How many third line centers does history remember? To ask the question is to answer it.
But how many third line crosses have won six Stanley Cups? The answer is simple: only one.
Ralph Backstrom passed away last weekend, aged 83, after a long illness. For those who have not seen him play during his career of just over 1,000 games, from 1956 to 1973, his name is far from the best known.
Yet he was a key element of what Jean Béliveau nicknamed, in his autobiography My life in blue-white-red, the “forgotten decade”. The 1960s which, after the retirement of Maurice Richard, still saw the Habs win the Stanley Cup four times.
In total, Backstrom will have played 844 games with the Canadian, collecting 502 points. However, he has evolved in the shadow of several of the giants of the club’s history: Maurice and Henri Richard, Bernard Geoffrion, Dickie Moore, Doug Harvey, Jacques Plante, Jean Béliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, Serge Savard … So much so that the history has somewhat forgotten.
Of the 24 NHL players who have won six or more Stanley Cups, only four are not Hall of Fame members. Backstrom is one of them.
“He was very young when he arrived with us… He did that well! ”
At the end of the line, Jean-Guy Talbot, defender now aged 88, tells us the story of a player “not afraid”, who “never stopped working”.
Originally from Kirkland Lake, a small Ontario village located less than 100 km west of Rouyn-Noranda, Backstrom rose through all the ranks of the Canadiens organization, first with the Canadian Junior, then with the Canadian d ‘Ottawa-Hull, team with which he won the Memorial Cup in 1958.
His debut in the NHL was also sensational: in his first full season with the Habs, in 1958-1959, he was crowned rookie of the year, in addition to winning his first Stanley Cup.
However, for a player in his position, the stars were not aligned to become an offensive star in Montreal, where he spent 12 seasons behind Béliveau and Henri Richard, then Jacques Lemaire.
“A bit like Henri, he liked to take the puck in his territory and transport it to the other end of the ice,” recalls Serge Savard. It is not the one who was looking for his wingers to give him the puck or a playmaker like Béliveau. But he was a talented guy. ”
“He was smart on the ice,” continues Rogatien Vachon, goalkeeper who rubbed shoulders with the Canadian for four seasons in Montreal, then for two more with the Los Angeles Kings.
He knew where to position himself, he was very good defensively and on faceoffs. He had the mission to cover the big players of the other teams. He did a good job.
Jean-Guy Talbot also speaks of a player who, despite his small size, did not let himself be stepped on.
“When I was traded to the St. Louis Blues he was still playing for the Canadiens, so I was saying to my team-mates:‟ When Ralph gets past you, you tell him: it’s just because John Ferguson is away. side of you that you are not afraid! ” He was furious. But he knew it was from me, so we laughed about it afterwards. ”
The oldest hockey fans of course remember Backstrom for his game on the ice.
But in Quebec popular culture, his name is also linked to an exchange that had an incalculable impact on the following years for the Canadiens.
On January 26, 1971, general manager Sam Pollock sent Backstrom to the Kings in return for career-less career players Ray Fortin and Gord Labossière, as well as a second-round pick in the 1973 draft.
Surprisingly, the transaction is one-sided. But she is anything but disinterested: worst team on the circuit the previous season, the Kings are near the bottom of the standings once again this year. Pollock wanted to make sure that the Kings did not end up behind the California Golden Seals, who played in the same division and whose Canadian held the first choice in 1971.
The strategy has borne fruit: the Golden Seals finished dead last in the general classification, which allowed the Habs to pick up… Guy Lafleur.
Sam Pollock never openly admitted it was his strategy, but everyone saw it coming. It was not a hidden matter!
Michel Vigneault, hockey historian
In 1968 and 1969, the NHL granted the Canadian the privilege of drafting the first two French-speaking players available. However, this privilege had been withdrawn from the team in 1970. Pollock had therefore done his homework to recover his advantage in 1971, recalls Mr. Vigneault.
Moreover, he adds, the six teams resulting from the expansion of 1967 were grappling with a “lack of punch”, of cohesion. Their squads were mostly made up of American League players, as the original six clubs had protected their best elements.
“They were all capable of playing in the NHL, but they had never played together. It took a number of years for them to perform, ”says the historian.
Consequently, the addition of a veteran like him was likely to have an immediate effect. And that’s what happened. “He had nevertheless played 12 years with the Canadian, he had to be good! », Concludes Michel Vigneault.
Backstrom points to 23e rank in the glorious history of the team for the number of points, and at 19e rank for matches played.
Not so bad, for a small third line cross.