Garry Monahan in his first Canadiens photo.
First published: Monday, June 29 2009
Thirty young men were called to the floor of the Bell Centre on Friday night, the simple act of pulling on a hockey jersey and cap forever changing their lives.
The two-day, seven-round NHL entry draft began with a made-for-TV gala, every drop of suspense wrung from all 30 first-round selections that launched the proceedings.
Garry Monahan would like to tell you he remembers the league’s first amateur draft, held on June 5, 1963 at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. He was the Canadiens’ No. 1 choice, thus the first-ever pick in the NHL’s organized dispersal of young talent.
But Monahan, 62, recalls nothing of it, despite the history it made. This was the first time teams could draft priority rights to junior-age amateur players, who until then belonged to the NHL club that sponsored their junior or minor-league teams.
The Montreal Star devoted four brief paragraphs to the ’63 amateur draft, in which 21 players total (all Canadians) were selected by the NHL’s six clubs. The Gazette ignored it entirely.
Not that there was much to cover. The six clubs held the draft behind closed doors and it wasn’t until some days later that the names of the drafted 16-year-olds, and the teams on which they played, were announced.
There were few blue-chip prospects in the pool that June and for a few years to come, most of the best young players already tied to NHL clubs by way of junior-team sponsorship or signed C-form commitment.
And the ’63 amateur draft, at the tail end of three days of NHL meetings, took a back seat both to a quiet inter- league draft that preceded it and a blockbuster Canadiens trade, Montreal sending goaler Jacques Plante and forwards Don Marshall and Phil Goyette to the New York Rangers for goalie Gump Worsley and forwards Dave Balon, Len Ronson and Leon Rochefort.
“I was 16 at the time. What did I know?” Monahan says today of being the NHL’s milestone No. 1 selection. “I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know there was a draft. Certainly my parents and my older brother didn’t know.
“The phone rang after the fact, and I don’t even remember if it was the next day or the next week. We were all sort of flabbergasted.”
Monahan’s father, Patrick, took the call from incoming Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock, listened to the news that his son had just been drafted by Montreal, then asked Pollock what the word “draft” meant.
“My recollection is that my dad then told Sammy: ‘You mean Pat, Garry’s (18-year-old) brother?’ ” Monahan recalls, laughing. “Pat was the better player.”
But it was Garry the Canadiens had selected, and soon here came Pollock and Scotty Bowman, then the Canadiens’ head scout for eastern Canada, pulling into the Monahan driveway in Toronto-suburban Scarborough. For this, he remembers, his family became instant celebrities.
The two executives laid out Monahan’s options: play with the Junior A Peterborough Petes, then managed by the Canadiens, or join the Baby Habs in Montreal. Monahan’s father encouraged Garry to finish up at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, then play with the Petes.
“I’d been thinking: ‘I’m a third-line guy. Drafted? What the hell is this? I’m not very good,’ ” Monahan recalls, saying he was more bewildered than disappointed to be drafted by the Canadiens while growing up in the heart of Maple Leafs country.
In fact, hockey hadn’t even been on the radar of the teenager, who tried out for the St. Mike’s bantam club on a whim and made it. He’d always skated two years ahead of himself as a tag-along on Pat’s minor-league teams, a third-liner at best.
Only at 19, in his third and final season with the powerhouse Petes, did Monahan emerge from the shadows, scoring 30 goals and 54 assists in 47 games.
He graduated from the Petes in the spring of 1967 and reported “scared skinny” that fall to the Canadiens’ Forum training camp, in the first season of an expanded NHL. Monahan recalls dorm-style living with maybe 20 fellow hopefuls in the windowless basement of the downtown Martinique Hotel, battling with fellow rookie Jacques Lemaire for the team’s fourth spot at centre.
He was one of the few left standing when camp broke and bodies were farmed to the Central league’s Houston Apollos or back to their junior clubs, “and it was then that it became very intimidating, with Toe Blake the coach and Jean Béliveau the captain.”
Monahan was paid $8,000 to sign and $10,000 for the season, riches he’d never imagined. His wife-to-be, Barbara, was earning $4,000 as a teacher.
He spent more time with Houston than Montreal during his two seasons here, though he recalls practising through the playoffs with the Canadiens as they won their 15th and 16th Stanley Cups.
There were tough moments, but even those are fond memories.
Monahan remembers largely fending for himself, nearly missing an overnight train to New York then unknowingly crawling into a lower berth that was reserved for Béliveau.
He recalls hobbling lamely onto a team bus, on a foot nearly broken, then being verbally undressed by Blake for arriving 30 seconds late.
