As a 27-year-old French Canadian, I grew up in a household that loved the Montreal Canadiens. My father was a diehard fan who worshipped at the altar of the Flower, Guy Lafleur. My uncle grew up idolizing the likes of Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy on the road to becoming a goaltender on the 1994 Canadian Olympic team, a Frozen Four winner with Harvard and a 4th-round draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets. It was imbedded into me at a young age that the Canadiens were something of importance to me.
Considering their history, it’s not hard to understand why my family’s fanhood was far from uncommon. They have won 24 Stanley cups, the most in league history. They housed the biggest names in the league over the course of multiple decades. Newsy Lalonde, Howie Morenz, Maurice the Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur are but a fraction of the superstars that have laced up their skates for the Montreal Canadiens. It helps that most of these players were French speakers who became a bastion of pride for a community of people that have long felt wholly cast aside within its own country.
One other reason for the team’s legacy was its home base: the Montreal Forum. In the same way that New York can be considered the mecca of basketball and Madison Square Garden its temple, the Forum was hockey’s most revered arena. Opened in 1924, it saw 22 of the 24 cups won by the Montreal Canadiens and more than 90 million fans pilgrimaged from everywhere around the world to see the world’s most popular hockey team in action. As a young boy, I had the opportunity to do so myself and the experience was unlike any other sporting event I have ever attended.
About two weeks after the Canadiens defeated the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup finals at the Forum, construction for a new arena broke ground in Montreal. By this time, everyone knew that there was a definite expiration date for the most illustrious building in hockey. As it turns out, that date was March 16, 1996. Midway through the season, the Canadiens left the roof that had protected their heads for 72 years and headed to a state of the art arena that had all the fixings…but none of the heart.
You see, at the Montreal Forum, the Montreal Canadiens seemed larger than life. They always found ways to reach victory at home, and if you ask the locals who saw some of the biggest moments in Canadiens history, they would tell you that the team often received supernatural help. The Montreal Forum was said to house ghosts—ghosts that manifested themselves when the Canadiens needed it the most and found ways to will its players to wins. How else could someone explain the Rocket being concussed in a game seven semi-final against the Bruins, having his eyes swollen nearly to the point of being blind and yet coming back to score the winning goal? Divine intervention. What about the time, in yet another game seven semi-final against the Bruins, when Boston took a “too many men” penalty holding a lead with less than four minutes to go and Guy Lafleur blasted the tying goal past Gilles Gilbert? Help from the other side.
So when the team moved from the Forum to the brand new Molson Centre (now re-christened Bell Centre) someone may have forgotten to tell the ghosts. The Canadiens’ track record since the move certainly supports the same conclusion. No Stanley Cups have been won since the ’93 cup at the Forum. While the team has housed decent players like Vincent Damphousse, Pierre Turgeon and Saku Koivu, none of those players could even hold Lafleur, Richard, or Beliveau’s jock strap. For the better part of the years since ditching the Forum, the Canadiens have been looking for an identity.
With the 2016-17 NHL season nearing its end and the playoffs fast approaching, Montreal appears close to finding what they have been looking for. On February 14, mired in a mediocre stretch of mostly .500 hockey, general manager Marc Bergevin finally made the decision fans had been demanding for a few seasons and fired the team’s coach, Michel Thérien. To replace him, the club brought on Claude Julien, a cup winner with Boston, someone who had previously coached the Canadiens and a highly respected bench boss.
Since the change-up, the team has founds its stride and has gone 8-3. They have beaten some of the best teams in the NHL in that span, like the Columbus Blue Jackets and the New York Rangers. On an even more positive note, the one player whose status can be compared to those legends from the past has been on an absolute tear. Carey Price, often cited as the world’s best goalie, had been having a mostly down year by his standards under Thérien’s watch.
With Julien at the helm, Price has appeared in nine games and has a 7-2 record to show for it. In those matches he has a sparkling 95.2% save percentage and a stellar 1.33 goals against average. In short, he has been as dominant as he was in 2014-15 when he won the Hart and Vezina trophies. When Price plays to the best of his abilities, the Montreal Canadiens suddenly become a team that can snatch a victory against anyone in the NHL.
Along with Price, the Canadiens have some of the best offensive talent the team has had since its arrival at the Bell Centre. Alexander Radulov, signed over from Russia in the off-season, has infused the roster with his creativity and passion. Whenever he steps onto the ice, he’s likely to do something to get the crowd roaring and his teammates pumped up. The team’s captain, Max Pacioretty, has shaken off a rough start to the season to challenge for the Rocket Richard trophy as the league’s top goal scorer. It would make him the first Habs skater to win the trophy that has been named after the team’s most revered figure. For the oft-maligned left winger, it would be an amazing achievement, and would finally quell even the loudest of haters among the fanbase. Despite battling injuries, Alex Galchenyuk has produced when healthy and looks to be a key figure moving forward with the team. The supporting players have also produced at a quality clip this season with guys like Paul Byron, Phillip Danault and Artturi Lehkonen doing a great job filling in when needed.
At the back end to support their star netminder, the Habs have put out a solid defensive corp. While the Subban trade is still questionable in the future, it’s quite obvious the impact new addition Shea Weber has had in stabilizing the defense. His presence on the power play looms as large as his shot is heavy, and his ability to stop plays in his own zone has been invaluable. Andrei Markov has been relatively healthy and is still a workhorse when he is on the ice, Jeff Petry has been a remarkable surprise at both ends of the ice, and Nathan Beaulieu fills out a very solid top four.
As of now, the team sits at the top of the Atlantic Division, but it has been in a tight battle with the Ottawa Senators. One thing is certain, after a one year absence, the Montreal Canadiens are about to re-enter the NHL playoffs. Like the other 15 teams that made the postseason, they have on goal in mind: acquiring Lord Stanley’s Cup. With Price on his game, the Canadiens have to be considered among the favorites to do so.
Winning a Stanley Cup is the pinnacle of a hockey player’s career. It validates all those 4am drives to the rink and bag skate practices. You become a champion and the pressure of chasing a ring lessens. When you put on a Montreal Canadiens sweater, that pressure to reach the top is increased tenfold. It has broken some of the best players. José Théodore won a Hart and Vezina trophy with Montreal but did not have the mental strength needed to back the team in high stakes games. Alexei Kovalev, one of the most dazzling players from the 1990s and early 2000s was basically booed away from Montreal for failing to display enough passion for the sport. Montreal has a rich history of success and the fans thirst for more of it. The large number of Stanley Cups the franchise has is both a gift and a curse.
Nothing will ever be like the Forum. It was a throwback to the days were hockey was the end-all, be-all for Montrealers. The Bell Centre is an excellent facility in its own right and has brought over the cup pennants and retired numbers but it isn’t the Forum. To its credit, it doesn’t try to be either, because everyone knows the Forum can never be replicated. That said, what can be replicated is the success that the Forum experienced and all the Bell Centre needs is a breakthrough. With the current roster armed with a Stanley Cup winning coach, the world’s best goaltender and an extremely well-rounded roster, why couldn’t the breakthrough come this year? To add a little insurance on their side, maybe someone in Montreal ought to give those old ghosts a call. Who knows what they could conjure up for the Montreal faithful?