John Ferguson, Montreal’s long-retired tough guy, calls his final game in the NHL “one of the greatest games ever played.” He’s talking about May 18, 1971, the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals between the Canadiens and Blackhawks, played in a steamy Chicago Stadium.
That season, the Canadiens, who had missed the playoffs the year before, had a rookie coach (Al MacNeil), a rookie goalie (Ken Dryden) and a couple of players — Jean Beliveau and Frank Mahovlich — who were said to be over the hill. But Dryden’s play — especially in the first round against the Boston Bruins — had been sensational. Then the Habs ousted the Minnesota North Stars in a surprisingly tough series, four games to two. The only roadblock left standing in their way to a 17th Stanley Cup was Billy Reay’s Chicago Blackhawks.
The Hawks had steamrolled through their first season in the West Division, placing nine players on the West’s All-Star team. They had finished 20 points ahead of runner-up St. Louis and they were the only team in the division to top 100 points, finishing with 107 — ten more than Montreal, who had placed third in the East.
Bobby Hull had finished fifth amongst the league’s scorers, and best among those who didn’t play for Boston, with 44 goals and 96 points. His brother Dennis had potted 40 goals while Stan Mikita, Pit Martin, Cliff Koroll and Jim Pappin had been major contributors to the team’s devastating attack.
In the playoffs, Bobby Hull banged in six goals in the opening round, almost single-handedly tossing the Philadelphia Flyers aside in four games. Hull and the Hawks followed up with a seven-game elimination of the New York Rangers. A victory in the final series against the Canadiens would bring the Stanley Cup back to Chicago for the first time since 1961.
The Habs’ John Ferguson, who played that spring despite broken ribs suffered in an early playoff game, recalls the unhappiness, the turmoil, and the dissension in the Montreal camp as his team prepared for the final series.
“Despite all the friction, and the fact I was hurting like a son of a bitch, I figured another classic was in the works,” he said.
Al MacNeil’s coaching style had been severely criticized in the media, by the players (Ferguson included) and by the fans. In one game during the season, MacNeil had thrown out 23 different line combinations, causing uncertainty and anger among his troops. The French media lashed out at MacNeil for another reason — he had never learned the French language.
Despite Ferguson’s prediction, the series didn’t start out like a classic. Jim Pappin’s goal gave the Hawks a 2–1 opening game victory at the Stadium, and they came right back with a 5–3 victory in game two. In game three at the Montreal Forum, the Hawks jumped into a 2–0 lead, but Tony Esposito gave up goals to Peter and Frank Mahovlich and the score was tied. Yvan Cournoyer snapped a shot past Esposito early in the third and Frank Mahovlich scored his second of the game to give Montreal a 4–2 win.
John Ferguson set the tone with some big hits in game four, despite playing with a torn hip muscle that required freezing three times during the game. The Habs tied the series with a 5–2 triumph.
On home ice, the Hawks closed ranks and shut down the Habs 2–0 in game five. Henri Richard was in the penalty box when Dennis Hull slipped away for what proved to be the winning goal. Richard was used sparingly after that. He and the other veterans on the team fumed over MacNeil’s dizzying array of line combinations, and Richard blistered his coach after the match, telling newsmen, “I’ve never played for a worse coach.” He would later mumble an apology.
If the Hawks thought the name-calling in the Montreal dressing room would be to their advantage in game six, they were wrong. They were leading 3–2 on Jim Pappin’s go-ahead goal when the Big M struck early in the third, raising the Forum roof with the tying score. Minutes later, his brother Pete beat Esposito, and the Habs nursed their 4–3 lead to the finish. Series tied at three games apiece.
CBS Television was at Chicago Stadium to bring the deciding game into millions of American homes. The ice was slow and slushy. The Hawks started fast, with Mikita, Nesterenko and Keith Magnusson throwing hot shots at Ken Dryden, who stopped them all. Late in the period, with Rejean Houle in the penalty box, Pappin was stopped close in. So was Bobby Hull. Finally, at 19:12, Dennis Hull blasted the puck in off Dryden’s shoulder to give Chicago a 1–0 lead.
The Hawks went up 2–0 at 7:33 of the second period when Danny O’Shea fired a 25-footer past Dryden. Then Montreal got a break. Jacques Lemaire fired a long shot from outside the Chicago blue line — and Esposito missed it. Fans howled in disbelief when the red light flashed. Late in the period, Lemaire centered it to Henri Richard and the 35-year-old pivot whipped the puck past Esposito. Game tied, 2–2.
Richard dashed around Magnuson inside the blue line, skated in on Esposito and faked him to the ice. Then he flipped the puck into the upper corner of the net to give Montreal a 3–2 lead.
Magnuson suffered from the humiliation of that moment for months. “I cried over it,” he said. “I wanted to quit hockey, to quit everything. I wanted to move far away from Chicago, all because of Richard beating me. At least I should have tripped the guy as he went by.”
The Hawks almost tied the score. With half a period to play, Jim Pappin got the puck on the lip of the crease with a gaping net in front of him. He shot and raised his arms to celebrate the goal. But Dryden’s right leg shot out and deflected the puck. Nobody in the building that night, or watching on TV, could believe he made that save.
It was the Hawks’ last chance. Montreal won 3–2 and left town that night with the Cup on the plane with them. And John Ferguson, who’d been on five Cup winners in eight years, was telling his mates, “That’s it for me, boys. I’m through with hockey. But of all my Cups, this one over Chicago was the most satisfying.”