(Originally posted for the Seaway News on Sept 22nd, 2015. Reprinted with permission. Special thanks to Todd for reaching out.)
By Todd Lihou
CORNWALL, Ontario – Where would the Montreal Canadiens be today without the likes of superstars like Georges Vezina and Cornwall’s own Edouard ‘Newsy’ Lalonde?
To put it bluntly – maybe nowhere.
The fabled National Hockey League team that has won more Stanley Cups than any other franchise can, in large measure, thank the exploits of Vezina and Lalonde for helping to solidify a foundation of greatness that later spawned the legends of household names like Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur.
“When he (Lalonde) was signed, all the other players signed with the Canadiens too, because they knew it would be a success,” said Andre Rivest, a sports journalist who specializes in history with La Presse in Montreal.
Ambrose O’Brien, the owner of the team, had hired Jack Laviolette to build the Canadiens and one of the first names on the short list of players was Lalonde.
“The name he really wanted was Newsy Lalonde,” said Rivest. “Without him, there would be no Montreal Canadiens.”
While Vezina has a trophy named after him, which is awarded to the league’s best goaltender every season, there’s relatively little else left for the likes of Lalonde – a man who scored more goals than any other Canadien from 1917 to 1922 when hockey had none of the stability and name-recognition of today.
There’s a small bronze plaque at one of the entrances to the Bell Centre in Montreal, the home of the Canadiens, that bears Lalonde’s name. His visage is also included among a row of others in a banner in the Habs locker room that speaks the immortal words: “To you from failing hands, we throw the torch.” He’s also a member of the ring of honour that circles the Bell Centre – the list of Canadiens players and builders in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But that’s it. While other superstars have had jerseys retired, statues erected and numbers immortalized, Lalonde appears to some to be an afterthought in a city, and hockey temple, where former glory is discussed on a daily basis.
It was pointed out to Lalonde’s grandson Richard Quintal, who lives in Montreal, that Newsy shares some select company when it comes to the number he wore with the Canadiens, the 4 immortalized by Beliveau.
“Yes, but how many number 1s are up there?” said Quintal. “There are more than one number duplicates hanging from the ceiling. I don’t think it would be a problem.”
Well, kind of…and not really.
There is only a single number 1 retired by the Canadiens – Jacques Plante. The number 4 was thought by some to be “co-retired”…once for the great Beliveau and again for Aurele Joliat. But you won’t find Joliat’s name hanging from the rafters, only that of Le Gros Bill. Joliat attended the retirement ceremony in 1984 for Beliveau and got his own jersey with number 4 and “Joliat” on the back…but the jersey retirement belongs strictly to Beliveau.
In Cornwall the city finally got around to paying some respect to Lalonde, naming the paved entrance to the Cornwall Civic Complex off of Water Street ‘Newsy Lalonde Way’ back in 2010.
The dedication ceremony was attended by throngs of fans and Canadiens greats including Henri Richard and Rejean Houle.
CANADIENS FIRST SUPERSTAR?
Lalonde lived in Cornwall until he was 16, and then rode the boxcars out to Renfrew and Sault Ste. Marie to play hockey….when he wasn’t on the lacrosse field.
Before playing professional ice hockey, he worked in a newspaper plant, where he acquired the “Newsy” moniker and was regarded by many as one of hockey’s and lacrosse’s greatest assets of the first half of the 20th century.
“He used to say that he played hockey in between lacrosse seasons,” laughed Quintal.
It is said that he even scored the first goal in Canadiens’ history in 1910. In the 1919 playoffs he scored 17 goals in just 10 games.
“Let’s be honest: he was a puck hog,” said Quintal, chuckling. “His goals versus assists is insane.”
Indeed, Lalonde ‘only’ had 41 assists in his five NHL seasons with the Canadiens. But he was also a champion, winning the Stanley Cup with the Habs (the first in team history) in 1916 as a playing coach. He scored 28 goals that season, in 24 games.
In 1950 he was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Surely all that (and more) has to be worth something more than he’s received thus far by way of tributes?
“When you look at what he accomplished, it’s hard to argue against what he did in those seasons,” said Steve Dryden, senior managing editor of hockey content for TSN in Toronto and a sports journalist who honed his craft at the Standard-Freeholder in Cornwall before ultimately becoming editor-in-chief of The Hockey News.
Dryden suggested other great Canadiens from the era prior to the Second World War have had their numbers retired or been honoured in some way.
“You’ve got Howie Morenz – he was the Babe Ruth of hockey – Aurele Joliat, why not Newsy Lalonde?”
“The team’s recognition of him is non-existent,” said Quintal. “Jean Beliveau once, many years ago, I was talking with him and he recalled me from Grandpa’s funeral. He said the team should do something for him.”
When Lalonde died in 1970 his Cornwall funeral was attended by most, if not all, of the Canadiens legends to that point.
But it was an event just a few years prior to that that may have set Lalonde and Canadiens just a little bit apart, said Quintal.
The Molson family, owners of the team then (and again today) made the decision in the mid-1960s to discontinue free tickets to former players like Lalonde. A rift, however small, was started.
“His lifetime tickets didn’t last his lifetime,” said Quintal. “He didn’t really forgive them for that.”
But in the same interview Quintal suggests there was still a connection with the team in spite of the perceived snub: “By the time my brother and I were born…he was already 64 or 65. He was always fond of the Canadiens. He loved the game.”
Would the lack of a retired jersey irritate Cornwall’s most famous hockey export?
Not on your life, suggests Quintal.
“Without a doubt, he was one of the most humble men you could meet,” he said. “He’d blush. To him hockey was his job…yes he loved doing it, but he was not self-centred to say he was the first (superstar).
“He’d talk about it because he enjoyed playing.”
To be fair, Lalonde’s is not the only debate the Canadiens have had to deal with when it comes to retiring the numbers of its stars. There’s been a campaign to have Toe Blake’s number 6 raised to the rafters. He enjoyed success and Stanley Cups on the ice with Maurice Richard and later as a coach.
Jacques Lemaire is the only player from the Habs’ dynasty of the 1970s that does not have his number retired. He notched 835 points in 853 games. Bill Durnan’s number one is missing from the Bell Centre rafters…all he did was win six Vezina trophies (there’s that name again) and serve as a first-team all-star six times.
Canadiens archives and team history manager Carl Lavigne said the Habs have done it to themselves in a lot of ways.
“Obviously we’re victims of our own success – there’s no way around it,” he said. “It’s just like the (selections) for the Hockey Hall of Fame. They’re dealing with the same thing.”
Lavigne shied away from addressing a specific question as to why Lalonde’s number has not been retired.
He suggested such a decision is made by a committee of alumnae, journalists and Canadiens owner Geoff Molson. Lavigne added no jersey retirements are planned for this season.
“They decide when to look at it, and when to review it,” said Lavigne.
In the meantime, the debate, not unlike the ups and downs of a hockey season, will continue.
If you would like to add your name to a list of people looking to see Lalonde’s jersey retired, click here to join a social media group with similar thoughts.