(Ed. Note: Welcome to the Puck Daddy 2013 summer project, the National Hockey League of Nations. We’ve recruited 30 writers/blogs to identify the best player in their favorite team’s history for each major nationality that creates the fabric of our beloved NHL: Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Finland and The Rest of The World. It’s their criteria, as long as they can justify it. Read, debate and enjoy! If you want to do so on Twitter, it's #NHLoN.)
By Erica Taddeo, Hab It Her Way
Canada: Jean Beliveau
Choosing the greatest Canadian Canadien is like picking your favourite pun in a Fozzie Bear routine. You just can't do it.
But since that is the point of this challenge, I had no choice but to pick one. Jean Béliveau has got to be the best Canadian-born player this franchise has ever seen.
It feels awful to skip over the likes of Maurice Richard, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy, but if there can only be one, then it has to be Beliveau. He's impossible to hate. No, really: I don't think that even the most idiotic of rival teams' fans could deny the greatness of Le Gros Bill.
(Dear commenters: This is NOT an invitation to prove me wrong.)
He's the third-highest scorer in franchise history. He won 10 Stanley Cups as a player. Half of those wins occurred while he was team captain. And since he retired, his involvement with the Canadiens has landed his name on the Cup seven more times. Beliveau has spent nearly his entire life involved with the Habs in some capacity.
When Beliveau was 15 years old, then-GM Frank Selke took notice of his skill and immediately started working to make him a Montreal Canadien. He’s been one ever since, racking up the aforementioned Cups, two Hart Trophies, an Art Ross, the first-ever Conn Smythe and over 500 career goals.
He helped to shape the Canadiens during their greatest dynasty, and since Montreal is pretty fond of its hockey history, that's kind of a big deal.
He continued to give the team this same leadership and spirit even after he retired, taking the title of "goodwill ambassador" very, very seriously. Heck, they wanted to name him governor-general of the entire damn country, and he turned down the job in order to help his daughter take care of her young children.
Beliveau is now 81 years old and still accepts fan mail, though he might not answer it as quickly as he used to. To this day, he has season tickets at the Bell Centre and only misses games for health reasons. He set the standard for Canadiens captains, and probably for NHL captains in general.
It's impossible to think of a player, Canadian or otherwise, who has given as much to the franchise and its city as Beliveau has.
Finland: Saku Koivu
Saku Koivu is, without a doubt, the greatest Finn to ever wear the 'CH.'
He's one of the best captains in Canadiens history, and don't you dare bring up the fact that he never won a Cup. It would be stupid to place the blame for that solely on him, when his patience, perseverance and playmaking skills prove otherwise. I could go on at length about his incredible battle with cancer and his work with cancer patients in the city, but you've all seen (and cried at) the eight-minute standing ovation he received upon his return to the game in 2002. Instead, I'll focus on the other things that endeared him to his fans.
He constantly showed the kind of patience required of a Montreal Canadiens captain, and then some. (Keep in mind that he was the team's first European-born captain, and his first language was neither English nor French.) He was never the team's highest goalscorer, but he made every one of his linemates better. He came through for his team when they needed him most, like when he scored the winning shootout goal in the Habs' thrilling 6-5 comeback game against the Rangers in February 2008.
Some people call that "clutch." I just call it Koivu.
His time in Montreal ended on kind of a sour note, with an expired contract and a GM's desire to shake things up, but fueled mostly by whoever it was that whined about not wanting him to wear the 'C' anymore. He'd been expected to spend ten years learning a third language and speaking it fluently, so that some members of the local media could have the luxury of interviewing him in their mother tongue. There was not a single mention of the fact that he speaks English perfectly, and that he'd kept his composure as captain of the league's craziest market.
But sometimes in Montreal, a part of the city makes its voice heard so loudly that it appears to speak on behalf of everyone, and, like a cranky child, eventually gets its way.
A year and a half later, when Koivu returned to Montreal as an Anaheim Duck, he was given a hero's welcome and looked genuinely happy to be skating under the rafters from which his No. 11 might hang someday. (To date, only Canadian players have had their jerseys retired by the Canadiens.)
All was forgiven, now that the cranky children had had time to think about what they did. And those of us who never wanted him gone were just glad to have him back.
