From 1960: The Canadiens have their own way in the NHL because Frank Selke, who couldn’t get his own way when he was working for the Toronto Maple Leafs, got it in Montreal. Selke’s system: pour money into building a national hockey corporation, and you’ll win it back in Stanley Cups

TRENT FRAYNE December 3 1960


From 1960: The Canadiens have their own way in the NHL because Frank Selke, who couldn’t get his own way when he was working for the Toronto Maple Leafs, got it in Montreal. Selke’s system: pour money into building a national hockey corporation, and you’ll win it back in Stanley Cups

TRENT FRAYNE December 3 1960

THE RICH, thoroughly organized, mass-produced Montreal Canadiens have brought the corporate image to hockey, with a resultant domination of their game that has been matched in sports only by the rich, thoroughly organized, mass-produced New York Yankees in baseball. Last April, in running their five-year playoff record to 40 wins in 49 post-season games, the Canadiens swept the semi-final and final rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the minimum of eight games, to win their fifth straight Stanley Cup.

The Canadiens, the oldest organization in hockey, have a long proud record. But nothing they have achieved in the dimming past compares with their monstrous domination of the game today. The questions naturally arise: How did they get that way? Is the end in sight?

The answers relate directly to Frank Selke, the managing director, a one-time Kitchener electrician who quit the front office of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the mid-Forties when his relations with the Toronto boss, Conn Smythc, became intolerable, and took over the Canadiens on July 26, 1946. A trim and gloomy man of perhaps five foot five with a funereal mien, a soft high voice, a habit of rubbing his hands while he talks, rimless glasses and thin short-clipped hair. Selke is the incongruously colorless architect of the flaming Habitants and their farm system, the finest and most extensive in the game and the best explanation of their present position in it.

Selke has built this club with an idea he evolved in Toronto in the early Forties. "I realized that young players in the services would not return to hockey as probable stars,” he says. “The years that would have improved their ability were being spent in the army.”

In the absence of Conn Smythe overseas, he got permission from director E. W. Bickle “to sign the best sixteen-year-olds around.”

These included Jimmy Thomson, Tod Sloan, Joe Klukay, Fleming Mackcll and Gus Mortson, all of whom eventually blossomed into enduring National Leaguers. Also Selke traded a defenseman, Frankie Eddolls (to the Canadiens, ironically), for sixteen-year-old Ted Kennedy, who became one of Toronto’s great centre players.

“Smythe sent a cable to the executive saying that the deal should be canceled,” Selke says unemotionally. "I think Kennedy saved the Maple Leafs.”

Selke believes that when Smythe returned from overseas he was told that Selke was trying to usurp his power at Maple Leaf Gardens, information that Selke brands completely false. His relations with Smythe worsened, and Selke resigned with no job to go to. Three months later he received a letter from William Northey, a director of the Canadiens, asking if he were interested in moving to the Forum.

"I wrote back and said I couldn’t work with Gorman,” Selke recalls, referring to Tommy Gorman, then general manager of the Canadiens.

"Mr. Northey said the idea was to replace Gorman.” Selke relates. "I didn’t answer that letter. My experience at Toronto was too recent.”

Then Senator Donat Raymond, president of the Canadiens, telephoned Selke.

“He told me he was going to accept Gorman's resignation,” Selke says. "I told him that when Gorman was gone I would consider his offer.”

In the summer of 1946 Tommy Gorman moved to Ottawa and Selke joined the Canadiens, who had won the Stanley Cup that spring. Nevertheless, Selke foresaw a dark future for the champions, he says now.

"When the team hit the ice I asked for an executive meeting,” he recalls. "I told Senator Raymond that no other team could come up with six players as good as his top six—Rill Durnan, Ken Reardon, Butch Bouchard, and the Punch Line of Elmer Lach, Toe Blake and Rocket Richard—but that there were no reserves in sight.”

Raymond asked for his solution.

