Sports

Forty Years Ago, the Montreal Canadiens Changed Hockey Forever

The 1976-77 Canadiens might have been the best pro sports team in North American history.
April 14, 2017, 5:54pm
Charles LeBlanc/Flickr CC

After failing to make the postseason at all last year, the Montreal Canadiens finished the 2016-17 regular season atop the NHL's Atlantic Division with more than 100 points. It marked a return to form for a team that once spent decades dominating the hockey landscape but has now gone more than 20 years without hoisting the Stanley Cup.

The Canadiens are still a long way from their glory days of forty years ago, when the Habs rose to the summit of professional sports. The 1976-77 Canadiens are arguably the greatest team in pro sports history, and in the process of going 60-8-12 that season, they represented an ideological shift in the very way hockey was played.

Read More: McDavid and Matthews' Playoff Debuts Signal the Start of a New NHL Era

In the mid 1970s, thuggery prevailed in the NHL. We're talking a style of hockey that looked like it was straight out of Slap Shot, with astronomical penalty numbers. It was pioneered by the Broad Street Bullies approach of the Philadelphia Flyers, whose captain Bobby Clarke once deliberately broke the ankle of star forward Valeri Kharlamov in the 1972 Summit Series between Team Canada and the Soviet Union. Intimidation was the essence of the Flyers game, and their success inspired a slew of copycats around the league.

The Canadiens, meanwhile, were accustomed to floating above whatever trends had absorbed the league's lesser franchises, bouncing from one dynastic run to the next—five Cup wins in the 1950s, five more in the 60s. This record of success encouraged a sort of franchise pride that could also, in a way, be damaging; a tendency to stick to the status quo under the assumption that it would continue to work. But the retirement of long-time star Jean Beliveau in 1971 ushered in a new era for the Habs. The roster was stocked with young players, some of whom were still finding their game, and even their style.

Advertisement

Guy Lafleur, after floundering his first few seasons, finally gave himself over to playing what was essentially a more polished form of pond hockey. In the process, he emerged as the sport's most graceful player, his game a rippling end-to-end dialogue between speed, puck control, and balance. As Lafleur's game grew, so, too, did the rest of the Canadiens and by 1975-76, their stylistic efforts prevailed over the Flyers in the Cup final.

But it was the following year that the Canadiens really made their mark on the NHL. Sometimes an iteration of a team breaks through, and then topples back into the pack. The Canadiens took hockey to a level that maybe no other team ever has, though others would come within shouting distance.

In 1976-77, the Canadiens lost just eight times in an 80-game season. In hockey, this is almost unheard of. Unlike basketball, where one or two all-world talents can carry a team, hockey is a sport that requires contributions from the bulk of the roster to win. It's a sport where, on some nights, a team can out-effort an objectively better opponent that is, say, coming off a long road trip, and get a win that its talent alone normally wouldn't allow. It's a sport, too, where a goalie can and does steal some games, so that you can outshoot a team 50 to 14 and still lose. It happens from time to time—only in 1976-77 it didn't happen to the Canadiens.

There were some good teams in the league that year, too. The Boston Bruins, the Buffalo Sabres, the Flyers (goonery wasn't entirely dead), and the New York Islanders all topped 100 points, at a time when this was a tricky thing to do. But everyone else might as well have been the Little Sisters of the Poor club hockey team when facing the Canadiens juggernaut.

There were nine Hall of Famers on that Habs roster, but what might have mattered the most was how they channeled aspects of the Soviet game, which was designed around speed, with back passing, weaves, subtle picks, and defensemen joining the rush. Normally, North American teams dumped the puck and chased it, hoping to regain possession. The Canadiens, with a speed-blessed roster and a progressive coach in Scotty Bowman, chucked out the standard NHL playbook in favor of letting their talent try a version of the Soviets' game. It took a leap of faith, but Bowman knew that when you have the horses, you give the horses their heads.

When the Canadiens played the Soviet Union national team in a 1975 New Year's Eve exhibition, the Red Army style of perpetually pushing pace dovetailed perfectly with the kind of game the Canadiens knew they could excel at. There may be no finer tie in all of hockey history; there may also be no better visual example of one team learning on the fly from another.

Advertisement

The results speak for themselves. Very few teams outscore their opponents by 100 goals over the course of an NHL regular season. If you do, you will undoubtedly be one of the best teams of your decade. This doesn't mean you'll win the Cup—upsets happen, baby—but let's just say that scoring 100 more goals than you allow is a very hard thing to do.

The Canadiens of 40 years ago scored 387 goals and allowed 171. That is barely conceivable. It's a 5-2 victory every single night.

The plus/minus stat, flawed and imperfect as it may be, also tells you a lot about a hockey player and a hockey team. Essentially, the Canadiens as a team were over a plus-200. Lafleur was an outrageous plus-89, and got the most recognition; he won MVP and was entering one of the truly great peak runs in North American sports history. Defenseman Larry Robinson might have been even better—he popped for a plus-120.

How could you be on the ice long enough to amass that kind of positive difference? Did anyone ever score against you when you were out there? Robinson helped his own cause offensively by netting 85 points, but if we're talking dominance in all three zones on the ice, no player in league history may have had a greater impact on the game than Robinson in 1976-77.

Of course, it wasn't going to last forever. Future Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden knew better than anyone that Lafleur's game, so heavily predicated on speed and a kind of personal athletic poetry, wasn't long for the world. In The Game, his account of his final NHL season in 1978-79, and perhaps the best sports book ever written, Dryden described Lafleur in a way that could apply to the entire Canadiens roster.

Advertisement

"His game, built on speed, will not age so well," the Habs goalie wrote. "He is not a fatherly, elder statesman type. He will fight age, unsuccessfully."

That "of his moment-ness," you might say, was the essence of these Canadiens: a team to burn out rather than fade away, their style of play aging better than they did. They were about the glorious moment, which in their case was an extended one that resulted in four Cups in a row. Four straight cups, but no one season as perfect as 1976-77.

The 70s couldn't last forever, and it all gave way to Wayne Gretzky, and the decade that many observers and historians rate as the NHL's best. The 1980s was all about speed and flow, with Gretzky having absorbed every last lesson of the Soviets and then the Canadiens in the still rough-and-ready world of the NHL.

His game was based not so predominantly on speed, as Lafleur's was, but rather space: finding it, creating it, going to it before the puck arrived there. It was another notion of flow, one suggestive of the Canadiens' style while also an extension of it. Those Canadiens weren't just one of the very best teams in hockey history; they're the great connectors of hockey past, present, and future, like an epic seam pass across the decades.

Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.