bully their stars and they made you pay a physical toll that would also cost you on the score sheet.

I was a teenage Canadiens fan growing up in rural Nova Scotia during the late-1970s. Believe me, it was a special time to be a Habs follower.

Many of my friends and family members cheered for other clubs. Where I grew up, in the era before cable tv and the internet opened up the NHL to its fans, you either followed the Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs or Boston Bruins.

A couple of my friends rooted for the Flyers. One of my dad’s friends followed the New York Rangers. I had a cousin who was a New York Islanders fans, which at that time made him an oddity. He was more prescient than the rest of us, as the Isles succeeded the Habs in the early-1980s with a four-Cup dynasty of their own.

Most folks I knew back then were Leafs or Bruins fans. Every year, they would argue their teams were as good or better than the Canadiens. Every year, the Habs demolished those arguments and steamrollered their hopes. They don’t have fond memories of that period.

For me, however, it was glorious.

Whenever I tuned into Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights (or the French channel CBAFT if the Leafs were on the main CBC telecast that night) I knew the Habs were going to win. There were rarely any surprises over the outcome. There was no concern that a certain team could defeat them on any given night, no worries about a rival club threatening to unseat them as the league’s top dog. If you were a Canadiens fan in the late-’70s, it wasn’t a question of if they would win but how large the margin of victory would be.

Lafleur would dazzle with his patented end-to-end rushes. The speedy Cournoyer would leave opponents gasping in his wake. Shutt and Lemaire would score back-breaking goals. Meanwhile, Robinson, Savard, Lapointe and Gainey would shut down most of their opponent’s best lines. In the rare instances where a good scoring chance emerged, Dryden was there with a timely save. And on the rare instances where some of those players had an off-night, the supporting cast carried the day.

In the playoffs, there were friends and relatives who bet me the Canadiens would lose. The bets were pennyante stuff, a quarter or .50 cents during my junior-high years, up to a dollar during my first year of high school. One kid wagered my pick of his best hockey cards against mine. And every year, I cleaned up. By the time we got to the 1979 playoffs, it got difficult to find anyone willing to bet against the Habs.

Imagine being able to put together such a club like those late-’70s Canadiens today. Now stop imagining and return to the reality of today’s parity-driven, salary-cap NHL.

The Canadiens of that era were built during a time when players had considerably less bargaining power, with salaries well below what the average player earns today. It was also a period of rapid league expansion. Many of those new clubs sought rapid improvements, making them easy pickings for lopsided deals by the savvy Habs’ management.

Some NHL fans and pundits ocassionally pine for the good old days of dynastic teams, chiding the league for a salary-cap system they feel punishes successful franchises. But there was a downside to those dynasties like the Canadiens, and those of the Islanders and Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s.

During those years, the NHL consisted of one dominant team, perhaps half-a-dozen very good ones that still faced long odds upsetting the top dog, and a lot of average to horrible clubs that didn’t stand a chance at all. Unless you were a fan of the dominant club, you didn’t have much to look forward to. All you could do was pray your underdog team could pull off a rare upset.

For fans of the dynasty, it creates unrealistic expectations that last long after the glory years have passed. I got to the point where, by the turn of the 1980s, anything less than a Stanley Cup every season for the Canadiens was unacceptable. I was spoiled by their success.

It took over a decade following the Canadiens’ 1979 championship for me to accept that they couldn’t possibly win every year. It took another decade following their final championship in 1993 to remove the rose-colored glasses and realize, at long last, that they were just another team, that the glory days were long gone and winning the Cup would never be a certainty again.

Barring a significant change in how the league conducts its business, dynasties like those of the Canadiens, Islanders and Oilers will never happen again. And it’s probably for the best.

I’m still a Canadiens fan. I will always fondly remember those glory years of their last great dynasty.

Even though it’s now much harder for the Canadiens to win the Cup, even if it’s possible that it could be decades before then win another championship, I feel the NHL product is better without its dynasties.

It’s better for the NHL to be a much more competitive league. It’s better that the Stanley Cup doesn’t belong to one team for several years in a row. It’s better that it’s much harder to win consecutive championships.

When a team wins the Stanley Cup today, their fans are much appreciative. They acknowledge how much hard work it takes for their team to accomplish this feat. They cherish those championships and never take them for granted. It makes them all the more special.