"I’d like to inaugurate a farm system, with a team in every province to build up young reserves, as in Toronto. The players there will be haunting my for years.”

Raymond gave him carte blanche.

‘‘We owe the people of Montreal a good hockey team,” he said. “Go ahead and build an empire.”

Selke did, throwing Montreal funds into teams all across the land for the rights to young players. The Canadiens spent $300,000 one season to keep the system going since many of their affiliates lost money. “It cost us $70,000 to bail out the team in Quebec City,” Selke says.

As he predicted, Toronto players haunted him for years. The Leafs won the Stanley Cup four times in the next five years, aided by the youngsters he'd signed in his Toronto days, but then the fruit began to come in from the Montreal farms. Beginning with the spring of 1951, the Canadiens have reached the Stanley Cup final through ten straight seasons and have won the trophy in six of them. And the notion that the end of their flight is not in sight is Selke's.

“Canadiens will be the team to beat for the next ten years!” he observed in a rare exclamatory outburst last spring. ‘‘I would be foolish to predict that we'll be in first place for that length of time, because we don’t know what the other teams have in the way of kids coming up. But we’ll be the team to beat because we have the players.”

He rewards them lavishly. Six players in the Montreal lineup this season have basic salaries of $20,000 a year or better, and that doesn't include playoff money worth $4,000 a man if the team finishes first in the standings and goes on to win the Stanley Cup. The Habitant payroll for the 1960-61 roster is $300,000 and, in addition, Maurice (Rocket) Richard is being paid $25,000 for not playing. This is reward for services rendered in his eighteen stormily productive seasons and balm for the Rocket’s retirement at thirty-nine last fall so that he won't blemish a magnificent reputation on legs that may no longer match his fierce pride.

There’s more to the Canadiens’ prowl of conquest than mere money, however. Last September they played a meaningless intra-squad exhibition game in the Forum in which the Reds defeated the Whites 5 to 1. As it happened, team captain Doug Harvey was lined up with the Whites. When the game ended he sat disconsolately in the dressing room chatting with Montreal Star columnist Red Fisher.

“They shouldn’t have beat us that bad,” Harvey grumbled, although the game meant nothing.

They talked about it while Harvey changed his clothes and then they went to a restaurant for Chinese food. Harvey was still downcast. "I should have stayed home in bed,” he said to Fisher. ‘‘I wasn’t any help to anybody.”

Here was the attitude of a player many believe to be the finest defenseman in the history of hockey. The opening of his fourteenth season in the NHL was still three weeks away, and Harvey, one would think, had won too many awards to be concerned about an exhibition. He has been named on the first All-Star team in eight of the last nine seasons and has won the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the game’s top defenseman in five of the seven seasons it has been in existence, but defeat, even in an intra-squad game, still distresses him.

Harvey was asked recently why the Canadiens never seem to grow complacent, why they never let down in midseason, say, knowing they’re the class of the field.

“There’s no use playing this game if you’re not trying to win,” he replied. “For one thing, it’s more fun winning than losing, eh? You should never say tomorrow we’ll be all right if you lose a game or two, because the first thing you know the season’s over and it’s too late. It’s tonight's game that matters.”

Harvey, an unruffled man of thirty-five who was a gunner on merchant ships during the war, says the Montreal fans have a good deal to do with the team’s urge to win, though not necessarily the fans who comprise the idolatrous Forum legion and shower down their teeming support.

“The boys are pretty well known in Montreal,” he says of the players. “Any time we lose a game, even on the road, people on the street want to know what the hell happened—in two languages. It’s the same all summer; you can have a pretty good summer when you win in the spring.”

