Jan 102011

At the Bob Gainey roast in Peterborough, Ken Dryden was at this eloquent best in talking about his former teammate. Later, at a reception, Red Fisher and I talked about Dryden’s presentation. As wordsmiths, we expressed our admiration for the brilliant verbal descriptions Dryden painted for his audience.

Dryden began, “The first time I was aware of Bob Gainey was during the draft of 1973. I was at home with the radio on. And the announcer said the Canadiens had drafted Bob somebody. I didn’t catch the last name, a player with the Peterboro Petes. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized the Canadiens had not drafted Bob Neeley but Bob Gainey. A few months later I left the Canadiens for a season to article with a law firm in Toronto and a few months after that I was at sports banquet in New Brunswick where many of the guests convened in a large room where there was a television set with a large screen. Because of the noise in the room I couldn’t hear the sound of the hockey game but I could see the images. Whenever I looked up at the screen I saw an image that I didn’t recognize. Whoever he was, this fellow could really skate. I decided right then that whoever I was watching would someday become a big star. A few months later I realized that I was wrong. The fellow I so admired couldn’t score. (laughter)

But that didn’t matter. I played with Bob Gainey for five years. In that time we played on four Stanley Cups and each year he played a larger role on the team. By the end of my time there he was really the driving force on the Canadiens. We put through a very difficult last season and in many ways it was Bob who held things together. He was a goalie’s best friend, in all senses. He made me look good in practice and even better in the games. I haven’t played in about four years now so I don’t get to see Bob play much anymore. But I have a very vivid image of him and when I close my eyes this image is very clear to me.

It starts at center ice and there’s a puck moving slowly out of the Canadiens’ zone. I see Savard or Robinson perhaps, skating up the ice slowly, somebody skating up the ice slowly. Then a pass, this one to Gainey in the centre zone. He’s the last player out of the Montreal zone and he comes from behind the play, bursting into the open. I can see him, bent over, looking like a train in an open field. Then an opposing defenseman comes into the picture, scrambling backwards with an eye on Gainey. It’s then you realize how fast Bob is skating. Now the defenseman is really scrambling, trying to keep up. I, in the net, straighten up from my crouch, and for four or five seconds the game seems to stop.

It becomes a contest, their contest, Bob and the defenseman. It’s a sprint, then they meet about the top of the circle. They bump at each other, strain against each other, then slowly and with great effort, Bob powers by. (Pause) Unfortunately, you know the rest of the story. (Laughter).

It was on that night that Dryden favoured us with an excerpt from the book he was completing, an excerpt that revealed his feelings about Gainey.

One time someone mentioned that Bob Gainey scored very few goals and my wife Linda turned to me, a little surprised. She said,” Do you know, while I’ve watched him play for nearly five years I never realized that.” Then she shrugged and went on to something else as if in Gainey’s case it really didn’t matter.

While a team needs all kinds of players with all kinds of skills to win, it needs prototypes, strong, dependable prototypes as examples of what you want your team to be. If you want a team to be cool and unflappable, you need at least one Savard to reassure you, to let you know that the time you need to do what you want to do is still there. If you want a team to be able to lift the level of the game, to find an emotional level higher than any opponent can find, you need players like Lapointe and Tremblay. Mercurial players who can take it to a higher level.

And if you want a team to succeed, where the goal is to win game after game, you need a player with an emotional and a practical stake in the team game, a player to remind you of that game, to bring you back to it whenever you forget, to be playing conscience of the game then you need a man like Bob Gainey. (Thunderous applause).

Ken Drydens’ Book, The Game (US) or The Game (Canada)

Sep 192010

Each year the NHL recognizes the most gentlemanly player in the league with the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. The New York Rangers’ Frank Boucher won it seven times in eight years. Wayne Gretzky captured it five times and Red Kelly four. But if the league ever decided to single out the all-time cleanest player in the game, I would nominate an unheralded former Red Wing, forward Val Fonteyne. Many fans won’t remember him but in my book he’ll forever reign as “Mr. Clean.”

Let’s check the facts. During one stretch in his 13 year NHL career, beginning in 1959-60, Fonteyne played in 185 consecutive games without serving any time in the penalty box. Later he compiled a second streak of 157 penalty-free games. Now there’s a player who never hooked, held, grabbed or clutched.

I recall Fonteyne as being a swift, lightweight winger–about 5’9”, 155 lbs. who excelled as a penalty killer in his Detroit days. He also played with the Rangers and the Penguins. In the course of his 820 NHL games he spent a grand total of 26 minutes in the box. Compare that to tough guy Randy Holt who once took 67 penalty minutes in one period! Or Chris Nilan, who once took ten penalties in one game! Or Tiger Williams who holds the record for most penalty minutes in a career–3,966 minutes.

Fonteyne is the only player to complete three consecutive seasons without taking a single minor penalty and the only one to record five penalty-free seasons during his career. Fight? Nah. Because he never fought, he never served a major penalty. Not one.

How come he never won the Lady Byng, you ask? Because there’s a proviso. The trophy goes to a player who is not only a gentleman but one who combines good conduct with a high standard of play. Top penalty killers are always overshadowed by top scorers. Fonteyene was in his 10th NHL season before scoring more than 10 goals. He scored 12 with the expansion Pittsburgh Penguins.

With today’s tighter refereeing, the game may never see another perfect gentleman like Val Fonteyne.