Hockey Hall of Fame 2019: Montreal Canadiens legend Guy Carbonneau finally gets call 19 years after hanging up skates

Sporting News

Three-time Stanley Cup champion Guy Carbonneau was one of the elite defensive forwards of his era.

A prolific scorer with Chicoutimi in the QMJHL and Nova Scotia in the AHL, Carbonneau carved out his niche in the NHL with a tenacious competitive streak that defined his career with Montreal, St. Louis and Dallas from 1980-2000.

Known as “Carbo,” he followed linemate Bob Gainey’s lead in winning the Frank J. Selke Trophy three times with the Canadiens. He first won the Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1986, was the Canadiens’ captain when they won the Cup for the 24th time in 1993 and was a key member of the Stars’ first Stanley Cup win in 1999.

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Sporting News caught up with the newest member of the Hockey Hall of Fame to discuss his long-winding career.

(Editor's note: The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Sporting News: How did you find out that you'd been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and what was your reaction?

Guy Carbonneau: Well, the reaction was unbelievable surprise, and then I was really proud of it. Lanny McDonald and John Davison called me about 15-20 minutes before the news came out, to tell me the news and congratulate me and get me prepared for what was going to happen 20 minutes later.

SN: Your election came a fair amount of time after you had retired . . .

GC: Sixteen years . . .

SN: All these years, did you think that there was a possibility that you would go to the Hockey Hall of Fame?

GC: I mean, there's always hope. It’s not something that you get prepared for but obviously, once your career is over you kind of reflect on what you've done, whatever awards, points, how successful you were. I honestly thought that I had a small chance but I knew it had to be the right year. You know, it was 19 years, 16 years actually because you have the three-year waiting period, but now it’s done and it’s going to be a lot of fun.

2019 HHOF class: Nedomansky | Wickenheiser | Zubov | Rutherford | York | Brown | Hughson

SN: You played your junior career with Chicoutimi. When you were drafted [No. 44 by Montreal in the third round in 1979], how would you have described yourself as a prospect at that point?

GC: (Laughs) Well, I was an offensive player. I was extremely small, you know, I was not a big guy.

But, I thought I was an intelligent player with good vision. I was able to score goals but I was more a setup man than anything else. Throughout my career, whether it was minor, junior or the American Hockey League, I was always able to produce points. So obviously, when I got to the NHL there was no doubt in my mind that I was able to kind of compete there, it was just to what level.

SN: What was your reaction when you were drafted by the Canadiens?

GC: I was really happy. You know, I was a small kid from small Quebec French town [Sept-Iles]. The only hockey game that we had on Saturdays was the Montreal Canadiens so I grew up watching those guys. Obviously you start playing junior and your dream is to play in the NHL, but obviously there is a little somewhere in there that it would be fun to be drafted by the Canadiens. And that day in ‘79, when I got the phone call, there was a lot of pride and joy. And I think my parents were as happy as I was.

SN: What was it like your first camp? You go in and that's a team that had won the Stanley Cup four years in a row, all kinds of Hall of Famers. What was that like for you?

GC: If you go back to ‘79, there was no social media, there was no under-18 (team), under-17, under-16 or under-20. Your chances to meet and see those buildings were slim to none. I never had the chance to see the Forum. I never had the chance to meet any professional hockey players before. You could see it on TV, but when you got drafted, it’s not like today where they bring all the kids for development camp weeks in advance where they have a chance to see the building and meet the guys.

So for me, my first day in camp was I jumped on the ice and my left winger was Steve Shutt and my right winger was Guy Lafleur. So I don’t remember touching the puck that day. I was really nervous. I think you come in with your eyes open and you try to absorb everything that you can.

SN: Early in your career you were on a line with Bob Gainey and Chris Nilan. How can you describe the experience of playing with those two guys?

GC: Everybody sees me as a defensive forward and everybody asks me, ‘How did you come about to play that kind of role?’ And for me, it was just to be on the ice and try to help teams win. I wasn't playing a lot in my first year and when Jacques Lemaire came in, his vision of building a team was to try to put a line together that could play against anybody. He already knew what Bob Gainey could do and Chris was more known for his fights on the ice but he was a really good hockey player, you have to give him more credit that he deserves. And I think it was just the right mix putting all three together.

You know, Bob was the veteran, well known for his defensive play. Chris, you know, if something happened on the ice was ready to go in there, but he could play too. And for me, it just gave me more ice time and a bigger role on the team. So we really enjoyed playing together. Everything you know was professional, we talked hockey a lot together. We did a lot of things together and I think that’s why we had success.

SN: There’s a lot of pressure in Montreal. You had some really good teams in the early ‘80s, and yet that is kind of overshadowed by all the Stanley Cups in the past — and winning the Cup was everything. What can you tell me about the playoff run that you guys had in ‘89, and then, of course, the Stanley Cup win in ‘86?

