January 08, 2018

Great Defensemen: Doug Harvey

There is little doubt that Wayne Gretzky is the greatest playmaker ever. But have you ever considered who should be second?

How about Doug Harvey. He was the key to the Flying Frenchmen's fire wagon hockey that saw them win an unparalleled 5 consecutive Stanley Cups in the 1950s. In doing so Harvey revolutionized hockey with the introduction of transition offense.

The superstar-laden team featured names like Jacques Plante, Tom Johnson, Bernie Geoffrion, Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau and Dickie Moore. While the Habs had a collection of Hall of Famers that were compiled to form arguably the greatest team in history, Doug was the key to their attack. 

Prior to Doug's arrival most teams used monstrous sized defenders who relied more on brawn than puck skills. Once they had muscled off attackers and retrieved the puck, they would simply bang the puck off of the boards or glass, and hope the forwards could pick up the puck in the neutral zone. Some teams were lucky enough to have skilled defensemen like Red Kelly, Babe Pratt or Flash Hollett. They would be given the green light to rush the puck out of the zone, not unlike defensemen post-Bobby Orr, but coaches always had the forwards fall back defensively. Without skilled forwards to give the puck to, the rushing defender was truly on a solo mission. 

The first key to Doug's success was he was a flawless defender. Doug was so superb in one on one defensive battles that he would routinely steal the puck off the attacker as though he were picking cherries. He would rarely be beaten, and his teammates knew it.

Even more impressive was Doug's ability with the puck. He would rarely simply dump the puck out of the zone. He would be able to gain control of the puck and never give it up. At first he would drive fans and coaches crazy, as he wandered in front of the net with fore-checkers zooming in, but more often than not he would remain calm, and in an unhurried fashion spot a streaking forward with a pinpoint pass. Because of t his uncanny ability Montreal's superstar forwards could afford stay high and loosen up on their backchecking duties. This created the transition game known as fire wagon hockey.

Harvey was also the quarterback of such a devastating power play that it was decided in 1956 to change the rules and allow a player to return to the ice if his team surrendered a power play goal.

Unlike a Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey, Doug wouldn't rush the puck out of his own zone. His thinking was the puck can move faster than any player on the ice, so why not utilize that as a tactic? He had this unique ability to draw in a forechecker which would then open up more ice for his teammates. Perhaps a little reminiscent of a modern day Chris Pronger, Harvey would then plant a perfect pass to one of his forwards, creating an odd-man rush. In doing so, Harvey controlled the game perhaps better than any player in history. More often than not he would rag the puck to slow the game down, but he also knew exactly when to catch the other team by surprise with a perfectly placed pass into an open lane.

Doug Harvey played 21 seasons in professional hockey, 14 of them with the Montreal Canadiens, including six Stanley Cup championships. In 1113 games, Harvey scored 88 goals, but it was his 452 career assists that most impress. He was named to the NHL's First All-Star team 10 times, and once to the Second team. An outstanding baseball and football player as well, he also won the Norris Trophy seven times, emblematic of the best defenseman in hockey.

As a standout on the Canadiens' teams that won five straight Stanley Cups in the 1950's, Doug is ranked by many as one of the greatest defensemen in hockey history. He, Orr and Eddie Shore rank as the usual three suspects, with the expected, and often warranted, consideration to the most modern of defensemen such as Ray Bourque or Denis Potvin.

While almost everyone concedes Bobby Orr is the greatest defenseman of all time, there is the odd oldtimer who will insist it is in fact Doug Harvey.

"As far as I'm concerned," said Harvey's long time coach Toe Blake, who also witnessed modern defensemen like Orr and Paul Coffey, "he's far and away the best defensemen ever."

His statistics are hard to translate into modern times, but perhaps former Hab Hal Laycoe summed up Harvey's measurable contributions best:

If the game was 8-2, Doug Harvey might have a goal and an assist. If the score was 3-2, he'd have 2 or 3 points."

However Doug Harvey was also a troubling personality. He drove his teammates and coaches crazy with his tardiness, stubbornness and often berating ways. Years later it would be determined Harvey was suffering from bipolar disorder, a manic-depressive disease. Back then not much was known about the illness. All the Montreal Canadiens knew was Harvey was becoming harder and harder to put up with, particularly his heavy drinking.

In 1961-62 Doug was traded to the New York Rangers, where he became a player-coach. Preferring to play, he gave up the responsibility of coaching after one season. He preferred as he said, "to go out and take a beer with the boys".

Doug was eventually traded to Detroit, although he only played two games for them. In 1968-69, Doug was acquired by the expansion St. Louis team, and he finished off his playing career that year by helping the Blues reach the Stanley Cup finals.

Doug Harvey is perhaps the greatest all-around defenseman of all time. He was not as offensively gifted as Bobby Orr but controlled in much the same degree if only a contrasting style. He was not as hard hitting as Eddie Shore, but he was known as one of the most physical yet clean defenders of his time.

But he could be mean if the situation called for it. He once viciously speared NY Rangers' Red Sullivan, almost killing him. He also had many bloody battles with the fiery Ted Lindsay, which is ironic since the two of them were so instrumental in the creation of the NHL Players Association.

"He could have played center, he could have played left wing, he could have played goal," former teammate Tom Johnson said. "There was no part of the game he couldn't do."

Unfortunately he would spend much of his last few years battling alcohol and mental illness. For a while, one of hockey's greatest heroes, spent his life living in a railway car (it's not quite as bad as it sounds, it was actually a mobile living unit once used by prime minister John Diefenbaker) at an Ottawa-area race track drinking his life away. 

On December 26, 1989, at the age of 65 he died of cirrhosis of the liver in Montreal General Hospital. He had stopped drinking three years before he passed away, but at that point it was too late.

During the last weeks of his life he didn't regret a thing.

"If I had to do it over again," he said. "I wouldn't have changed a thing."

It's a shame that one of the three best defensemen of all-time spent his last years long forgotten by the media and fans.

Who knows - maybe he would have been alive today if he had some help. But, as Jean Beliveau points out, there is little that can be done since Harvey didn't admit to needing help. But we thank Doug for the fantastic display of hockey that he gave every hockey fan around the world.

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