Saturday

Bunny Larocque

The back up goaltending position may be the most unheralded job in all of hockey. The back up often rarely plays, usually has to put in extra time at practice, and always has to be a good teammate. You have to remain incredibly positive. And when you do finally get that call to play, or god forbid take over because of injury, you have to play to best of your ability even if you haven't played in a month. And you almost never get a big game or a playoff contest.

Because it is such a tough position to excel in, back up goalies rarely last long. Some graduate to starting roles, while most are easily replaceable. To find a long term back up is rare.

The Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s had one of the greatest goaltenders of all time in Ken Dryden. But unlike goalies of previous eras, Dryden could not play every game. More games on the schedule and cross-continent travel ensured that. The Canadiens were lucky to have a regular back up goalie named Michel Larocque to spot the great Dryden for 25-30 games a year.

A native of Hull, Quebec, Larocque will always be remembered for being Dryden's backup and for his nickname "Bunny." In fact most people know him only as "Bunny" Larocque. His mother gave him the nickname as an infant, and it stuck ever since.

Larocque was not supposed to be a career back up. He was a highly touted prospect out of Ottawa where he starred with the '67s. The Habs thought so highly of him they drafted him 6th overall in the 1972 amateur draft.

To be drafted by the great Canadiens was certainly a huge highlight for Larocque, yet in some ways a great penance. He was able to get his name on the Stanley Cup and Vezina trophy four times each. But it was always a shared glory, and the spotlight was always on Dryden. He would only get once chance to fulfill his own destiny as a star.

That chance came in the 1973-74 season. Dryden had led the Canadiens to 2 of the previous 3 Stanley Cups, but would hold out all year. Larocque, who spent his first pro season apprenticing in the AHL the year before, and minor league veterans Wayne Thomas and Michel Plasse each got opportunities, but no one ever made everyone forget about Dryden. Larocque acquitted himself nicely, winning 15 of his 27 games, and he played every minute of the Habs playoff games. But perhaps Larocque was a little too green that early in his career. The New York Rangers dumped the mighty Habs in 6 games in the opening round.

Larocque played well enough for the Habs to be convinced to keep him around for another five years, but he would never again see action in a post-season game. Dryden returned in 1974-75, and would establish the Canadiens as perhaps the greatest team of all time, winning 4 consecutive Stanley Cups to close the decade. For the most part, Bunny Larocque, who never once complained, could only watch from his spot on the players bench.

In his book, “The Game”, Dryden described their situation;

“After we had played together a year or two, I realized that I could stay ahead, but I could not win. Larocque and I compete with each other constantly. Our competition is undeclared, its results are known only to us, we say nothing to each other about it. But we know. We compete though we are teammates and share the same goals for the team. We are friendly, if a little guarded with each other, and personally compatible.”

Despite his status as a second stringer, Larocque posted some very impressive numbers. From 1974 through 1979 he played a total of 137 games, posting 96 wins against 18 losses with 18 ties and 13 shutouts. In that time his win percentage was .701. Dryden's, by comparison, was .659.

But the two were incomparable come playoff time. That's because Dryden played almost every minute while Larocque watched. He did get one chance of playoff glory in 1979. After a poor performance in game one of the Stanley Cup finals against the New York Rangers, Larocque finished the third period and was given the start in game two. However, in typical no-luck-if-not-for-bad-luck fashion, Larocque was knocked out cold by an errant Doug Risebrough shot during the pre-game warm up. Dryden ended up playing that game, winning it and the next three for a fourth consecutive Stanley Cup. Larocque ended up in the hospital.

Dryden would retire prematurely following that championship. Larocque would finally get his chance to be the starting goalie of the Montreal Canadiens. But his confidence seemed shot much of the season. Perhaps it was because management parachuted in Dennis Heron to split the crease duties, and it certainly didn't help when Herron outplayed him statistically in every category but shutouts. Yet neither goalie established themselves by playoff time. The Montreal Canadiens would be eliminated by the upstart Minnesota North Stars.

Things would get worse Larocque, Herron and the Canadiens. Larocque would miss six weeks after his hand was skated over by Pittsburgh's Peter Lee. Meanwhile rookie Richard Sevigny was called up and gained the coaching staff's confidence as the team's new starting goalie. Upon his return from injury, Larocque was playing on borrowed time, and was soon traded to Toronto.

The Leafs were a terrible team, a team so bad not even the great Dryden could have helped them. Larocque could only win 16 of 74 games in the blue and white jersey, although he was able to sneak Toronto in to the 1981 playoffs.

Larocque would bounce around the minor leagues and briefly appear in Philadelphia and St. Louis. He would retire in 1985, but he would stay heavily involved in Quebec hockey. He became the GM of the Victoriaville Tigers junior team before becoming vice president of the QMJHL.

Hockey was the furthest thing from Bunny Larocque's mind in May 1992 when doctor's diagnosed him with brain cancer. He would not suffer long. After three weeks of radiation, he passed away on July 29th, 1992. He was just 40 years old.

2 comments:

Anonymous,  8:31 AM  

Great article. Thinking of Bunny Larocque!

Anonymous,  2:00 PM  

I had no idea that "Bunny" had passed until watching the Canadians' 100th anniversary last night. I was very sad to see his image and 'dates' along the bottom appear. RIP Bunny.

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