There’s pride of belonging

Young players moving into the Canadien lineup, spotted expertly by coach Hector (Toe) Blake and given salubrious experience under fire, keep an enduring balance and depth that offset injuries to seasoned players, and this keeps the team strong. Since the Selke farm system became productive there has rarely been a moment when burgeoning young players aren't sitting on the bench waiting, hopefully, for somebody to catch some trivial incurable disease. This keeps the stars alert, too. Last season, for example, Rocket Richard was edgy in his eighteenth season because Toe Blake was employing four forward lines for a time instead of the usual three. This was giving jealously guarded ice-time to Richard only one turn in four, rather than one in three. Dickie Moore, who’d been scoring champion for two years in a row, was crestfallen when Blake removed him from the power-play alignment for a brief period last season. All that was bothering Moore was two sprained wrists.

But beneath the surface there's mere to the Canadiens than an eager desire to play and a long strong bench. There is the pride of belonging to something tall that augments an individual’s ability and makes him taller. There is the sense of achievement in having been good enough to move with the best, and this brings out the best.

“When you’ve played here, you just don’t want to play anywhere else,” says Floyd (Busher) Curry, a former right-winger on championship Canadien teams who now coaches the Habitant affiliate, the Montreal Royals in the Eastern Professional Hockey League. "When I was nearing the end of the line, Mr. Selke called me into his office and asked me if I'd like to be traded to another NHL club, that there wasn’t room on the roster for me. I decided against being traded. I didn't want to play against this club: we’d always had good times together. So I retired. In my time, guys who did choose to be traded in these circumstances used to come up to me and say, 'You lucky so-and-so, playing with this club.’ ”

There are no cliques on the Canadiens. Frank Selke has molded the two religions and the two nationalities so that they do not exist, as such. Only the Canadiens matter. Occasionally Selke goes hunting deer with Rocket Richard and when they’ve bagged one they take it to Butch Bouchard's restaurant and a banquet is held for the players and their wives. Each Christmas Selke holds a skating party at the Forum for the players, their wives and their families, and this is followed by the Christmas turkey. There is a camaraderie about the Canadiens, unquestionably stimulated by these affairs.

Selke, his undertaker’s bearing curiously misplaced in a game rife with pop-offs, has more than the respect usually accorded an employer. Rocket Richard worships him and after all these years still calls him Mr. Selke out of his presence. Bert Olmstead, whom the Canadiens let go to Toronto three seasons ago after nearly eight full seasons with the Habs, says that in all his time there he never knew a teammate who didn't have an abiding respect for the solemn little boss. Selke, it would appear, is a sort of father-figure to the Canadiens in addition to being the silent perceptive builder.

The Flying Frenchmen, curiously, had their genesis in a conversation between a Scottish baker and an Irish contractor one December night in 1909. There was only one professional league in the country, the Eastern Canada Hockey Association, and it was not flourishing. Hoping to strengthen it, James Strachan, the manager of the Montreal Wanderers, a Montrealer whose family was prominent in the baking industry, made a thoughtful remark to young Ambrose O'Brien of Renfrew, Ont., whose father had made a good deal of money as a railway contractor.

“A club composed entirely of FrenchCanadian players in Montreal, with its seventy percent French-Canadian population, is bound to be a success,” Strachan said.

O'Brien, at that moment, wasn't interested. He wanted his home-town team, the Renfrew Millionaires, to win the Stanley Cup and made application to the Eastern Canada league for its admittance. When the application was refused, he remembered Strachan’s remark and set out to form his own league. He founded and financed the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 10, 1909, depositing $5.000 in a St. James Street bank to guarantee players’ salaries. They got a series of postdated cheques that could be stopped at the bank if any player defected. He commissioned Jack Laviolette, an itinerant hockey player and owner of a restaurant in Montreal called Jack's Café, to put together a team for the $5,000.

To round out his league, O'Brien urged James Strachan to transfer his Montreal Wanderers to it, brought in the Renfrew Millionaires, and financed two teams in the booming mining belt of northern Ontario, at Cobalt and Haileybury. He called the league the National Hockey Association. It turned out to be the forerunner of the NHL.

