3. Doug Harvey
Heroic and Tragic
Born: Dec. 19, 1924, Montreal
Died: Dec. 26, 1989
Habs Career: 1947-1961
6 Stanley Cups, 9 first-team all-stars, 1 second-team all-star, 6 Norris Trophies
76-371-447, 1042 PIM in 890 games
The Hockey Hall of Fame still has two artifacts that are a testament to Doug Harvey’s brilliance and his penchant for thumbing his nose at the establishment.
The first is a handwritten note from Harvey’s wife Ursula, politely informing the Hall of Fame Harvey had not budged on his decision to refuse his induction in 1973.
The other is the Hall of Fame ring all members receive upon induction, a bauble Harvey never bothered to pick up because he never acknowledged he was in the Hall in the first place. Despite his objections, the Hall inducted him anyway.
It certainly wasn’t because he didn’t belong there, at least for his on-ice exploits. Harvey was the best defenseman of his era and, depending upon who is offering the opinion, the best of all-time. A superior first-passer and wonderful skater, Harvey could also excel in defensive lockdown or an back-alley brawl. There was no style of play in which Harvey was not confident and comfortable.
Many players can claim greatness, but precious few can be remembered for changing the landscape of the game. Harvey’s game was so predicated on attacking that he opened the gap between defensemen and forwards and made his team a lethal offensive threat. His passing and rushing strengths, not to mention his ability to get back into defensive position when he did wander, stretched the ice for the Canadiens and allowed their talented forwards to devote more of their efforts to creating offense.
“He would always say, ‘It’s easier for you guys to skate without the puck than with the puck,’” recalled former teammate and close friend Dickie Moore. “He’d say, ‘Give it to me and I’ll give it back to you.”
Former teammate Billy Reay once said that, “When Doug put a pass on your stick, it was like a feather.”
A native of Montreal who as a child delivered newspapers to Canadiens goaltending great Bill Durnan, Harvey won the Norris Trophy seven of the first nine years the award was presented, and was runner-up for it the first year it was awarded. He remains the only player in NHL history to win the Norris with two teams and was a first-team all-star for 10 of 11 seasons starting in 1951-52.
But Harvey could be as belligerent as he was brilliant. He often frustrated coaches and GMs with his attitude and work ethic and his involvement in the early days of the NHL Players’ Association earned him a one-way ticket out of Montreal in 1961. Harvey was more than happy to shake hands after a playoff series if the Canadiens won, but would never do it if they lost.
“We were winning all the time, so that didn’t happen too often,” Moore recalled.
But Harvey was also seen by those who knew him best as a fiercely loyal friend who had a kind heart and a soft spot, particularly for those who most needed help.
“People like to talk about his drinking episodes, but he was an ordinary man. He cared for people who were ordinary,” Moore said. “If you needed help, he would be there. When I lost my son (in a car accident in 1973), he was on the doorstep waiting for me at 6:30 in the morning. I came from identifying my son and he was there.”
But as brilliant as Harvey was on the ice and as gregarious as he was off, he had an enormous tragic flaw. His drinking often overshadowed his accomplishments. He never apologized for his vices, once telling a reporter, “When they drop this body into the ground, it won’t rot for a long time. It’s full of alcohol. It’s got its own embalming fluid.”
After being sent to the Rangers for Lou Fontinator in 1961, Harvey bounced around the NHL and the minors before retiring for good following a stint with the St. Louis Blues in 1969. The Canadiens won four more Stanley Cups from the time Harvey left to the time he retired and there are teammates who will tell you he should have been there for all of them and retired a Canadien.
But it was not to be. The Canadiens demanded a certain comportment both on and off the ice and Harvey simply was not the kind of personality to be restricted by such things.
“There always seemed to be two sides to Doug’s life,” Jean Beliveau said in 1986. “He was one of the greats of the game, always will be, but there is that tragic side.”
Harvey was bypassed for induction into the Hall of Fame in 1972, three years after he retired, and a large part of the reason was his drinking. When Harvey learned of his fate, former Canadiens GM Frank Selke, who was also on the selection committee, told Harvey: “I can get you in next year, Doug, but you’ve got to help me.”
Harvey took it as such a slap in the face that he refused to be included among the inductees in 1973, saying he was going on a fishing trip the day of the gala. He was also upset the Hall took so long to induct former Maple Leafs great Busher Jackson, who also fell on very hard times because of his drinking habits. Jackson retired in 1944, but wasn’t inducted until 1971.
“What they’re telling me is that they won’t put me in because I’m not averse to sampling the nectar of the gods now and then,” Harvey said in 1972. “The difference is that I’ll hoist a few in full view of everyone where other guys will sneak around the corner to do theirs.”
Harvey’s drinking became more prominent as his life progressed to the point where the were reports he was destitute and living in a boxcar near the Connaught Race Track in Ottawa. The car was actually a luxury car with all the amenities and Harvey was doing security at the track. The Canadiens took him back into the fold as a scout until he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1989 at the age of 65.
“A lot of people, the team, tried to help,” Rocket Richard told a reporter when Harvey died. “Most times, he wouldn’t listen. He would do things his way. Everyone tried to put him on the right path, but there was nothing to be done.”