Time to reunite Habs' Punch Line
Canadiens great Elmer Lach deserves to be in rafters with Rocket, Blake
MONTREAL – Your Canadiens will be holding a one-of-a-kind gala on Dec. 5, one day after the franchise celebrates its 100th birthday.
The rich and famous from business and politics will be there at this black-tie affair, rubbing shoulders with many of the players of the past who have brought so many Stanley Cups home since Dec. 4, 1909.
What, however, is a birthday party without surprises? I cannot crawl into the minds of the people responsible for this night reserved for the celebration of excellence, but one comes to mind.
The names and numbers of the superb athletes who contributed so much to the history of the franchise and to the winning of Stanley Cups now hang on 15 banners at the Bell Centre. Fifteen names that will be remembered forever, 14 numbers never again to be worn by those fortunate enough to wear a Canadiens jersey.
You want names and numbers? Here they are: Jacques Plante (1); Doug Harvey (2); Jean Béliveau (4); Bernard Geoffrion (5); Howie Morenz (7); Maurice Richard (9); Guy Lafleur (10); Dickie Moore and Yvan Cournoyer (12); Henri Richard (16); Serge Savard (18); Larry Robinson (19); Bob Gainey (23); Ken Dryden (29) and Patrick Roy (33).
It's not engraved in stone, but the indication from Canadiens management was that when Roy's number was retired, it would be the last one to be raised to the Bell Centre rafters. On the other hand, if there's a surprise to be unveiled at the birthday bash, is there a better one than announcing the name(s) and number(s) on Dec. 5? In recent weeks and months, this question has been put to me: who is the best player whose jersey hasn't been retired? In my view: none better than Elmer Lach, a member of the revered Punch Line in the 1940s along with Maurice Richard and Toe Blake. It was a line that is remembered to this day, one that delivered 220 points in 1944-45, an NHL record that lasted until the late 1960s.
In its time, there was no better or, at least, more exciting line in the NHL. Lach was the league's best centreman. He joined the Canadiens for the 1940-41 season and retired in 1954. He was a member of three Stanley Cup teams, and while the Rocket always will be remembered as the first NHLer in history to score 50 goals in a season, it was Lach who led the league in scoring during that 50-game 1944-45 schedule. Among Lach's 80 points were an NHL-high 54 assists. He also won the Hart Trophy.
Three years later, he again led the league in scoring - the first winner of the Art Ross Trophy.
Lach was blessed with a competitive fire that placed him near the top of the hit list by players on the remaining five teams. Not to worry, even though at 5-foot-10, he weighed only 165 pounds. He played mean. He skated tall. With Lach, on every game night, the flame never died, but there was a price to pay for it.
Only five times was he able to play a full season, and few players have matched his resolve to return to action after career-threatening injuries. For example, one night in February 1947 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, he suffered a fractured skull. It was feared his playing days were over, yet he returned the following season to win the Art Ross Trophy.
Passing the puck was Lach's greatest talent, but his Cup-clinching goal against the Boston Bruins in the second minute of the first overtime period in the 1953 playoffs remains among his most treasured memories.
"I took the hardest check of my life when the Rocket jumped on top of me when the puck went in," Lach said.
The question often has been asked why a banner with Lach's name wasn't raised along with Henri Richard on the night the latter's No. 16 was retired. No explanation was given then, and none since. It's time to right this wrong.
The suggestion has been made - and it's a good one - that the Punch Line should be reunited in the Bell Centre rafters. Why not have the banners of Richard, Lach and Blake alongside one another? All three are in the Hockey Hall of Fame in the players' category.
Other lines have scored more points, but none is recalled with more reverence. None has been as exciting, and in Blake, with eight Stanley Cups in 13 seasons behind the Canadiens' bench, we're talking about the greatest coach in franchise history.
Dickie Moore recalls to this day: "The first thing he ever said to us was: 'I can't coach you guys. You're too good. Just go out there and play your game.' " Butch Bouchard is another name frequently mentioned worthy of joining those whose numbers have been retired.
He played 15 seasons with the Canadiens, the last eight as one of the most popular captains in franchise history. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, he was a formidable figure on the ice and admired by fans and foes off it.
Lach. Blake. Bouchard. I have no idea whether or not their numbers will be called at the Canadiens' 100th birthday gala, but just thinking about it leaves me giddy with pleasure.
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