GC: I was here for 12 years . . . and I can say honestly I think every year we had a chance to win. We never had the best team, maybe in the NHL, but we always had enough to win. Unfortunately, you know, it's a league, we had 21 teams and then 26 teams, and now it's a lot of teams, and it's really hard to win. And to go to the end, a lot of things have to go your way. And I thought ‘86 was a good way to show it. I mean, I don't think we had the best team; I think Calgary was a lot better but we connected at the right time. We had some performances from some key players, our goalie was sensational, and then a couple months later we ended up with the Stanley Cup.

And in ‘89 it’s probably the opposite. I thought we had a better team than Calgary, but then it turned out they beat us. All I know is when I was working out in the summer and coming into training camp and the regular season, I had a legitimate chance of winning. And that’s pretty big.

SN: You followed Bob Gainey’s lead in putting your stamp on the Frank J. Selke Trophy. [Carbonneau won the award three times with Montreal, in 1987-88, 1988-89 and 1991-92.] How did that feel, to get that honor and be able to repeat it the way you did?

GC: Well, just to be recognized was huge. I think a lot of good players in the NHL play the right way but never get noticed. I think you just have to get on the radar somehow. And not that everything after that is easier, but once you're on the radar, I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I think having good years in Montreal, playing with a guy like Bob Gainey, and obviously when Jacques [Lemaire] decided to play what his vision was of having a line that could play against every other line. There were a lot of teams and a lot of guys that didn't like what we were doing but we got noticed by a lot of general managers and the newspapers. And I think once you get your name in the paper it’s maybe a little easier, but you still have to produce to keep it going. And as hard as it is to get on that list, it's hard to stay on that list. You’ve got to keep performing. And it's something that I took pride in doing year after year.

SN: After the ‘89 season, you and Chris Chelios became co-captains. Can you describe what that honor was like and also just how that worked, that one year where the two of you shared the captaincy?

GC: It was alright. I think it was awkward at the start but both of us understood what we needed to do. We were two guys that really loved to compete. We did the things that we needed to do to be prepared every game but really never asked a lot of questions. Anywhere else, maybe it would have been a different, or with two other guys, but for us it was just something that we took pride in. We were just happy to be captains and I never went through issues with anybody after that.

SN: Of course, Chris got traded and you became the captain on a full-time basis after that — and that led ultimately to the run that the Canadiens had in 1993. Particularly, you made it your mission to shadow Wayne Gretzky in the Stanley Cup Final.

GC: (Laughs) I’d like to take all the credit but I was playing with some good players and a really good goalie at the right time. Winning all those games in overtime was pretty, pretty amazing and we needed a few things to happen over the course of those playoffs. I thought we were a good team. Every time you had a guy like Patrick Roy in net you were considered a good team and had a chance to win, but Pittsburgh lost in the second round and Boston lost, too. Those were probably the two best teams in the NHL at the time so it just opened the door a little, you know, a crack in the door. And not that we were just waiting for that but obviously you kind of smell blood a bit, and then everything kind of clicked after that.

SN: You won the Stanley Cup on home ice you, becoming the first captain to get the Stanley Cup from Gary Bettman and immediately you gave the cup to Denis Savard. Can you just take us through your thinking on that? I mean you hardly even had the Cup yourself before it was over his head.

GC: I don't know. I really enjoyed playing with Denis. He was somebody that I knew for a long time and you could see that he had an unbelievable career in Chicago, and when he came to Montreal, he did all the right things. He played hard, was a really good teammate, unfortunately he got hurt in the playoffs and his dream was to win the Stanley Cup and not that he didn't do it, he played most of the year and then part of the playoffs. Jacques Demers allowed him during that game to be behind the bench and helping guys, and he was there supporting us.

It was just something that came up in my head over the course of, I wouldn’t say the game because I wasn't really thinking about that, but it's something that came through my head before the game and a couple days before that, 'If I win, what should I do?' I mean, when Ray Bourque won the Cup in Colorado they did it a different way. If I didn't have the chance to win the Cup in ‘86 and touched the Cup in ‘86 maybe I wouldn't have done that. It’s just something that came natural and I never thought about it and just went for it.

SN: A bit of a touchy subject but your departure from Montreal and how everything came about. People categorize it as that photo in the newspaper [where you were seen giving a photographer the finger]. Was that the case? Was there more to it than that?

GC: I hope that there was more to it than that. I was 34-years-old; I didn’t have a really bad season but it was not up to my standard. I had a bad knee, I was injured most of the year and I was trying to battle through it, trying to look for the best treatments for it and couldn't find it. We had a bad ending, and that event came out. And then on top of that I was on the board for the NHLPA, we were going to a possible lockout. There were a lot of things. I'm not saying that thing didn't have a part in it but I think it was just a smaller part.

I think the picture was bad and I regretted it all my life; it was something that I shouldn’t have done. But it was not the picture as much as the article that was written. In the article it was kind of me giving the finger to the fans, and that wasn't at all the truth. It was just telling the reporter, or at the time we thought it was a camera, that it was a private place, that we're having fun and just to leave us alone.