By now, Lemaire was on his way to stardom and Monahan was a commodity. Pollock packaged him to Detroit with Doug Piper for Peter Mahovlich, a former teammate at St. Mike’s who went second to the Red Wings in the 1963 draft, and Bart Crashley on June 6, 1969.
It was six years and a day after Pollock had drafted Monahan into the NHL.
“Sammy finally realized his mistake,” he jokes, “so he traded me for Peter.”
Molded into an efficient checking centre, Monahan would play 734 NHL games for Detroit, Toronto and Vancouver before enjoying three seasons in Japan, absorbing a new culture while skating for a company team in Tokyo.
He and Barbara, who would lose her battle to cancer, finally settled back in West Vancouver, where he did radio work for the Canucks and branched out into stock brokerage and, his current career, real estate. His three sons have given him two grandchildren.
Through the years, Monahan hasn’t set an alarm to watch the NHL’s annual entry draft.
But he tuned in Friday night when another Torontonian was chosen No. 1 overall in a Montreal ceremony that was a little flashier than his own of 1963.
“Clearly a big change from my experience,” he suggests.
And there would be no need for anyone to phone Joe Tavares to advise him about the future of his son, John.
Monahan’s first shift lasted 10 seconds
Debut in 1967 marked by getting steamrolled by Bruins’ Eddie Shack,
being hit in the face by a puck
Garry Monahan vividly remembers his National Hockey League début, which is remarkable given that he was knocked unconscious about a dozen seconds into it.
The Canadiens had made Monahan, then 16, their first selection in the NHL’s historic first amateur draft in June 1963. He arrived in Montreal for training camp four autumns later, having played one season at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto and three more with the major-junior Peterborough Petes, which in the mid-’70s would send Bob Gainey and Doug Jarvis to the Habs.
Monahan latched on with the Canadiens organization in the autumn of 1967, shuttling between Montreal and the club’s Central Professional farm team, the Houston Apollos. He’d play only 11 games that season with the Canadiens, who were blessed at centre with captain Jean Béliveau, Henri Richard, Ralph Backstrom and rookie Jacques Lemaire.
It was Oct. 21, 1967 at the Forum, the first time Monahan had been dressed for a regular-season game, and he recalls warming the end of the bench as the Canadiens pulled away from the Boston Bruins. With Montreal up by a few goals late in the game, Monahan felt the hand of coach Toe Blake on his back.
“I’d been on the bench for two and a half periods when Toe came down and said: ‘Monahan, take off Béliveau,’ ” he said, laughing at the memory. “I climbed over the boards, already out of breath, my legs like ice, and I’m panting just getting to the faceoff circle. I say: ‘Okay, Jean, take a rest.’
“Ten seconds later, I have the puck behind my own net, for some reason. I’m a centreman, so I’m not sure why I’m back there.”
He was sure, however, that he was about to be freight-trained by Boston newcomer Eddie Shack, so he fired the puck along the boards to a teammate at the blue line. Monahan braced for impact, he and Shack crumpling together in a heap.
But the young Canadien scrambled to his skates, “again out of breath, from nerves.”
Whoever had received Monahan’s pass at the blue line decided to return it, with some force, high along the glass. The puck was felt before it was ever seen.
“It hit me flat, on the cheekbone near the bridge of my nose, and cut me in three different places,” he said. “Down I went. I remember dropping my gloves. There was (defenceman) J.C. Tremblay, and I recall grabbing at his sweater as I sunk to my knees, out cold.
“They dragged me off after a shift of about 10 seconds. That was it.”
The injury looked worse than it was, but its timing was dreadful. A day or two later, a photographer from the Topps company arrived at the Forum to shoot that season’s bubblegum cards.
Monahan, who would wear No. 20 for each of his 11 Canadiens games that season and No. 11 for his final three games in 1968-69, was inexplicably given a grab-bag of equipment for the photo.
With an ugly red welt beneath his left eye, Photoshop not yet invented, he was snapped in Yvan Cournoyer’s No. 12 jersey while wearing Gilles Tremblay’s No. 5 gloves to hold a stick stencilled with Dick Duff’s No. 8.
Monahan still has the card today somewhere in his West Vancouver home, “probably in the attic.”
So what, he figures, if the card might fetch just 20 bucks in near-mint condition. Or that Topps forgot an “r” in his first name.
The memories of his NHL début with the Canadiens are what matter most. There’s no putting a price on “okay, Jean, take a rest.”
Garry Monahan in his David Bier team portrait and his rookie card: