MONTREAL — Guy Carbonneau spent 18 years as one of the best two-way centres the National Hockey League has ever seen. He won three Stanley Cups, appeared in five Finals and won the Selke Trophy three times as the league’s best defensive forward.
In the lead-up to his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, we spent some time with him to review all of that and much more about his illustrious career.
Without further ado, here’s 21 questions with the man who always wore No. 21:
Sportsnet: How do you convince a player who scored 171 goals in 274 junior games and 62 goals in 155 AHL games to become a shutdown player in the NHL?
Guy Carbonneau: I think Jacques Lemaire was kind of the one that thought about it. I think if I look into his career, he was always known as a two-way player. They had a pretty good line with Steve Shutt and Guy Lafleur, but I think Jacques always had that element in his game of trying to play good defence. I think the way the game was played when he started to coach in Montreal, I think his vision of building a hockey team was to kind of have a couple good offensive lines and then one good shutdown line that could play against the best line on the opposition and give room to our guys that score goals so he didn’t have to worry about defence.
I mean, you always have to worry about it, but if you play best line against best line it’s a crapshoot; it’s chances against chances. He was thinking that if you put someone like me against them, that will free up some of the offence to do a bit more of what they need to do on the ice.
SN: So it wasn’t hard to convince you?
GC: It wasn’t hard because I was a kid who had good success in the American Hockey League, but that was normal back in the day. I got drafted in 1979 and the Canadiens had won four Stanley Cups in a row. They still had a group of guys that was still performing, so to crack the lineup was really hard. My second year, when I went back to the ‘A’ again, they told me to work on my defence. They knew I could score goals, they knew I could make plays, but they wanted me to be a bit more rounded.
I thought I did that my first year, so I was kind of a little upset when I went back for my second year. But John Brophy was my coach, and it was funny because John Brophy was a battler. I had a good conversation with him because I was upset, and he took me aside and we had a good talk. His vision was, ‘Don’t prove to the Canadiens that you want to play in the NHL; prove to the NHL that you can play in the NHL and you’ll be up sooner.’
I had a good season, and in the third year they didn’t have a choice but to keep me. They made some trades, and made some room, and I started the year (1982-83) under Bob Berry. I was playing three, four, five minutes a game. From a guy that played junior and the American League playing 25 minutes a game, that was not the best scenario.
When Jacques took over (in 1983-84) and discussed what he wanted to do, it was a no-brainer because I was going to be on the ice for 15-20 minutes a game.
SN: Being a six-time Selke finalist and a three-time winner of the award, you must have played through some bad injuries from blocking shots and taking and throwing hits. Care to list a few?
GC: Broken toes, broken fingers, a lot of bruises. I was lucky enough that I never got hit in the face. Well, pucks got deflected into my face.
It was just… everybody gets hurt at one point. We talk about that a lot with parents. The game is tough. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t play sports. Injuries is part of football, basketball, baseball, whatever, and hockey’s no different.
I had my share of injuries, but the medical staffs were always pretty good. I was hard on my body, I didn’t want to miss any games.
SN: What was the worst injury to play through?
GC: I had bad knees at one point, the year before I got traded (from Montreal to St. Louis in 1994). It was kind of really hard. I couldn’t find what was wrong, and then you get treatments every day and try to skate with it.
In 1999, when we (the Dallas Stars) won the Stanley Cup, I had a broken wrist. So I had to play with a cast. But I had seen guys do that.
Broken toes—you had to freeze your toes before the game to get them into your skates and that is the worst. If you’ve never had a needle between your toes, don’t try it. It hurts like freaking hell.
SN: You managed to score 260 goals and record 663 points in 1,318 NHL games in spite of your defensive role. How do you think those numbers would look if you were playing today’s game?
GC: I don’t know. I look at the game now, it’s a lot faster and more things happen on the ice. There’s a lot of mistakes because players and teams don’t want to slow down the game. There’s a lot of exchanges and a lot of mistakes happening on the ice, so scoring chances during a game are a lot higher than it was in my days.
I look at guys now that do what I did—guys like Anze Kopitar, and Patrice Bergeron, and Jonathan Toews—they’re able to do the job they do because they concentrate on doing the right thing defensively, but they also get some really good chances and take advantage of them.
SN: But you have to admit, nowadays players are in much better shape and they are all expected to play a 200-foot game. How much tighter is the defence in today’s game?
GC: The game has changed. I think we know more about the game. The way coaches can cut up the game piece by piece—those things were not done in my days. You can figure out pretty quickly the strengths and weaknesses of your players and I think you want to improve both. That’s what they’re trying to do. Every coach wants his players to be really good offensively and really good defensively, which is hard to get. But there’s a number of players like that in the league now.
Advanced stats changed everything, in my book. Now a coach can analyze those things and figure out what kind of game a player plays.
SN: Name me one player you would hate to play against now, and one you hated playing against most when you were playing.
GC: I still think Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were the hardest to play against because of the way they played the game and the smarts they had on the ice. Their vision and their anticipation was way above most of the guys.
But I hated playing guys like Mark Messier and Peter Stastny because they were both good and physical. They were really hard to play against. I hated playing them. You didn’t have to be physical against Gretzky or Lemieux, you had to use your brain. But when you played Messier and Stastny, it was really hard—both mentally and physically.
And today, I’d say a guy like Connor McDavid. I say him because not only is he so talented and so fast, he’s so big. In our days, if you were big you were a little slower. Now, if you look at this guy, if you’re not in the perfect position all the time too bad.
He’s only going to get better because I think he’s going to get stronger and smarter. Once you understand you’re a little big bigger than other guys and they can’t hold you or hook you to slow you down…I mean, I’d just hate to be a defender when this guy’s on the ice.
SN: Name me one player you would love to play with, and one you would love to play against now.
GC: I’d love to play with Sidney Crosby, but he’s a centreman too. Actually, I could move to the wing to play with him (laughs).
I would love to play against all of them. It would be unfair for a lot people to start naming names, but to play in this game now would be unbelievable. It would be fun.
SN: Speaking of fun, let’s talk about the 1993 Stanley Cup Final. The story goes that you went into Jacques Demers’ office and told him to assign you to cover Wayne Gretzky. Can you give us the details on how that all went down? Did you decide the night before that you were going to demand to play against him? How did you bring it up?
GC: When I started and was developing, Jacques Lemaire’s vision for me was to always play against the best player so we could liberate our guys to go out and score goals, so that had become second nature for me.
Jacques Demers, at the time (in 1993), I had a good relationship with him and I was always playing against the best line.
But because we had Kirk Muller and Vincent Damphousse—guys who were also reliable and could score more—and I was getting older, Jacques’ thinking was to play those guys against Gretzky in the Final. And the first game, I think we lost 4-1 and Gretzky had four points.
So I went to see Jacques to see what he was thinking, and my thinking was, ‘Put me against Gretzky. I don’t need to score goals, but we need him to stop scoring them. And if we do this, it’ll free up Vinnie and Kirkie to do what they do best.’ And I think Jacques understood what I was trying to do and he said, ‘Okay, we’ll try it and see how it works.’
NOTE: Gretzky had a goal and three assists in Game 1, but he was held to just a goal and two assists over the final four games of the series.
SN: You won two Cups in Montreal, one with Dallas, and you lost in the ’89 Final and the ’00 Final. Was it more fun winning the Cups or more painful letting two slip away?
GC: A lot more fun winning the Cups. I mean, it’s painful when you lose it. I feel really bad for people who went to the Finals and never won.
I’m thinking about my son-in-law (Brenden Morrow). He had a pretty good career. His first year in the NHL, we (the Stars) lost against New Jersey in the Final. And then his last year, he lost in Tampa Bay and never had the chance to win. Twice he went to the Final, twice he lost. That’s really hard.
I can say that because I had the chance to win three. But if I would have had to have gone through five Finals and lost all of them, it would have been devastating.
SN: About Brenden, as you just mentioned, he ended up marrying your daughter, Anne-Marie. How did you find out they were dating?
GC: We had the Christmas party, the New Year’s party, the Super Bowl party, and she had a boyfriend and he had a girlfriend at the time, but one day they were single and I started to hear their names more and more often around the rink. And I was starting to hear his name a lot more often around home, so I started putting two and two together.
It was funny because I think he was a little bit shy and reserved about it, but I went to see him and told him it was okay. I think she moved out of the house two weeks later.
There was about 25 guys in the room that messed around with him about it, so he didn’t need me to give him a hard time. He got abused a lot by the other guys that knew he was dating my daughter, so I was trying to be nice to him.
He’s was a nice kid. Still is.
SN: As a young player, you had Bob Gainey and Chris Nilan alongside you. What was that experience like?
GC: I keep saying this every time I talk to people and media: I got drafted in a time that was unbelievable for a hockey player. I was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. I got here after four consecutive Cup wins. The owners were awesome, the team was awesome, just the surroundings were incredible.
Having the chance to be around Guy Lafleur, Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson, Steve Shutt and Mario Tremblay every day was unbelievable. And every time we had a game we had Jean Beliveau, and Maurice Richard, and Henri Richard and Yvan Cournoyer in the building. To have these guys around to tell young players what it was to be a winner and a Montreal Canadien? I learned a lot from them.
Having guys like Bob and Chris as wingers, guys that were good players, good role models in the way they worked, it was a really fun time.
SN: Chris scared a lot of people. Were you one of them?
GC: Yeah. He didn’t scare me for real, though, because we had a really, really good relationship. We hung out together all the time and I kind of understood what he was going through (as a player who fought almost every night).
But if you got a couple beers in Chris… I would say this: If I had to get into a bar fight, I would go beside Chris Nilan. If I did that, I was making it out of that bar alive.
SN: Who was the best player you ever played with?
GC: Talent-wise, I had some great players to play with. I’d say Patrick Roy, but he was in net.
Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson were near the end of their careers, so I never played with them in their primes.
I think Brett Hull, when I was in St. Louis, was pretty amazing. And Mike Modano in Dallas was just wow.
