1993 Stanley Cup archive: Habs’ Carbonneau wants to take on Gretzky

Flashback: As Habs prepared for Game 2, Guy Carbonneau asked coach Jacques Demers if he could be the one to try to neutralize the Great One.

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It has been 25 years since the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. Leading up to the anniversary on June 9, we’ll be tracking the Habs’ route to victory with articles from the Montreal Gazette archives. 

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June 3, 1993

Original headline: Captain Carbo seeks responsibility of Gretzky

Carbo wants 99.

If the Stanley Cup final really were the World Wrestling Federation on blades as some ESPN watchers think it is, Guy Carbonneau would have screamed that at 7:30 tonight at the legendary Montreal Forum, he was going to rip the cape off Superman’s back. But Captain Carbo‘s game is based on nuance, subtlety, and sometimes you must read between the lines when he speaks publicly. Carbonneau read between the lines in Game 1, saw Wayne Gretzky frolic in a demilitarized zone, and reached the conclusion that his line is best equipped to deal with His Greatness. Yesterday he passed on his give-me-Gretzky plea to coach Jacques Demers, who replied, “I’ll think about it.”

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How often has Demers said no to you?

“I haven’t counted,” Carbonneau said.

If Demers were any more open to suggestions, he would take hand votes among his veterans. But he is unquestionably the boss. In a city where hockey is a religion, the gargoyles don’t run the cathedral.

But Carbonneau is the Canadiens’ wise man, the coach-without- portfolio. Kirk Muller has called him the smartest player he has ever seen. Demers trusts his judgment. “I say what I think about different players,” Carbonneau said. “I’ve been around 11 years and I know the players and I know the reaction to hockey in Montreal as well as anyone.” While Carbo is first team All-Yap on the ice, he is less scattershot with his words in the dressing room.

His opinions carry extraordinary weight, which already makes him a kind of Montreal shadow of the man he wants to cover tonight in Game 2.

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Demers reported the Gretzky breakdown in Game 1 (courtesy of CBC stopwatches) was this: at even-strength, Muller was matched against Gretzky for 11 minutes, Carbo had him four and change and Stephan Lebeau took him for two. (Since Lebeau changed the names of his cats from Wayne and Janet to Savvy and Mona in honour of Denis Savard and bride, it’s no longer a conflict of interest when he and Gretzky are on the ice together.) Gretzky had two assists on the power play and scored into an empty net to account for three of his four points but always made Montreal queasy straight up.

Demers said Gretzky toyed with his team, and Muller is nobody’s boy toy. For the past six weeks Muller has played Joe Sakic, Pat LaFontaine and Pierre Turgeon, and their whereabouts are unknown. Carbonneau adores Muller, and is amazed that neither he nor right-winger Mike Keane were nominated for a Selke.

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But Gretzky is different. Gretzky is Gretzky. And Muller must think about the other end of the ice because no one expects His Greatness to keep carrying the Montreal offence.

“If Carbo feels that way — and he’s a pretty smart player — then it’s probably worth considering,” said Muller, who bears as strong a physical resemblance to No. 99 as Carbonneau has to Gretzky in terms of influence on a team. “He’s more a defensive player, and our line has to score. No matter what happens tonight, when the puck is turned over and we get it, we have to jump on offence. We have to play our game, use our assets. We were worried to much about them. About Wayne. I admit I do have a tendency to get a little more cautious when he’s out there.”

As summer drew uncomfortably close after the disastrous Game 2 in Quebec, Patrick Roy gave a fire-and-brimstone speech — seconded by the captain — about how the team had afforded the skilled Nordiques too much respect. Worry about us, the goalie ordered, not about them. The Kings are similar to Quebec in the way they skate and forecheck, and after losing the opener to Los Angeles, the orators were at it again.

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Carbonneau and Roy didn’t wait until after tonight because the Kings are twice as good as Quebec, and the final is twice as important.

“I’m like Jacques Demers,” Carbonneau said of his speechifying Tuesday night. “I talk with my heart. Sometimes I’m not kind. If I have a message to deliver, I don’t (mince) words. When I have something to say to the guys, I say it.”

Carbonneau was genuinely angry over what he considered a lack of effort, seething at first and but soon thinking. He saw how many times the Canadiens No. 11 went into 99, knew Montreal had to free Muller for more creative work and remembered times when the Canadiens had slowed Gretzky by assigning a full-time shadow. Then he stuck his hand up.

Take me. I volunteer.

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This is not ego. It is leadership. Carbonneau doesn’t want credit, he wants responsibility. He is saying give me Gretzky, give me minutes with the best player in the world and we’ll see. I’ll take the biggest guy in the room. Carbonneau is sticking his neck out knowing Gretzky can do some cross-border chopping, but he has had a fine playoff by a more modest standard. This has not been Carbo‘s year. He is 33. Chronic tendinitis in his left knee nakes him walk with a slight limp. He didn’t score against a goalie after Nov. 9 during the regular season, but he has had two playoff game winners in overtime.

What does Gretzky bring out in you?

“The best, I hope.”

Like the playoffs.

The idea is intriguing. Captain vs. captain. Class vs. class. Smarts on smarts. The best offensive player (a page of NHL records) against the top defensive player (three Selke Trophies) of their eras. Physically Carbonneau can’t stay with 99 forever, but this is temporary work. Two weeks, tops. If the Canadiens aren’t careful, it could be sooner.

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So Carbo wants 99. He is saying pretty please. If Doug Gilmour in Toronto couldn’t burn both ends of the candle successfully against Gretzky for seven games, maybe Muller can’t either. Carbo wants the chance.

This gargoyle deserves it.

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