The move by O'Brien caused an upheaval out of which the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Shamrocks withdrew from the Eastern Canada league and joined the NHA, bringing an end to the tottering Eastern league.

The season began on Jan. 5, 1910, with the Canadiens playing Cobalt in a tiny noisy smoke-filled firetrap called the Jubilee Rink. They attracted just under 3,000 customers who watched seven-man hockey in two thirty-minute periods. And the Canadiens were indeed comprised entirely of French-Canadian players, among them Jack Laviolette, the café owner; goalkeeper Joe Cattarinich. who later, with Leo Dandurand as his partner, became co-owner of the club; Newsy Lalonde, the greatest lacrosse star of the era, and Didier Pitre, who'd been paid $2,000 for a season with Renfrew a few years earlier but signed for considerably less to be with the new club. For that first game. Newsy Lalonde, who still lives in Montreal and is a bubbling, energetic man in his seventies, believes he was the highest-paid Canadien on the ice. He got $1,300 for the season, which the Canadiens launched with a 7-to-6 victory.

O’Brien made a fifty percent profit on the Canadiens even before the season ended. He sold the franchise for $7,500 to a Montreal wrestler and wrestling promoter who called himself George Kennedy. Actually, Kennedy’s name was Kendall, but his father, a dour Scottish sea captain, was so outraged when his son told him of his wrestling ambitions that George altered his surname. Kennedy, “without once raising his voice or using an oath,” according to Lalonde, cajoled Canadiens to their first Stanley Cup in 1916.

In the spring of 1919 the Canadiens were involved in the only Stanley Cup final ever suspended. They were playing the Seattle Metropolitans in the Pacific coast city during an influenza epidemic, and Kennedy and all but three of his players caught the flu. Joe Hall, a brilliant centre player, was seriously ill. Hall’s roommate. Newsy Lalonde. kept imploring him to go to bed. Hall refused, and wore his Canadien sweater until he dropped. He died two days later. Kennedy himself never fully recovered. He died two years later, at the age of forty-one.

The club was put on the auction block in October 1921. Out of a flurry of bidding that started at $8,000, Leo Dandurand, Louis Letourneau and Joe Cattarinich, who were then operating a racetrack at Cleveland, had their representative, Canadien coach Cecil Hart, buy the club for them for $11,000. It took them three years to build another Stanley Cup winner, employing the haphazard scouting methods of the era. Cattarinich, on a trip to Chicoutimi, saw an amateur game one night in 1922 and was impressed by the goalkeeper, Georges Vezina, a tall solemn fellow so cool that after Cattarinich casually signed him for the Canadiens he became known everywhere in hockey as the Chicoutimi Cucumber. Vezina, in whose name the trophy for NHL goalkeeping is awarded, played in the best Canadien tradition— he collapsed during a game in November 1925 and died a few months later.

Sylvio Mantha, the Canadien most recently elected to the Hall of Fame, was found in Montreal idly playing shinny on the school rinks of a working-class district called St. Henri. Dandurand happened to run into George Boucher, an Ottawa star, at a racetrack in the summer of 1922. Boucher said he'd been impressed in a game against the Saskatoon Shieks of the Western Canada league by a slim elusive rookie named Aurel Joliat. Dandurand incensed Canadien fans by trading the idolized Newsy Lalonde for the unknown Joliat. He got so many telephone threats that he had the phone disconnected.

Of the trade Lalonde says, “I was getting $2,000 a season at Montreal. Leo knew I was over the hill, but he made Saskatoon pay me $4,500. I was delighted, for heaven's sake!”

