Nearly 50 years later, Frank Mahovlich treasures his 500th NHL goal as much as he did the night he scored it.
If only, The Big M jokes today, he could rewrite history to make the milestone scored with the Montreal Canadiens just a little prettier than it actually was.
“It fooled me and it fooled him,” Mahovlich said with a laugh of Vancouver Canucks goalie Dunc Wilson, whom he beat with a whiffed shot that skittered almost in slow motion into hockey lore.
Mahovlich played 18 NHL seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and Canadiens between 1956-74, winning the Stanley Cup four times with the Maple Leafs and then twice with the Canadiens, and scoring 1,103 points (533 goals, 570 assists) in 1,181 regular-season games.
Voted the 1957-58 Calder Trophy winner as the NHL rookie of the year, the forward retired from hockey in 1978 following four seasons in the World Hockey Association and a starring role for Canada in the 1972 Summit Series, and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1981. In 1998, he was appointed to Senate of Canada, the Upper House of Parliament, serving until his retirement in 2013.
On March 21, 1973, with his third team in his penultimate NHL season, Mahovlich arrived at the Montreal Forum with 499 goals, his most recent having come three nights earlier at the Philadelphia Flyers.
“It’s a heck of a feat,” Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman said with The Big M parked at 499.
If there was pressure to reach 500, Mahovlich doesn’t remember feeling it.
“I just tried to play my normal game,” he said. “I figured if I get it, I’ll get it. It will come.”
On the eve of his big night, he said, “I suppose I’ve been thinking about the 500 thing a bit, you always do when you get close to something like this. But it’ll come if I don’t force it . ”
It nearly did come with 30 seconds left in the first period, Mahovlich breaking in alone on Wilson with the Canadiens shorthanded. The goalie skated out of his net, backed up a bit, then dove to his right and thwarted the deke.
Frank Mahovlich in the Montreal Canadiens’ Bell Center dressing room on Nov. 18, 2017, with former teammates Yvan Cournoyer (right) and Toronto Maple Leafs’ Dave Keon.
The 500th would wait until 1:27 of the third period, witnessed by 17,150 fans. From the deep slot to Wilson’s left, Mahovlich took a pass from Henri Richard and wound up for a slap shot.
“I missed the shot completely,” he said sheepishly at the time. “I guess I just shanked it off the heel of my stick. It was rolling so slowly that at first I was tempted to make a move and chase after it but then I saw [Wilson] had come out of the net and the puck was rolling right past him.
“Just as I realized it might go in by itself, I was taken out of the play,” Mahovlich said of Canucks defenseman Jocelyn Guevremont muscling him away. “But after what Wilson did to me in the first period, I’m willing to take it any old way at all.”
Wilson grumbled after the game that he wished The Big M had beaten him on the breakaway for No. 500.
Frank Mahovlich in his 1972 Canada team portrait for the Summit Series and with the Canadiens that season.
“I’d rather not have made history on that shot,” Wilson muttered. “I thought he was coming with the high hard one over my left shoulder and I was leaning that way to make the stop. Instead, he missed it and when I tried to recover, my stick got all caught up in my pants and sweater and left me helpless.
“There was nothing I could do but stand there and watch it go in.”
Mahovlich’s goal was the game-winner in Montreal’s 3-2 victory, which clinched the Prince of Wales Trophy for the Canadiens as the East Division winners on their way to the Stanley Cup.
It would be the final Cup victory for The Big M, who had won it in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967 with the Maple Leafs and 1971 with the Canadiens.
Mahovlich’s milestone goal came 16 years and one day after his NHL debut with Toronto and 26 months after his trade to Montreal from the Red Wings. And it gave him a personal reason to celebrate 500, having assisted on the 500th of then-Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau at the Forum on Feb. 11, 1971.
Beliveau, who was in his usual seat at the Forum on the occasion of Mahovlich’s milestone, visited the dressing room after the game to congratulate his friend and pose with him for photographers, a large 500 penned onto adhesive tape and stuck on the puck.
“Oh gosh, it was a thrill for me,” the 84-year-old Mahovlich said of joining the elite club that then consisted of Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Beliveau and Bobby Hull at the 500-goal summit.
Mahovlich, one of 46 NHL players to score at least 500 goals, is 34th in NHL history.
Frank Mahovlich at the 2018 NHL Alumni Gala in Toronto holding a Maple Leaf Gardens dressing-room photo of himself from 1957; he had scored 15 goals at that point of his rookie season.
“I was delighted,” he said of scoring No. 500. “Winning the Stanley Cup that year and in 1971 with the Canadiens was a great honor. Montreal was the greatest team and Sam Pollock was the greatest general manager I ever played for. He knew what he was doing.
“The little Hall of Fame in my basement, I look at a photo of the Canadiens Hall of Famers and realize that I played with 13 of them, 15 including Pollock and Scotty Bowman.”
Indeed, Mahovlich had a late-career rebirth with the Canadiens. His first 12 NHL seasons with the Maple Leafs were often a nightmare; he feuded constantly with Toronto coach and GM Punch Imlach, who relentlessly ridiculed his superbly skilled forward, a gentle and sensitive man. Fans jumped on him with charges of laziness, no matter that Mahovlich made the game look effortless with his huge strides, powerful skating and silky touch around the net.
The torment was so bad that Mahovlich was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown.
Frank Mahovlich has the happy attention of two nurses in a Toronto hospital during his time with the Maple Leafs.
Finally, on March 3, 1968, he was traded to the Red Wings. On Jan. 13, 1971, he was traded to the Canadiens; four months later, Mahovlich won his fifth Stanley Cup title.
With many moments from his career to be prized, The Big M cherishes memories of his 500th goal nearly half a century later, even if it came up short of being a highlight-reel classic.
“I scored a few odd goals like that,” he said. “I remember one in New York with Toronto. I’d been checked to the ice, I’m lying there, my stick is 10 feet away and who’s winding up for a shot at the blue line? Defenseman Tim Horton. He had a shot, he was one of the strongest guys I ever played with.He lets the shot go, the puck hits my stick and ricochets into the net.I get credit for the goal… and I’m lying on the ice.
“At least in Montreal,” The Big M said, laughing again, “I was holding my stick.”
Photos: Imperial Oil-Turofsky, Hockey Hall of Fame; Getty Images; Dave Stubbs