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No team in the long glorious history of hockey and few in professional sports can boast of a tradition of excellence that equals that of the Montréal Canadiens. In all professional sports, only the New York Yankees have won more championships with 26, compared to the Canadiens’ 24. The Montréal Canadiens, hockey’s oldest franchise, is also it’s most constantly successful team, as indicated by at least one Stanley Cup victory – Hockey’s ultimate prize- in each decade of their existence. The continued exploits of the sacred Franchise have inspired and sustained an unrivaled sense of pride for many generations of adoring fans, while demanding the utmost level of dedication from the management and players responding to a sense of public responsibility that has made them the envy of their opposition.
The 2008-2009 season marks the 100th anniversary of the team formation. Year long festivities, including the presentation of an outdoor game, of the NHL All-Star Game, of the NHL Entry Draft and of many special ceremonies honoring Canadiens legends will unfold during this historic year. An institution in their home province of Québec, the Canadiens have always been one of the most famous exports for Canada, as the finest proponents of the countries most beloved pastime; the sport of hockey.
In Montreal this year, there is a feeling of celebration in the air, a sense of not only the Canadiens tremendous history but also a level of expectation that hasn’t been seen in the city for a little over a decade. Amongst the fans there is the germ of a dream as this centennial season beckons; a dream that the current Canadiens can live up to the ideals and the achievements of their glorious past.
The Canadiens are unique amongst all sports teams. Most teams represent a city, some represent the area around the city, and a precious few a geographic area. The Canadiens symbolize a nation within a nation. Through the years the Canadiens have proudly carried the flag for the Québécois symbolizing all that is best about their province and it’s people.
The Canadiens influence however, extends far beyond their provincial boundaries. As a team the Canadiens have continually stood as a symbol for Canada, built on a set of uniquely Canadian principals. In a country comprised of two solitudes; one French and one English, the Canadiens have consistently shown how the two could work together, in tandem, to form the best team in hockey.
Over the past century the management of the Canadiens have always strived to present an entertaining and flashy team that would dazzle the fans knowing that offense would sell tickets. This emphasis on what became known as “fire wagon hockey” meant that no game was ever out of the team’s reach.
Not only have the Canadiens been the most successful team in the history of hockey but it is in how they’ve done it that has made them the world’s most popular team. The Habs have continually beaten the opposition with style, skill, speed, and ability. All the while, the Canadiens have traditionally played with a flair that has left their opponents in awe.
Ironically, when the Canadiens were founded in the fall of 1909 they weren’t even the only professional hockey team in the city of Montréal. Even more ironic was the team’s last place finish in its inaugural season.
Over the next few years however, the Canadiens slowly began to incorporate the elements that would become their trademarks that are still used to this day. The red, white, and blue colours were first sported in 1913. The classic logo, now amongst the most recognizable in the world, was first used in the fall of 1917. The “CH” logo itself symbolizes the “Club de Hockey Canadien.”
Through the years the letter H that protrudes from the center of the logo has been mistakenly identified. In 1924, New York Rangers owner, Tex Rickard told a reporter that the H on the Canadiens logo stood for “Habitants.” As a matter of fact, the H stands for Hockey, but the term “Habitants” took hold and was eventually shortened to “Habs,” a moniker which many have used for the team ever since.
The one constant running through the team’s history has been to continuously strive for excellence. The faces and the names have changed over time but the ultimate goal has not.
Any story focusing on the Canadiens history of success must begin with the team’s management who has all operated under the simple premise that their most important duty is to ice a winning team.
The first component of any successful management structure is the man at the top and the Canadiens have been blessed with organizational wizards like Frank Selke and Sam Pollock, two men who not only managed the team but set the bar for management excellence throughout organized sports. Simply put, the Canadiens seemed to always be a step ahead of the opposition in the boardroom which translated into them being a step ahead on the ice as well.
Both Selke and Pollock identified the most important hire in their structure as the team’s head coach. While many quality hockey men have worked in various management positions through the years, it has been the coach that has ultimately been the public visage of management.
Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman, winners of a combined thirteen Stanley Cups behind the Habs bench have set the standard by which their latter day successors have been judged, by continually basing their coaching philosophy around what’s best for the team.
Yet, for all the greatness of the men in the suits the face of the franchise has always been the players. Canadiens management has always focused on having the top players; resulting in forty-two honourees in Hockey’s Hall of Fame, the most for any franchise.
In Montréal it is referred to as “the line,” a chain of superstars that have worn the jersey with pride before making way for the next one.
Howie Morenz, the Canadiens and hockey’s first superstar helped give the fledging game credibility, smashing box office records wherever he played and giving the game a foothold in the United States, all the while establishing the Canadiens as the league’s most recognizable franchise. His sudden and shocking death in 1937 cast a pall over the franchise for the next six years until the arrival on the team of a quiet, shy native Montréal’er.
Maurice “Rocket” Richard was as exciting as any player that has ever played in the NHL and became a cultural idol throughout Canada, but especially in Québec. Rocket was the Babe Ruth of hockey, a man who set the standard for the game’s most important act; scoring a goal. The first player to score 50 goals in a season, the first to score 500 in a career, the Rocket was a living legend and more than any other player set the Canadiens on an unparalleled course of hockey domination, retiring with eight Stanley Cups to his credit.
Five of those Stanley Cups were shared by the incomparable Jean Beliveau, who assumed the leadership mantle of the Canadiens after Richard’s retirement and led the team to five more Stanley Cup championships. As a player, Beliveau personified what it meant to be a captain, becoming both the Canadiens and the game’s classiest and most dignified spokesperson, a role that he continues to provide even to this very day at the venerable age of 77.
