42 Years Later, Players From the Last Leafs-Habs Playoff Game Speak on the Rivalry

The Leafs' Lanny McDonald and Paul Gardner, and the Canadiens' Cam Connor and Doug Risebrough revisit the 1979 series and talk about the renewed hockey beef.

Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens face each other in 1979 playoffs

Image via Getty/Frank Lennon/Toronto Star

Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens face each other in 1979 playoffs

The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens squared off in a playoff series was April of 1979. It was the quarterfinal round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, with the Canadiens sweeping the Leafs 4-0. Fourty-two years later, the Buds and Habs are renewing their historic rivalry in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s the first time these teams are meeting in the playoffs since Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s dad, was prime minister.

Hockey Hall of Famer Lanny McDonald and Paul Gardner played for the Leafs back then, while Cam Connor and Doug Risebrough were on the Canadiens. All four players spoke with Complex about the 1979 series, various key moments in those four games, the fan atmosphere, and the importance of the renewed rivalry in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.

On Thursday, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens will meet in the playoffs for the first time in 42 years. How excited are you about this matchup, given you were a part of the last playoff series between these two teams?
Lanny McDonald (Forward, 1978-79 Toronto Maple Leafs):
It’s absolutely fantastic. This rivalry is probably the best because of the Original Six. It’ll be so much fun for hockey fans.

Paul Gardner (Forward, 1978-79 Toronto Maple Leafs): Growing up in Toronto, your biggest rival was Montreal. I’m looking forward to seeing how the players handle it. It was a huge rivalry for me and my father [Cal].

Cam Connor (Right Wing, 1978-79 Montreal Canadiens): If you are a fan of the Leafs or Canadiens, you’re looking forward to this series. It was always a big rivalry and you move ahead in time, it hasn’t changed. It’s still a rivalry.

Doug Risebrough (Centre, 1978-79 Montreal Canadiens): I grew up around the Toronto area so I knew the importance of Leafs-Canadiens. When I got drafted and went to Montreal, I was like, “Oh boy, this is a big deal.” You started to realize that these two franchises represented Canada. It’s the traditional rivalry of the two great powers in hockey.

In 1979, the Canadiens finished the regular season with 115 points, atop the Norris Division and Prince of Wales Conference. They were searching for their third consecutive Stanley Cup. The Maple Leafs entered the playoffs with 81 points, having to compete in the preliminary round. After defeating the Atlanta Flames, the Leafs advanced to take on the Canadiens. What was the mindset going into this series?
We were expected to beat them. Our team was the finesse team; we had won two Stanley Cups in a row. The Canadiens had 10 Hall of Famers on that team. The Leafs were the grinding team. We knew we had to bring our A-game because the Leafs had something to prove. Because of the rivalry, they were going to be on top of their game.

Risebrough: I don’t think we were as good a team as the earlier years. We were getting older, some players weren’t there. More teams started to play like us. Playing the Leafs brought another focus as to why we wanted to win another Stanley Cup. We got a chance to beat an old rival.

Gardner: We believed in ourselves. Led by Darryl Sittler and Borje Salming, we had lots of confidence. We believed that if we played the way Roger [Neilson] had set our system, that we could come out on top. The experts didn’t give us as much a chance as we thought we had.

McDonald: The Canadiens always tried to intimidate you. When you watch their practice, they come in and fire pucks at the goaltender’s head. It was an intimidation factor. You look back now at the lineups; we had three future Hall of Famers in me, Borje and Darryl and they had 10. We weren’t as close as we thought.

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The ’79 Canadiens had a plethora of Hall-of-Fame players. For Cam and Doug, what were they like to play with and for Lanny and Paul, how difficult were they to square off against?
The Canadiens understood team contribution as well as any organization I’ve ever been connected with. The best players, Robinson, Lafleur, Savard, they treated players that had lesser roles as equals. They knew the importance of everybody being able to make a contribution. Everybody appreciated each other’s contributions, however big it was.

Connor: All those guys, they are so talented. They don’t brag, they don’t pretend their anybody else. It was wonderful.

McDonald: They had unbelievable lines. They had the big three on defense. They had an unbelievable checking unit.

Gardner: It all happened too fast. I wish I could go back and realize it. I’m not quite sure if you realize that you were playing against Hall of Famers. You knew you were facing a great team with incredible players and it was going to be a tough game.

