Run On, Roadrunner!

39 years since retirement, Yvan Cournoyer still wears the CH on his heart

By Jason Santerre

Roadrunners don't fly. Instead, the fleet-footed fowl run at speeds of 35 km/h to escape predators in the deserts of California. It's a long way from the Mojave to Montreal, but for 16 years, hockey fans witnessed a roadrunner de chez nous zip past defenders from one end of The Forum ice to the other. Indeed, few players could raise fans out of their seats like Yvan "Roadrunner" Cournoyer.

With tenacity, a heavy shot, and unmatched speed, he amassed 428 goals and 435 assists on the way to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Fittingly, it was on the 12th of November, 2005 when the Canadiens raised both Dickie Moore's and Mr. Cournoyer's number 12 to the rafters of the Bell Centre.

"I won the Stanley Cup my first year (1963) with the Canadiens," says Mr. Cournoyer now, looking back. "It was always my dream to play for the team, so to win the Cup in my first year made it the most special one." He would go on to win nine more Cups between that rookie season and 1979, when father time and a bad back forced him to retire.

Retirement can be a shock to the system for some, but it can be much worse for the professional athlete. In an interview with Huffington Post, psychologist Daniel Levinson found that after investing so many years to intense competition, it becomes integral to their sense of self. "It's like training and competing become inextricable from their identity," said Levinson. "For this reason, letting go can be devastating."

For Mr. Cournoyer, the key to retirement is to give and move. "It's important for me to stay active, especially at my age (74)," he says, adding that he keeps a busy work schedule to stay mentally fit, and much of that schedule revolves around the Canadiens.

“My relationship with the team started when I was 16, and I’m still representing the organization as one of their ambassadors, from hosting a hockey game with certain dignitaries or participating in a golf tournament, charity events, opening ceremonies, et cetera. Physically, I’m limited to certain exercises on account of my numerous operations, but I make a point of working out on at least five times a week.”

Long before he was the Roadrunner, Mr. Cournoyer was like any other kid growing up in Quebec during the 1950s: dreaming of wearing la sainte-flanelle. Born in Drummondville in 1943, the young Cournoyer loved hockey so much he made sure he was hired at the local rink just so he'd get all the ice time he wanted.

But no amount of practice could make the young Cournoyer taller. At five feet, seven inches, he was considered quite small. But passion trumps size on the ice. "I always tell young boys and girls, if you have the desire and the talent to play the game, it's not your size that counts," he says. "Henri Richard and I are two very good examples of how size doesn't matter."

It's no wonder then that he was voted Canadiens' captain before the 1975 season in a unanimous vote by his teammates. "It was a tremendous honour," he says. "As captain, I played harder than I had ever played in my life," he told the Hockey Hall of Fame during an induction ceremony interview. "I enjoyed representing the team. We were very close. When we lost, we lost together. When we won, we won together."

Mr. Cournoyer says he learned a lot from his fellow Drummondville native and roommate on the road, Jean Béliveau. "Besides going to bed early (Mr. Béliveau was 13 years older), he showed me a true love for the game and his teammates. He said a good captain is always ready to help the team, both on and off the ice. You're there to solve problems and keep everyone united. Respect is very important."

In 1972, it was time for the hockey world, and not just Montreal, to respect the Roadrunner. Mr. Cournoyer put his leadership and skill on full display during the 1972 Summit Series, arguably the best eight games of hockey ever played, what with the politics of a Cold War as a backdrop.

"Scoring that tying goal (in the deciding game versus the USSR) gave us that chance to win the game and the series," he says, thinking of the third period, a tie game, with only 34 seconds left. "Paul Henderson's famous goal gave me a moment of pressure, relief and excitement all at the same time. He jumped in my arms and all I could say was, ‘We did it! We did it!' and 45 years later, people are still talking about that goal. It was such a historical moment for Canada."

No wonder Mr. Cournoyer admits that what he misses most is the "adrenaline of the game." And anyone old enough to remember the dynasty of the 1970s will surely say they miss a competitor like Cournoyer. "Without a doubt, Montreal has and always will have a true passion for hockey," he says. "The high expectations from the fans to win the Stanley Cup each year gave me the drive and the pressure to work hard in achieving that goal... 16 years and 10 Stanley cups later, thank you, Montreal!"


Winter 2018, Vol 10 N°1

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Spotlight on Seniors

Winter 2018
Vol 10 N°1

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