The week that Jean Beliveau retired was also the week that Guy Lafleur became a Montréal Canadien. After wearing a helmet for his first, tentative seasons, Guy Lafleur shed the headgear and became the game’s most exciting and dominant player leading the Canadiens to another five Stanley Cups.
This holy trinity of Canadiens superstars; Richard, Beliveau, and Lafleur presided over three separate dynastic teams, a feat unequaled in the annals of hockey.
Richard and Beliveau led the Canadiens to five consecutive Stanley Cups in the late 1950’s. Complimented by legendary players like Doug Harvey, Dickie Moore, Bernie Geoffrion and the Rocket’s younger brother Henri, the Canadiens set a standard no club has ever matched.
Led by Beliveau and Henri Richard the Canadiens of the late sixties came within two games of duplicating the feat. The “quiet” dynasty had its own share of stars like Jacques Laperriere, John Ferguson, J.C. and Gilles Tremblay, and a player called “the Roadrunner,” Yvan Cournoyer.
Both Cournoyer and Lafleur spearheaded a seventies dynasty that won four Stanley Cups in a row and is considered by many to be the greatest of all Habs teams. With the “big three” of Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, and Guy Lapointe on defense along with a clutch of great forwards like Jacques Lemaire, Steve Shutt, and Bob Gainey the Canadiens dominated like no one before or ever since.
When Lafleur retired in 1984 there was some doubt as to whether the Canadiens would ever again possess such a star. Unlike those that came before him, this new superstar played goal, a position that the Canadiens had always reserved for the very best.
With all of their Stanley Cup the skaters seemed to garner the most accolades but it was between the pipes where the secret to the Canadiens success stood. Beginning with Georges Vezina and continuing with Georges Hainsworth, Bill Durnan, Jacques Plante, “Gump” Worsley, and Ken Dryden the foundation for excellence in the Canadiens goal was firmly established when a young, brash, cocky Patrick Roy joined the team in 1986.
Roy immediately took his place amongst the Habs stars by almost single-handedly leading the Canadiens to surprise Stanley Cup. When he repeated the trick seven years later, leading the Canadiens to their 24th Stanley Cup his status as one of the game’s true legends was cemented.
No discussion of the Canadiens could be complete without speaking of the Montréal Forum; the cathedral of hockey, a place that when you stepped in was the essence of the history of the Canadiens and the sport. Looking upward one could count the twenty four banners that hung overhead as a reminder of the Canadiens excellence.
The Forum was host to innumerable historical moments, including two games held on September 2nd, 1972 and December 31st, 1975. The first game represented the opening contest of the famed 1972 Summit Series. In this first game of the first meeting between the best hockey players from Canada against their Soviet counterparts, the Russians skated to a shocking 7-3 victory that was the opening act in the greatest hockey series ever played.
A little over three years later the Soviets returned to the Forum with their top club team, the Central Red Army to play the Canadiens. What followed has been called “the greatest hockey game ever played.”
Greater than the games themselves has been their impact worldwide on those who watched. On that New Year’s Eve night the entire world saw the game of hockey played at it’s highest level by the most skilled and talented hockey team in the world; the Montréal Canadiens.
At the height of the Cold War, while tensions between the East and the West mounted, it was the Canadiens, with their status cemented as sporting royalty, who helped bring about the first stages of “détente” between these two distinctive ideals by reminding us all that we all share the same spirit of sportsmanship and goodwill. Now over three decades later a league once restricted to Canadian players has become a melting pot for untold players from around the world.
In 1996 the Canadiens closed the Forum and moved to what is now known as the Bell Centre. As only the Canadiens could, they closed the grand old building with a ceremony that left nary a dry eye in the building or amongst the millions who watched on television.
The closing of the Forum however, signaled a downward turn in the team’s fortunes. Canadiens’ last legend, Patrick Roy, had been traded a few months before and in the years that followed the team had sunk from its once lofty perch. Management hadn’t been secure or steady; coaches and players came and went, with bad trades and horrid drafting compounding the problem. Somewhere along the way, the passion; the one advantage over the opposition that the Canadiens always held seemed to vanish.
Suddenly, from the Habs storied past stepped forth a man that not only shared in those past glories but also helped to define them. In the spring of 2003 the team reached back into it’s glorious past to find the one man capable of restoring the passion; Bob Gainey.
Now, four and a half years later, nobody is wondering where the passion is. Three years of sellouts, a first place finish, and with a future seemingly brighter than at any time in the past two decades has the Canadiens once again back to their rightful place at the top of the hockey world.
Today’s Canadiens while strongly anchored in their rich history of leadership, character, and passion are also reflective of the new game. Once a showcase that French and English could work together, now the Habs are a truly global team. Saku Koivu, the team’s captain holds the second longest tenure in the club’s history. A symbol of courage throughout his time in Montreal, he has overcome cancer, battled through the potential loss of his sight, only to show us that a true Canadiens legend can come from a foreign country, yet still hold a special place in our heart.
In an ironic twist, once thought unimaginable, the current Canadiens are made up of not only English and French, but also Czech, Finnish, and most amazingly a contingent of players from the former Soviet Union. Alexei Kovalev, the team’s best player hails from Russia. A generation ago, little was known about the men who stood on the blueline at the Montreal Forum in the red and white of the Soviet Union. Today, Kovalev, a symbol of the next generation, stands wearing the famous Habs jersey, an inheritor of not only the great Russian hockey legacy but also of the proud tradition of the Canadiens.
Whether they can go all the way in their centennial season remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure …
One Hundred Years. Twenty-Five Stanley Cups. Sounds about right.
In addition to being a featured columnist for HabsWorld, T.C. also writes the Montreal Canadiens blog for the Hockey News.
- 100 Seasons of Glory, Tradition & Excellence; The Top 100 Players posted by T.C. Denault