USA: Chris Chelios
Choosing Chris Chelios as the greatest American Hab was kind of a no-brainer, since he might be the best American NHLer of all time. Honestly, if I was as good at hockey as Chelios was, I'd play until I was 79 years old, too.
Chelios started to play for the Canadiens after the 1984 Olympics. His first NHL goal was a playoff game-winner in Game 1 of the first round. His first full season as a Montreal Canadien was just as impressive, setting a new scoring record for Canadiens rookie defencemen and earning him a second-place finish in voting for the Calder Trophy (which he lost to Mario Lemieux, so that's okay, I guess).
His best season as a Hab, by far, was 1988-89. Holy crap. His career stats are impressive, but that one season speaks for itself. I want to put on my Habs jersey and stand up and cheer every time I read his stats for that year. (And I did!) Seventy-three regular season points, 19 playoff points in 21 games, and enough fights to prove that he's not the kind of d-man you can mess with. He kicked ass and took names, and unless you're Ron Hextall, you know that his Norris Trophy win that year was well-deserved.
Since then, no Canadiens blueliner has been able to match Chelios' 1989 tally for regular season or playoff points. I can't help but wonder what would have happened in Montreal if Chelios had never been traded.
Sweden: Mats Naslund
You'd think that after Mats Naslund opened the door for European players in Montreal, the Canadiens would chase down every available Swede. Or maybe Naslund set the bar too high.
Instead of going after Swedes, the Habs have decided to pursue players of similarly small stature, assuming that all guys under 5-9 would perform like he did. If that were true, Montreal would be unstoppable right now.
Naslund burst right out of the gate and endeared himself to fans by scoring a hat trick in his first-ever game as a Hab, a preseason meeting with the Flyers. He picked up 71 points in his first year, and was named to the NHL's All-Rookie team. He was a fixture on All-Star teams and podiums, despite missing the World Championships most years because he was in the NHL playoffs, scoring goals like this one:
Seriously, how did that go in? Is he magic or something? Do they have leprechauns in Sweden?
His 110-point season in 1985-86 was incredible. It was also the last time a Canadiens player scored 100 points in a season, so consider this my plea to Brendan Gallagher, who hadn't even been born yet when it happened. By the time Naslund left Montreal for Europe in 1990, he was a fixture at the All-Star Game who'd won a Stanley Cup, a Lady Byng and the approval of fans who loved cheering for him as he tried to fill the very big skates of Habs legend Guy Lafleur.
If only every one of his short-guy successors could do the same.
Russia: Alex Kovalev
Alex Kovalev's career as a Montreal Canadien was, to borrow a phrase from LL Cool J, something like a phenomenon.
Case in point: The rest of the world calls him "Alexei." Like any good Montrealer, I have literally never referred to him as "Alexei" Kovalev. I have no idea who that is. Alex Kovalev, on the other hand, was the kind of fast-skating, high-scoring superstar forward who could raise the decibel level in the Bell Centre with just a flick of his wrist. He was traded to Montreal at 30 and his first 12 games as a Canadien, at the end of the 2003-04 season, weren't that impressive - but as soon as the playoffs started, he proved that he could bring the same kind of energy to Montreal that he did to Pittsburgh and New York, scoring 6 goals in 11 games.
His 35-goal season in 2007-08 helped bring the Canadiens to the top of the Eastern Conferece, and was the best season by a Habs player in the modern era. It weren't just his goals; it was how he scored them. Moving so fast, so fluidly, dekeing around his opponents and flicking the puck into the net like there was nothing in his way. There's no denying that he fed the awful cliché of "enigmatic Russian," but his low points and his off games were often overlooked, because the on games were just so on.
Habs fans of all ages worshipped him. Case in point: he released a DVD in March 2008 titled My Hockey Tips and Training Methods. Its release wasn't as widely advertised as you'd expect, but it sold itself. I worked at a video store when it was released. Everyone came in to the store to buy a copy. (Even fat guys.) We couldn't restock fast enough. I'd bet that there are tons of kids in hockey programs who still remember watching it, and have a copy of it tucked away with a faded Kovalev T-shirt that doesn't fit anymore.
Slovakia: Jaroslav Halak
It's amazing to think that the Canadiens' best Slovakian player, Jaroslav Halak, spent only two full seasons with the team, and as a backup. It's pretty rare that a backup goalie would enter the public consciousness like Halak did, but it's also pretty rare that a backup goalie would possess his incredible talent and composure.