The Canadiens won the first two games of the series at the Montreal Forum. They defeated the Leafs 5-2 in Game 1 and 5-1 in Game 2. What were the thoughts in both locker rooms as the series shifted to Toronto?
We beat Toronto in our rink. But it was a lot closer than the scores showed.

Gardner: Coming home, we felt confident. We had a huge fan base behind us. As a coach, Roger wouldn’t let us get down. Darryl, Borje and Lanny made us believe that things would turn our way.

“The second the ref drops the puck, it’ll be like it was yesterday, not 42 years. The rivalry will start all over again, like it never went away.”

In Game 3, the Leafs and Canadiens required double overtime, before Cam Connor scored the game winner. What do you remember most about this game?
The crowd was unbelievable. Those old buildings had a mystique about them. They had so much character. The crowd was right into it at the get go.

Risebrough: When we got to Toronto, I realized this was a national rivalry and it was a big deal. There was just a buzz about the series.

Connor: I didn’t dress the first two games. As I found out years later, Ken Dryden [Canadiens starting goalie] went to Scotty Bowman [Canadiens head coach] and said, “We’ve got to get Cam in the lineup. This is the kind of game he’d play well in.” I sat on the bench most of the game. My first shift came in double overtime. I watched Leafs goalie Mike Palmateer the entire game and he was consistently running out of the net to cut the angle up because he was so small. My opportunity came on a partial breakaway. I went to go from my backhand to my forehand but in the process lost the puck. However, Palmateer lifted his stick and the puck went through his legs and I scored the goal.

McDonald: Connor’s goal was a dagger.

Gardner: It took a little bit of wind out of our sails. But we still felt we were close.

Connor: The bench emptied. I was at the bottom of the dog pile. Nineteen guys on top of me. Bowman didn’t know who scored. He saw me at the bottom of the pile and I told him I scored. He said, “You’re only the hero for 15 minutes.” I was happy that my wife, my Mom and Dad got to see the goal. My teammates were happier than I was, that I got my 15 minutes of fame on Hockey Night in Canada. It was a wonderful experience.

Leafs Canadiens 1979 playoffs

The Canadiens defeated the Leafs 5-4 in overtime in Game 4, winning the series in a sweep. What were the emotions after the series ended?
We obviously weren’t as close as we thought. There’s no question it hurt because it’s against a team you desperately want to beat. And that was Montreal.

Gardner: If we lost earlier in the playoffs, or in blowout games, it might’ve been easier to swallow. When we sat down a week after the season to talk about it, we believed how close we were. Maybe one more player or a couple of bounces or saves that went our way.

Connor: We weren’t going to disappoint Montreal fans. We weren’t going to disappoint ourselves. It was a priority for the city, for the players on both teams to bring their A-games. It was a really good exciting series and I know that the guys in our team were pretty tired after those four games because the Leafs made us earn those victories.

Risebrough: Tiger Williams before the series said that the “Canadiens were done like dinner.” That brought smiles to our faces. Beating them in four games was a factor in what made this series special. We finished those guys off and ultimately, the Leafs were done like dinner.

Leafs vs Canadiens

Fourty-two years later, the Maple Leafs and Canadiens meet again. Toronto is now the favourite while Montreal is the pesky, physical team. There are no fans in the building due to the global pandemic. How important is this series for reigniting the rivalry between the Leafs and Canadiens?
In my mind, I want to see a seven game series, where both teams are physical and the games are close. Not only does it make the series interesting, but fans go away and say, “Holy cow that’s really good hockey.” That’s the best scenario for the product. Both teams playing to their maximum potential. That is what’s good for hockey and the rivalry. 

Risebrough: I think it’s important. This series will bring out the best in both teams. The Canadiens are the underdog and the Leafs have the burden of being the favourite. It’ll be a great show and I’m sure a lot of Canadians will tune in. It’s still a big deal. 

Gardner: It’s going to be tremendous for the players. They’ll see all the hype, all the interviews, all the videos of what the rivalry was like all those years ago. I also think it’s going to be great for the fans. We’ve all lost something because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having this series will provide a distraction and stir up the rivalry again. 

McDonald: It doesn’t matter how many points you have and how ahead you are in the standings. It’s Game 1 of the playoffs. You have to be ready to play and you better have great goaltending. The second the ref drops the puck, it’ll be like it was yesterday, not 42 years. The rivalry will start all over again, like it never went away. I can’t wait myself.  

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