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Canadiens’ legacy has become an albatross upon the current edition

October 2011

I know it’s perverse, but I spent the entire summer waiting for October to roll around, so I could get back to following the Montreal Canadiens, as I’ve done since 1956 (when I was 8). In fact, as the years roll by, my passion for the team grows—and so does my frustration.

For in my inaugural season, les Habitants won the first of an unprecedented five straight Stanley Cups; the spell was broken in 1961 (by Chicago). Until then I thought the Canadiens were supposed to win every year, by divine right. The reality was a crushing blow to me.

They righted themselves, winning four championships in the ’60s and six more in the ’70s (including four straight starting in ’76), the heyday of Guy Lafleur and Ken Dryden. Since then it’s been largely one disappointing season after another, as they’ve failed to live up to their own legacy. Their preponderance of Cup victories in those three decades really did make them “nos glorieux.” Today that term is more often used with irony if not outright sarcasm.

Twenty-five years ago, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup (their only championship season of the 1980s), and the most hallowed team in hockey has managed to win only once since then.

It should be admitted that the Canadiens’ legacy of the glory years has become something of a shroud or albatross upon the current edition; it’s nigh impossible to match that level of excellence. Those great years established Montreal as the hockey capital of the world, where expectations remain high—perhaps unrealistically so in this age of parity and free agents. The Detroit Red Wings, an arch-rival in the ’50s, has displayed the kind of excellence, year in and year out, over the past decade that Montrealers once took for granted.

So often over the last two decades I’ve watched them with the wish to change channels and “return to those thrilling days of yesteryear,” which exist now only as memory (or on DVD packages). Most of the 17 players whose jersey numbers the franchise has retired—the most of any pro sports team—played during those three glorious decades.

Jean Beliveau’s jersey hangs at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Photo: Michael Barera

The first writer of any persuasion I followed regularly was Red Fisher, then the hockey reporter for the Montreal Star; I still follow him in the Gazette, have even worked with him. Once upon a time there were three English-language papers to fill pages on Canadiens exploits. The best was the tabloid Montreal Herald, with photos by the legendary David Bier and diagrammatic arrows pointing to the trajectory of the puck (usually whizzing by an opposing goalie).

I am a pre-expansion (pre-1967) boomer. There’s a huge disconnect between the old six-team league, in which teams played each other 14 times over the season—giving blood-and-guts gravity to the meaning of the word “rivalry” and every game was a serious affair (even against weaker teams)—and today’s league (offhand I couldn’t tell you how many teams there are).

Of course, back then the Canadiens had first choice for acquiring the services of French-Canadian players, leading to the phrase “The Flying Frenchmen.” And so my favourite player was tall, elegant, smooth-skating Jean Beliveau. There was Maurice “Rocket” Richard, in the twilight of his career (ending in 1960) but still capable of the drama that made him the league’s most explosive player, and his little brother Henri, the “Pocket Rocket,” who virtually defined how a little player could compete in the league. Not to mention Bernard “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, who invented the slap shot. Claude Provost started out as a checker (playing against Gordie Howe and opposition’s other best players) and blossomed into a scorer. Finally, the team was backstopped by the slithery Jacques Plante (“Jake the Snake”), who revolutionized goaltending with his mobile style and was one of hockey’s keenest analysts ever. (Bar none, the best goalie I ever saw.) Yet, the appellation “Flying Frenchman” was ultimately a misnomer. How about Doug Harvey, Tom Johnson, Dickie Moore? The Canadiens always had a blend of the two official language groups—until now, that is. Of course, today’s game is infused with European players.

The closest the current edition has to the speedy francophone archetype is David Desharnais, who broke in last season and could be a key to the team’s fortunes this year. The other “big little guys” are anglos: Michael Cammalleri (my current fave, as much for his intelligence as his opportunistic style), Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez. Add the more sizeable Tomas Plekanec (whom others around the league will tell you is among the best two-way player in the NHL), newly acquired Erik Cole (a natural scorer once he’s around the net), Max Pacioretty and Andrei Kostitsyn, and you have the makings of a dynamic nucleus that could carry this team a long way. If goalie Carey Price has the kind of season we know he’s capable of (logging a league high 72 games last year) and this team may indeed match the best les Canadiens ever had, talent-wise.

At least, that’s the theory—or, perhaps a better way of putting it: Hope springs eternal. The legacy of the Canadiens’ historically proven greatest teams—which those of us of a certain age had the pleasure of watching—will allow nothing less than ultimate victory.

Finally, a trick question: What’s the best game I’ve seen Montreal play? That’s an easy one. It was during the 1977 season—and they were playing against each other at a practice. Speed to burn.



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