No Canadien has worn 7 since

Almost as casually as he’d met George Boucher at the track, Dandurand saw a referee, Ernest Sauvé, the morning after a junior game. Sauvé advised him to look closely at Howie Morenz, a young Stratford player. The Toronto St. Pat's also were interested in Morenz but the immortal Howie later admitted he signed with the Canadiens because Dandurand paid a $45 tailor’s bill and gave him $300 to settle a number of small debts. His salary for the 24-game schedule was $3,500 and the contract was signed July 7, Dandurand's birthday. Accordingly, Dandurand assigned Morenz sweater number 7. Eleven years later, ip the autumn of 1934, when Dandurand traded a crestfallen Morenz to Chicago, he tendered him a going-away dinners and announced that no other player would ever wear Morenz's number. None ever has.

A year later Dandurand sold the club to the Canadian Arena Company headed by Senator Raymond, for $165,000. Raymond brought back Morenz and just when it appeared he was making a strong comeback Morenz broke a leg. He died in hospital, apparently of a heart attack, on March 8. 1937. His body was placed at centre ice in the Forum and Canadien players formed a guard of honor as 15,000 people moved slowly and silently into the rink for the service. Outside, 25,000 more stood with heads bared, tightly packed for blocks.

Morenz was a symbol of a time when the ice heroes were a rough-hewn lot. To the millworkers and tram drivers and off-duty cabbies who jammed the north end of the Forum and called themselves the Millionaires, he was a superhuman figure. Their battlecry: Les Canadiens sont là!, never reached such frenzy as when Morenz hurtled down centre, burst through the defense and crashed the puck past the goalkeeper.

Today, by comparison, the players are smartly attired young businessmen off the ice, though on it they can still incite a riot. Which, indeed, they did on St. Patrick’s Day in 1955. Rocket Richard had been suspended for hitting a referee, and vociferously objecting fans broke up a game between the Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings by hurling a tear-gas bomb on the Forum ice. Outside, those who couldn’t get in on the festivities indoors did $30,000 worth of breaking and looting.

The draft hasn’t hurt yet

Richard was a hothead for a decade while the late Dick Irvin was coaching the Canadiens. Irvin was a tough and remorseless needler who left the Canadiens after the 1954-55 season and was replaced by Toe Blake, the incumbent. With the arrival of his old line-mate Blake, Richard mellowed considerably through the last five years of his career, the long stretch of complete Canadien domination that shows no sign of abating.

There are those who feel that a comparatively recent draft law in NHL legislation will work against the Flying Frenchmen but it’s likely they're sympathetic alarmists from Montreal or wishful thinkers in the five other NHL cities.

The draft is aimed at the strongest clubs. By it, each of the six teams enters an annual draft meeting with twenty players—eighteen forwards and defensemen, and two goalkeepers—on a so-called protected list. None of these can be drafted by another club, but all other professional players in the farm system can be, at $20.000 each. Thus, a club like the Canadiens can either sell players before the draft meeting at a higher price or wait for them to be selected at it. and in the last eighteen months Frank Selke has sold Bill Hay, Murray Balfour and Ab McDonald in pre-draft deals to the Chicago Black Hawks; all three of them have helped that once pathetic organization to move into comparative contention. Earlier, Eddie Litzenberger and Dollard St. Laurent were shipped to the Hawks. Selke says Chicago has been his market because the Hawk owners, James Norris Jr. and Arthur Wirtz, “have lost millions trying to give their fans a good team and they’ve never complained. "

Significantly, though, the Canadiens have not yet lost a player in the draft itself who has come back to distress them noticeably. Accordingly, there seems no reason to assume that Selke and his aides—Ken Reardon, the club s vice-president. Toe Blake, the coach, and Sam Pollock, who guides the farm system—will suddenly be struck with myopia in spotting their potential stars when they name their protected twenty. Similarly, it would seem reasonable that they'll be as adroit in plucking other teams’ star prospects, if they choose, as the others may be in fingering theirs.

The team's present president. Senator Hartland Molson, who bought the Canadiens in 1957 for reportedly more than a million dollars, has continued the carte-blanche policy with Selke that was originated by Senator Raymond. Add all this up and on the record it would appear that if there is any embarrassment over players in the future it will be an embarrassment of riches. ★