SN: When you got word of the trade, was your reaction one of shock?

GC: Yeah, it was. I was on the golf course for charity events. I had my golf tournament that day. So just before dinner, I learned that I was traded to St. Louis. You know, I was the captain, we won the Cup two years before. I didn't see any reason. Nothing happened, really. I wasn’t in a contract year, there was no bad-mouthing between me and Serge or me and the coach or anything like that. So there was definitely a surprise there. But now, with time and age, you reflect on what happened and it was probably a good thing for me — I learned a different culture. I had a chance to extend my career six more years and play with some really good teams in Dallas, some really good players. My two daughters still live in Dallas, so it was all for good.

SN: You were with the Stars when they played the last game at the Montreal Forum. What did it mean to you at that point to be able to be part of that emotional ceremony?

GC: Just the fact that it was Montreal against Dallas, where Bob Gainey was there and it was a bunch of guys that played in Montreal, I mean, to be on the ice for the last game and for that ceremony was huge. It's something that I will never forget.

SN: And you wore a Canadiens jersey during the ceremony?

GC: Yes. After the game they came into the dressing room and they asked me if I would wear a jersey and go on the carpet. And there was not a lot of reflection there, that was a quick answer.

SN: I imagine that might have done a little too to heal any wounds about leaving Montreal the way you did, that Canadiens fans were able to show you their appreciation?

GC: Well there was a little bit of that, I'm sure. But there were so many unbelievable players on the ice at that time. You know, I was pretty far down the line when you’ve got guys like Jean Beliveau, Maurice Richard, Guy Lafleur, Yvan Cournoyer and Henri Richard. I mean, Guy Carbonneau was pretty far down the list, but it was a great ceremony and it was a lot of fun.

SN: Let’s talk about your time in Dallas. You said you got to play six more years and obviously you continued to play at an elite level.

GC: St. Louis was kind of half of a season. There was no fight between me and Mike Keenan but I don't think we saw eye to eye on a lot of things. I thought they came to get me to get some experience and some leadership — and I'm not saying that I wasn't allowed to do that but I was hoping I could do a little bit more. So I wasn't really surprised the next training camp when they brought me in and they told me that Bob Gainey is looking for a centerman because Bob Bassen broke his leg and he would like to have you in Dallas. And I said yes right away.

Mike Keane was there, Brian Skrudland and Craig Ludwig, too, guys that I had played with and won with. And that what Bob wanted to do. He knew he had some really good players in Mike Modano, Sergei Zubov and Derian Hatcher, guys like that, but he needed to maybe have a little leadership around it. And for the last three years of my career, probably four years, we were one of the best teams in the NHL.

SN: What did it mean for you at that stage in your career to not only win a Stanley Cup but to be part of a team winning its first Stanley Cup?

GC: That was pretty special also. It would have been a little bit different if I had come to the team that year. But when I got traded there, I don't think we made the playoffs, if I'm recalling right. And then after that Bob started to put the pieces together and then he kept just building it year after year. So to be part of that process was a lot of fun. There was a lot of frustration at the beginning but it was a lot of fun after that. And then we almost made it in ‘98, we won it in ‘99 and lost it in 2000. So there were some really, really good times there. We build it up from where the rink was not full but it became really full after that. And the Cowboys were struggling, the Mavericks were struggling, the Rangers were struggling, and we were having fun. So we were the talk of the town, pretty much. It was a lot of fun to be part of that.

SN: I have to ask you about the opponents you played against. You mentioned Gretzky, of course, and you went up against Mario Lemieux. How can you describe what it was like to compete at that level and to be facing centers of that caliber throughout your career?

GC: (Laughs) It was a lot of stress. It was a lot of fun, too. I really enjoyed competing, I like good challenges, and every time that I had the chance to play against one of the best it was a challenge for me and I took pride in being ready and performing well. There were struggles sometimes. You don't play 80 games against some of the best players and come out on the winning side all the time. There were some losses there and some of them hurt more than others, but I always took that as a chance to be better next time, and that's what I took a lot of pride in doing.

SN: And I have to ask you about the rivalry that Canadiens had with the Quebec Nordiques. How can you describe what it was like to be a part of it, and is that missing from the NHL, that particular rivalry?

GC: It was pretty amazing. The thing is I don't know if there is a rivalry like that now. It was not just on the ice, it was in the paper, on TV, coaches against coaches. A lot of things were said. If you remember, in those years we used to play those teams eight times, a few times in preseason, and then we had a chance to play a seven-game series against those guys. So that was a lot of animosity, a lot of things were said and done on the ice. It was not easy, but it was fun to get in those competitions. When we played the Nordiques on a Saturday night, it would be Monday and we had two games, Tuesday and Wednesday, and nobody was talking about those two games. Everybody was talking about the game on Saturday. I'm not saying it was inappropriate, but a lot of things were done that wouldn't be acceptable now.

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