Doug Harvey is the great one that nobody much talks about, yet is one of the best defensemen ever to play ice hockey.
Before Bobby Orr, there was Doug Harvey. He keyed the attack of what is arguably the greatest team of all time — the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1950s – winners of five straight Stanley Cups. The best defender in the league, Harvey pioneered the role of the offensive defenseman later perfected by Orr and Larry Robinson. An exceptional skater and passer, Harvey would take the puck off an opponent’s stick and push it up the ice with ease, patiently creating the odd-man rush. The first player who figured out how to create offense from defense, he created what came to be known as fire wagon hockey and single-handedly changed the game. In 17 NHL seasons –14 with Montreal — Harvey was a First Team All-Star ten times and made Second Team once. He won seven Norris Trophies as the league’s best defenseman. Only Orr, with eight, has more. Harvey led his teams to six Stanley Cup titles and is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1985, the Canadiens retired his Number 2.
Born in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace neighborhood December 19, 1924, Douglas Norman Harvey was a natural athlete. He began playing organized hockey at 13, first as an undersized goaltender – a position he despised – and later as a center. Harvey ultimately moved to defenseman, a position he would later revolutionize. He served with the Montreal Navy in World War II and he was an MVP in the Quebec Rugby Football Union. Upon his return from service, Harvey played football with the Montreal Hornets, predecessors of the CFL’s Alouettes. He played third base for the Ottawa Nationals in the Class C Border League and helped the Montreal Royals win the Quebec Senior Hockey League title in 1945-46. Harvey debuted with the Canadiens in the 1947-48 season.
The Norris Trophy was introduced in 1954. Named after James Norris, the longtime owner of the Detroit Red Wings, it is awarded annually to the NHL’s top defensive player. After Detroit’s Red Kelly won the inaugural Norris, Harvey won seven of the next eight and, if not for nagging injuries suffered during the 1959 season, he would have won another. Beginning in 1952, he made 11 straight All-Star teams. Displaying a flawless defensive style that resulted in turnovers, Harvey was nearly impossible to beat. He invented transitional hockey, collecting the puck in the defensive zone before calmly delivering a pass with laser precision. Prior to Harvey, defensemen stayed in their own zone, dropping the puck to forwards who would then start the offensive rush. Harvey changed that. Controlling the game from center ice, he was arguably the second-best playmaker of all time, after Wayne Gretzky.
The Montreal Canadiens won five straight Stanley Cups between 1956 and 1960. Unquestionably one of the greatest teams ever, the Habs featured some of the best players in NHL history, including captain Jean Beliveau, Jacques Plante, Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion and Maurice Richard. Doug Harvey was the key to their attack. The quarterback of the greatest power play of its time, Montreal was capable of scoring two or three goals during a single two-minute penalty. The Habs were so effective that the NHL implemented a rule change. Beginning in 1956, once a goal was scored on a power play, the penalty ended and both teams returned to full strength.
Most hockey purists rate Harvey, Orr and Eddie Shore – a Boston Bruins great from the 1930s — as the three best defensemen ever. Ray Bourque, Larry Robinson and Denis Potvin may also be in the discussion. Although not as offensively gifted as Orr and not as hard-hitting as Shore, Harvey is perhaps the best all-around defenseman of all time. Longtime Canadiens coach, Toe Blake, saw them all. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s [Harvey] far and away the best defenseman ever.” With unmatched versatility, Harvey paved the way for current NHL defenders Duncan Keith, P.K. Subban and Drew Doughty. “He could have played center, he could have played left wing,” former teammate and 1959 Norris winner, Tom Johnson, said. “There was no part of the game he couldn’t do.”
Mr. Harvey did not make friends among NHL owners during his playing career. A staunch advocate for players’ rights, pensions and salaries, he fought the establishment. Labeled as a “troublemaker” for his attempts at unionization, Montreal traded Harvey to the lowly New York Rangers prior to the 1961 season. Harvey responded by winning another Norris Trophy as a Ranger. Needing money, he played for several minor league teams in the mid-60s before finishing his career with the expansion St. Louis Blues. Harvey retired at 44 following the 1969 season having played in 1,113 career NHL games.
Sadly, the great Doug Harvey battled alcoholism while suffering from bipolar disorder. Blacklisted from the NHL for years, he was finally inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973, but skipped the ceremony to go fishing. The Canadiens finally got around to retiring his number in 1985, two-and-a-half decades after last skated for the Habs. One week after celebrating his 65thbirthday, Mr. Harvey died of cirrhosis of the liver in a Montreal hospital the day after Christmas in 1989.
In 1998, Doug Harvey was ranked sixth on The Hockey News’ list of the Top 100 NHL Players of All Time.