Nicknamed "the Roadrunner," Yvan Cournoyer won 10 Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens and was made the team captain. By the time he retired, he was among the all-time leaders in scoring for the storied franchise and he and his team had proven many doubters wrong about his adaptability and perseverance.
By the time he was an 18-year-old star with the Montreal Junior Canadiens, Cournoyer's legs were so muscular that his pants had to be specially tailored to fit his legs. He constantly practised his shot using a lead puck that weighed more than four pounds and was soon known for his quick and heavy wrist shot. He totaled 111 points, leading the league with 63 goals in his final year with the Junior Canadiens. He made his debut with the big-time Canadiens during the 1963-64 season and earned a full-time spot on the roster the next season after only seven games with the Quebec Aces in the American Hockey League.
Though he had shown enough skill and speed to be used on the power-play, the Montreal coach, Toe Blake, deemed Cournoyer too much of a defensive liability to give him a regular shift. It would be that way for most of his first four seasons in the league, though Cournoyer was compensated with the Stanley Cup three times. When Blake left following the 1968 championship, Cournoyer became a better all-around player. With Claude Ruel behind the bench and Cournoyer taking a regular shift, the speedy winger blossomed, scoring 43 goals in 1968-69. He worked hard at both ends of the rink and earned a berth on the NHL's Second All-Star Team that season, as he would in three consecutive years beginning in 1971. Shortly after Scotty Bowman took over as coach in 1971, Cournoyer was placed on a line with Guy Lafleur at center and Steve Shutt on left wing. The Roadrunner had a career high of 47 goals in 1971-72 and was at the top of his game, stickhandling and skating around his much bigger opponents with surprising consistency.
Cournoyer played for Canada in the 1972 Summit Series, scoring three goals, and returned to North America to have his best post-season. He collected 12 points, six of them goals, in the final series against the Chicago Black Hawks and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable playoff performer.
In 1975 Henri Richard, the team's captain, retired and the leadership focus shifted to Cournoyer. He was made the Canadiens captain and he responded by playing with even greater determination, spurred by his desire to show the way for the whole team. It wasn't long, however, before the tough Montreal fans and media began to question whether Cournoyer could keep his fast pace as he got older. He slowed down a step in the 1976-77 season, but it had little to do with his age. A disc in his back was pressing a nerve and causing him pain in his right leg if he stayed on his feet for more than a few minutes at a time. Surgery was required, though Cournoyer stayed quiet about his pain in an effort to continue playing.
But in one game against the New York Rangers in February 1977, Cournoyer put on a display at Madison Square Garden that had even the home fans cheering for the speedy Canadiens star. He picked up the puck just outside the blue line and darted into the Rangers' zone. He circled the net once, then again, making two full circles around the bewildered defenders, who had given up chasing him.
Just two weeks after he skated circles around the Rangers, Cournoyer announced he was done for the season. The surgery couldn't wait and the Canadiens captain was forced to miss the post-season and the team's second consecutive run to the championship. Because of new rules regarding which names could be engraved on the Stanley Cup, Montreal coach Scotty Bowman was happy to announce that Cournoyer, who had played in 60 regular-season games, would be included. Previously, not being in the playoffs would have meant not getting his name on the Cup.
Cournoyer returned to the Canadiens lineup in 1977-78 and scored 24 goals in the regular season, though it was obvious, even if he refused to complain, that his back continued to give him problems. In the playoffs he added seven goals as Montreal won the Stanley Cup again, making it 10 titles for the captain. He made an effort to continue in training camp the next season and played 15 games before being forced to the sidelines again. Cournoyer was adamant that he'd play again and bristled when Jean Beliveau, then a vice-president of the organization, suggested it would be better if he retired. At 35, after playing 15 outstanding seasons in a tough league, Cournoyer was reluctant to let go of his hockey life. But after another back operation in 1978, he was forced to concede defeat. At the end of his career, he trailed only Guy Lafleur, Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau on the Canadiens' all-time goal-scoring list.
In 1982 he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. His tender back ruled out playing oldtimers' hockey for much of the next 20 years. In 2000, during the All-Star Game festivities in Toronto, he returned to thrill fans at the Legends game, showing flashes of the speed that made him a constant threat to defenders and goalies and a hero in Montreal.