Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion had a legendary 14-year career with the Montreal Canadiens, during which he scored 371 goals and added 388 assists. He broke into the league with style, earning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year in 1952, and went on to win six Stanley Cups, one Hart trophy as the league’s MVP and two Art Ross scoring titles.
But following the 1963-64 season, Montreal owner David Molson gave Geoffrion the opportunity to coach the Canadiens top farm club, the Quebec Aces of the AHL. Molson also promised him that if he did well in Quebec, he had a shot at coaching the Canadiens in two years. It was a way of easing the 33-year old Boomer into retirement so that they could bring in the younger, speedier Yvan Cournoyer. But to do that they first had to remove Geoffrion from their reserved list, and they needed the cooperation of the rest of the general managers of the then six team league. This is where Emile Francis comes into the story:
“We were at a Board of Governors meeting at the draft in June and Frank Selke, the GM of the Montreal Canadiens said, ‘I would like to have a courtesy waiver from all of you because Boomer is going to retire and we’re going to make him the coach of Quebec.’ By getting the courtesy waiver they could take him off their reserved list, put him on the retired list and add someone else to the reserved list.
“So I’m sitting there, I’d inherited a bad team, a team that made the playoff’s once in 10 years. So I put my hand up and say, ‘Well I’ll tell you what. We’ll give you a courtesy waiver under one condition. If and when he ever wants to come back and play, then he has to be put on waivers,’ never ever thinking that it would happen. But it did happen.”
It happened because after two first place finishes, but two playoff losses to the Rochester Americans, the Boomer was fired by the Quebec Aces. He then met with Molson to ask about his promise of the Canadiens head coaching job. Molson told him that Toe Blake was still the coach and the best he could was offer him was a job coaching the Junior Canadiens at a significant cut in pay. Geoffrion felt betrayed and wanted to make a comeback to show the Canadiens and their fans that he could still play.
“All of a sudden this notice comes in from the Montreal Canadiens,” Francis continues, “that they want to ‘reinstate’ Boomer and he’s on waivers. So I said to myself, ‘Something’s funny here. Montreal had a great team, they’re not going to reinstate him and risk losing someone else. Some team in this league is screwing around and they think Boomer can help them.’ So I said, ‘He’s not gonna get by us.’ So I put a claim in and within 24 hours Boomer calls me. He says ‘Emile you don’t want me, I haven’t played for two years, I’m all finished, I can’t skate anymore, I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ I said Boomer, ‘Don’t give me any of your bullsh–. You wouldn’t be talking to me like this unless you had something else in your pocket. Someone else among the other five teams is screwing around and I’ll tell you if you ever play in the NHL again it will be with the New York Rangers or you’re not gonna play period.’
“So he says, ‘Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you in a couple of days.’ So a few days later he calls back and says, ‘Maybe you and I should talk.’ I flew up to Montreal and met him at the airport. We talked for two hours and by the time I left I had him under contract. I found out later on it was Punch Imlach of the Toronto Maple Leafs who wanted him. I knew he could help us because he was a great competitor. He had a terrific shot, I could use him on the point of the power play, which we needed a point man and he’d play on our second or third line. Plus he had a lot of pride. He had won the Stanley Cup and I knew we needed his leadership on our team. And that’s exactly what he gave us. It was the best thing I could have done. He came in there and all the players looked up to him.”
Boomer scored 17 goals and added 25 assists in 58 games that season as the Rangers made the playoffs for the first time since the 1961-62 season. The highlight of Geoffrion’s first season as a Ranger came on November 12, 1966 when he notched a goal and three assists as the Blueshirts beat the Canadiens 6-3 at the Montreal Forum. In fact, Boomer led all Rangers scorers that season against Montreal recording 3 goals and 11 assists in 12 games.
Geoffrion also added two goals against the Canadiens in the playoffs. But unfortunately the powerful Habs swept the Rangers in four games, with the fourth game going into a sudden death overtime that ended when John Ferguson knocked a rebound past Eddie Giacomin.
“The reason we lost in four games was that I had to use guys like Harry Howell, Donnie Marshall, Phil Goyette and Bob Nevin to do everything,” Emile admitted. “The power play, kill penalties, everything. We just didn’t have any depth. But the only way we could make the playoffs was to play the sh– out of those guys and we just ran out of gas by the time the playoffs came around. And Montreal was just a powerhouse.”
Geoffrion returned for the 1967-68 season, scoring five goals with 16 assists in 58 games. He retired following the season and was named the Rangers coach in June 1968. Unfortunately stomach problems forced him to step down in January 1969 with a 22-18-3 coaching record.
In 1972 he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame and was also named coach of the Atlanta Flames. He stayed behind the bench for two and a half seasons before moving to the broadcast booth with Jiggs McDonald. In 1979 he realized a life long dream by becoming the coach of the Montreal Canadiens. Once again, however, he was forced to step down due to stomach ulcers.
On March 11, 2006, the Canadiens retired Geoffrion’s No. 5 sweater. The date had been selected by Geoffrion because it held a special significance for his family. When Geoffrion’s father-in-law, the great Howie Morenz died in 1937, his casket was placed in the Forum for public viewing on March 11th. Unfortunately Geoffrion never made it to Montreal that night or saw his sweater raised to the rafters. The Boomer died that morning in Atlanta of cancer at the age of 75.