If I had to build a hockey player from scratch, I would build Mike Modano.
SN: Who was the best player you ever played against?
GC: It would be Gretzky. He could do too many things on the ice. There was tougher guys to play against, but his vision, and his understanding of the game, and everything else was just unbelievable.
SN: It has long been the perception that an incident that occurred, one that had you flipping the bird at a photographer, was part of the reason you were traded from Montreal to St. Louis in 1994. What caused that?
GC: We lost our playoff series against Boston and there was a few things that happened in the media before the series and during the series. Patrick Roy got hurt and people in the media were saying we were done. So I went to see Patrick in the hospital and told him I was going to tell the media, ‘Patrick Roy is an unbelievable player, but he’s not the whole team and I think we can win without him.’ And he said, ‘Okay.’
Then the articles came out and I think people thought I was jealous of him. It was nothing like that, though.
So we lost against Boston and we (Carbonneau, Roy, Damphousse and a friend named Louis Lavoie) get to the golf course (in Rosemere, QC.,) the next day. There’s a camera there to interview us and none of us wanted to do the interview. We told the guy that it’s private property and he should get out of there. And then we did seven holes and after the seven holes he was still there. After nine holes he was still there, and Patrick said, ‘Okay, I’ll do an interview but if you ask me one question about this (non-controversy) we’re done.’
Of course the third question the guy asked was about this, so Patrick just turned around and went off.
So we get to the 18th, on a Par 5, and we’re getting up to this hill and there’s somebody behind the green. We were all thinking it was the same cameraman. So I said, ‘Can you believe this guy’s still here? Can you get the (expletive) out of here?’ And then I made a gesture that lasted half a second, and the next day it was in the paper.
I still regret doing the gesture, but the picture didn’t reflect the article. In the article, it was like I was flipping the finger (at the fans) because everyone was mad we lost against Boston. It had nothing to do with the fans, so that was the worst part.
But I’m old enough to admit I made a mistake and that was it. If that’s the reason I was traded… I hope it wasn’t the reason.
SN: Meanwhile, in St. Louis, you joined a team with Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan and Curtis Joseph. It was a big, tough, talented team that finished third in the Western Conference in a lockout-abbreviated season, and you guys lost in seven games to Vancouver in the playoffs. How was your experience there?
GC: It was fun, but it was a lockout year and it was boring to start. I got traded in August and had two kids who needed to go to school. We went to St. Louis right away and bought a house and enrolled our kids. I got ready for training camp, and then the lockout hit. We didn’t start to play until January. And I was on the NHLPA committee, so there was a lot of meetings and phone calls.
It was hard. I was drafted by the Canadiens and was there for 12 years and built a house there and was the captain of the team. When I got traded, I was devastated. I had never been through that. I played four years in junior, and two years in the ‘A’, and had never been traded. Having to move and restart was hard.
But being a hockey player, you’re always in a group, and the group in St. Louis was a great one. Really nice and awesome. It made it easier, but everyone wanted to be on the ice—and not in the meeting rooms.
SN: What are you most proud of when you think about your NHL career?
GC: I love the game, I’m passionate about the game, and I always wanted to be a complete player and somebody who people can count on. I always put a lot of pressure on myself to be accountable.
My wife would always tell me when I got home, ‘You didn’t play your best today and that’s why you lost,’ and I would tell her that it’s a team game.
She’d say, ‘I know, but you influence a lot of the game.’
I took pride in being accountable, and being consistent every day and every game, and that’s why I was able to kind of push players around me. I was tough on myself, I was tough on players playing with me because I hated to lose. I wanted to make sure everyone carried their weight, but I’ve always been fair.
I played hard. I wouldn’t say I went over the limit, but I was on it. I was always there. I was trying to be there every day. I think I accomplished that.
SN: Who had the biggest influence on you?
GC: I think my wife and kids. My wife didn’t know hockey when I met her, but I met her when I was in junior in Chicoutimi, (QC.). She’s always been by my side and she’s always been the one who knew me the best.
Every coach had their influence. But when you go back home… I always enjoyed that my wife didn’t like talking about hockey but when she said something, she always was serious and able to keep me in a straight line. I don’t know where I would’ve been if she wasn’t there.
SN: What’s your most cherished hockey memory?
GC: Winning the Cup in ’93.
The first one (in 1986) is always going to be ultra special because all the memories from Day 1 when you start playing with your mom and your dad bringing you to the rink rush to your mind. But I think in ’93… winning it in Montreal, being the captain, having all my family arrive and be around it, they were all there—my dad, my mom, my kids—that was unbelievable.
SN: Why No. 21?
GC: I don’t know. I always had it in junior. It wasn’t the number I had as a kid. I was always ‘4’ or ‘9’ in minor hockey. When I got to Chicoutimi, they gave me No. 21 and it just stuck to me.
I was lucky when I got to Montreal that Doug Jarvis got traded. Well, lucky for me, not so much for him. So No. 21 was available. And when I got to St. Louis it was available, and when I got to Dallas it was available. I guess it’s a lucky number.
SN: Thanks so much, Guy, and congratulations on being elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.