So how is it that Canadiens legend Yvan Cournoyer doesn’t look a day over 50?
“I don’t want to be 70,” the Roadrunner joked Friday. “I look young, maybe, but I think I’m getting older.
“All the talk today about this being 50 years since John F. Kennedy was shot — I turned 20 that day, and I was on the ice in Guelph, practising with the Junior Canadiens at noon hour when we heard the news.
“And now I think, it’s been 50 years …”
Thirteen years before that momentous 20th birthday, Cournoyer had received perhaps his favourite gift, unwrapped as a 7-year-old in Drummondville: his first pair of skates, bought for him by his uncle Jean.
“I fell in love with hockey that day,” Cournoyer said, setting off on a life’s path that would win him 10 Stanley Cups with the NHL club of his boyhood dreams, four of them as team captain; the 1973 Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs; a starring role in the historic 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union; and 1982 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Cournoyer retired from hockey at age 35 in 1978, unable to go on after his second back surgery. Reluctantly, he left the game — or so he thought.
To this day, he remains an enormously popular, cornerstone member of the Canadiens family, one of the team’s ambassadors whose boyish face lights up any time he’s recognized in public.
Which is virtually everywhere, no matter where he goes.
He is loved — worshipped, really — in Russia, where he played a huge role in Team Canada’s stunning come-from-behind victory in the Summit Series.
To mark 70 years, Cournoyer planned a quiet day Friday with his wife, Evelyn. The couple will attend a wedding Saturday, then celebrate his birthday with a Sunday family dinner.
The Canadiens’ 18th captain will attend maybe 20 Habs games per season, renewing friendships with fellow alumni. Hanging from the rafters of the arena is the No. 12 that was retired for him and Dickie Moore on Nov. 12, 2005.
“What a night that was,” Cournoyer said. “I thought the Hall of Fame induction was the ultimate, but the ultimate was when the Canadiens retired my number.”
He still treasures memories of the Forum, which he calls “my house.”
“I arrived there at 17, played three years junior before I joined the Canadiens, and I left at 35, unable to continue with my back,” he said. “I see people today at the Bell Centre who have worked for the team for 50 years. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a good-luck charm, but I feel like we can always win.”
Not just at home it seems. On Oct. 28, with old friend and rival Rod Gilbert, Cournoyer dropped the ceremonial faceoff in New York for the Canadiens-Rangers game, the first match in refurbished Madison Square Garden.
The Canadiens blanked the Rangers 2-0.
It was in New York during his prime that Cournoyer had picked up the Roadrunner nickname, a Sports Illustrated writer hanging the label on him for his blazing speed that had undressed the Rangers.
“I went back to New York two weeks after that game and saw the same reporter,” Cournoyer recalled.
“I said, ‘You know what you did to me?’ and he replied, ‘I just wrote the Roadrunner scored twice and the Rangers couldn’t touch him.’
“I said, ‘Well, now I have no choice. I have to skate fast the rest of my life.’ ”
Cournoyer remains the last Canadien to have scored five times in one game, also earning two assists against Chicago at the Forum in the Habs’ 12-3 win on Feb. 15, 1975.
(Imagine what he could have done had he not played a couple hours of tennis the night before and gone cross-country skiing the morning of the game.)
“And I scored the first goal in Chicago the next night,” he recalled of the Habs’ return visit, a 6-3 win. “Sometimes, it just works.”
Cournoyer has almost maintained his frantic on-ice pace three and a half decades since his retirement, his appeal to fans never waning.
He was in Winnipeg this week making a corporate appearance; on Monday, he attended the game between the Calgary Flames and the hometown Jets.
“I never took so many pictures in my life with the people,” he said, speaking of fans at the MTS Centre and many more in business suits the next day.
“It’s like I still play,” he said, a little overwhelmed by this ongoing rock-star treatment. “I always tell people, ‘We grew up together, you in front of the TV and me on the ice.’ And it’s true — every Saturday night, they’d watch us play. It’s amazing.”
Cournoyer says he might see a bit of himself in the Canadiens’ Brendan Gallagher, who’s also fearless in traffic despite his economical build.
If Gallagher doesn’t have the Roadrunner’s speed, he shares his nose for the net, regardless of the abuse he takes getting there.
“I love his style of playing for his team,” Cournoyer said. “He’s there every night and he shows the same thing every game. That’s an ideal player for a coach. You don’t have to worry about that guy.
“It’s a dream for a coach to have a player like Gallagher — no matter where you put him, no matter his assignment or his linemates, he’ll do his job to the best of his ability, doesn’t care about the beating he takes and he doesn’t complain.
“And he’s always laughing a little bit. I wouldn’t like to play against him.”
It’s a playful, relentless smile that the two also have in common. Often, especially down Highway 401, Cournoyer delights in telling fans and audiences this one:
“I love driving in Toronto and having to turn left,” he said, laughing once more. “I put my window down and put my hand out to signal — with a Stanley Cup ring on every finger!”