It’s never easy being a small man playing a big man’s game. Ask David Desharnais.
For that matter, ask Yvan Cournoyer.
Their respective career beginings have been almost mirror images. Each is 5’7” and 170 pounds. Each has had to deal with the prejudices the hockey establishment holds for what Formula One champion Jackie Stewart likes to call “men of an average height”. Average to Jackie is 5’7” and 170 lbs.
In the NHL it’s well below average and that’s the rub.
The “nattering nabobs” have started to get on Canadiens coach Jacques Martin for his handling of Desharnais’ ice time. After all, in his first 27 games in the NHL he has those seven goals and fourteen points. Project that to an eighty-two game schedule and you come up with 21 goals and 42 points, an excellent rookie season by any standard. The critics think that Desharnais has earned more than the twelve minutes a game he’s allowed to play under the Martin regime.
Cournoyer knows that scenario. During his first two years with the Canadiens, he often wondered what he had to do to get regular ice time. In that time, Toe Blake used him almost exclusively on the power play. And all he did was produce goals. In the 1965-66 season, 16 of his 18 goals came with the man advantage and the next year it was 20 of 25. Fans and media were all over Blake about it, but he wouldn’t budge. As a coach, his concern was Cournoyer’s defensive ability in the heavy even-strength traffic of that era. We’ll never know whether he was wrong in his handling of the Roadrunner, but Cournoyer certainly was ready to roll when Blake’s successor, Claude Ruel finally turned him loose in the 1968-69 season He scored 43 goals and 87 points.
Now it’s four decades later. The game may be markedly different but defensive responsibilities are the same. So is the prevailing attitude about the vertically challenged. If anything, it’s a bigger concern because opponents are bigger and stronger than anything Cournoyer faced. .
Into this scenario comes Desharnais, the player nobody wanted. Undrafted out of junior, Guy Carbonneau had to beg the Canadiens to give him so much as a training camp look. That got him a Hamilton Bulldogs contract and a trip to the East Coast Hockey League followed by two-plus seasons in the American Hockey League before he finally was taken seriously. And now he’s trying to prove himself all over again, just as Cournoyer did 45 years ago.
Is Jacques Martin wrong in the way he’s using him? Was Blake wrong in his handling of Cournoyer? In each case, probably not.
We know about Cournoyer’s Hall of Fame career. Only time will tell us about Desharnais. My suspicion is, it’s also going to be very productive.