He first made his mark when he stepped in for an injured Cristobal Huet in 2006-07, before Carey Price ever started a game for the Canadiens. Halak was reliable, cool under pressure, earning his first shutout against the Bruins a month after he started in the NHL. He kept Montreal, a city famous for its goaltending, in the running for a playoff spot until the very last game of the season.
The following season marked the beginning of Price's NHL career. Halak spent most of the first half of the season in the AHL, only earning the official slot of backup goaltender when Huet was traded. Price was talented, but a little uneven in his rookie season, and Halak proved to be dependable whenever he was called on. The Habs' playoff run that year was thrilling and fun and brought the city together.
Interestingly enough, the postseason two years later would be just as thrilling, but a lot more divisive. Halak had just come off a solid performance at the Vancouver Olympics. Carey Price was inconsistent, which frustrated everyone who believed that he was the second coming of St. Patrick Roy.
Now, Montreal is a hockey city if there ever was one. In 2010, it was like there was no other game in town. Seriously. No one celebrated the Alouettes' Grey Cup win as much as they celebrated any given Habs playoff win in 2010. The rise of Jaroslav Halak was huge, even by Montreal standards. Even the fair-weather hockey fans, the people who don't know what hockey is until April rolls around, were picking sides. (It was not unlike the whole “vampire vs. werewolf” thing that teenaged Twilight fans were fighting over at the time.)
People bought Halak shirts. They put his name on stop signs. Everyone knew his name. He was essential in getting the 8th-place Habs through two rounds of playoff upsets, to the Eastern Conference Final. No one was nervous about these playoff games, just excited. Halak stopped everything that came at him. He set a new franchise record by pulling off a 53-save shutout. He was incredible.
So, naturally, he was traded, because Montreal had two insanely talented goalies, and one cannot live while the other survives. His play in St. Louis hasn't quite been the same as it was in Montreal, and on a clear day, if you look closely enough, you can still find souvenir shops on Ste. Catherine street selling the remnants of their Halak merchandise.
Czech Republic: Petr Svoboda
Petr Svoboda set a pretty high standard for Czech hockey players in Montreal, and it has nothing to do with his scoring ability.
When he was draft-eligible in 1984, he wasn't expected to be drafted in the first round because he wouldn't have been able to leave Czechoslovakia for many years. Why use a draft pick on a player who won't be able to give you his best seasons? If you're Serge Savard, you use that high draft pick because you know that Svoboda has just defected from Czechoslovakia so that he could play hockey at a higher professional level. So, with the fifth overall pick at the draft in Montreal, Savard took to the mic and announced the selection of Petr Svoboda, who is then ushered out of the shadows to put on his jersey. No one knew that he had defected except for the Canadiens, who arranged his travel from Munich (where he had been hiding out) and put him up in a hotel room until they called his name.
The Canadiens pulled off the ultimate draft surprise (no offense to Marty Brodeur's recent seventh-round nepotism).
He started his career pretty strongly, with two assists in his first game, and would continue to be a reliable two-way defenseman. Some people doubted him, saying he wasn't big enough, but he proved them wrong by playing through injury and delivering smooth passes, most notably in his career-high 45-point 1988-89 season. T
he Habs' first Czech player came in with a bang, and gave his team a few solid seasons, though he never made headlines with quite as many exclamation marks as he did on draft day.
REST OF THE WORLD CATEGORY
Rather than profile one player, I’d just like to point out the following former Canadiens are often referred to as “Russian,” but are in fact from other countries that border Russia:
Alexander Perezhogin, who up and left Montreal to play in the KHL, is actually from Kazakhstan.
Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, brothers whose legacy in Montreal will unfortunately always include their ties to an alleged member of the Mafia, are from Belarus.
Mikhail Grabovski is also from Belarus, but his impact in Montreal was minimal compared to his career in Toronto. I’d venture to say that Sergei Kostitsyn’s impulsiveness, speed, and raw talent would have made him the Canadiens’ best Belarusian player. Unfortunately, his impulsiveness, speed, and raw talent are part of what ultimately drove him out of town. He was inconsistent, stubborn, and lacked focus, and all of that talent and flashiness ended up going to waste instead of making history in the NHL's greatest city.