Keepers of the Flame
The NHL's cornerstone franchise has left an indelible imprint on the game
For most birthday celebrations, a simple rendition of happy Birthday suffices, but this is the 100th of the Montreal Canadiens, who are happiest when they warble a song of themselves. The franchise practically begs for lampooning because of its conspicuous delight in wallowing in its own history -- as I am fond of saying, the only two western institutions that really grasp ceremony are the House of Windsor and the Canadiens, but in this momentous season Montreal has found an eager chorus to help carry its birthday tune. Among the myriad special events the Canadiens have been trotting out since October -- vintage-jersey nights, the introduction of a ring of honor and a community outdoor rink at the Bell Centre, the issuing of commemorative stamps and coins, the All-Star festivities -- perhaps the most extraordinary will be the April 2 concert at the arena by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. This time, someone will be tooting the Canadiens' horn for them.
There is old, and there is venerable. Fortunately for the Canadiens, they are both. Old? The Canadiens are as old as the Canadian Football League's Grey Cup, older than income tax in Canada, older than the tradition of American presidents throwing out a ceremonial first pitch, older than the first public performance of Mahler's stupendous Das Lied von der Erde. Venerable? Their 24 championships are the most by any North American professional franchise except the New York Yankees. The sense of entitlement surrounding the franchise is so profound that the 76 years in which the Canadiens did not win the Stanley Cup seem like mistakes. The self-eulogizing might be a giant bull's-eye on the Canadiens -- in November, Patrick Roy's number 33 became the 15th number to hang from the rafters; if Montreal retires any more, it will have players skating with ampersands and percentage signs on their backs -- but they have earned the right to laud their own history because they have actually made some.
Although Montreal's claim as hockey's fulcrum has waned since the NHL's headquarters were relocated to New York City in 1989, it remains a glamour franchise, arguably the league's most important. The Canadiens have been the face of the league because their players have often been the faces of the game, men who have left indelible imprints on hockey.
There are 44 Canadiens players (and 10 builders) in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Included in the initial Hall of Fame class, in 1945, was Howie Morenz, the Stratford Streak, a dashing skater and stickhandler who took his place in the pantheon of the 1920's Golden Age of Sport along with Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Bill Tilden and Bobby Jones. Morenz's career overlapped with the end of Phantom Joe Malone's, the forward who melded production -- he would be the second-leading goal scorer in pro hockey's first half century -- with clean play, a combination that would be echoed decades later by the most respected man in Canada, Jean Béliveau. The Canadiens have never actually cornered the market on class; it just sometimes seemed that way.
Montreal has also had tempestuous stars, of course. If Gordie Howe is Mr. Hockey, his contemporary and rival right wing, Maurice Richard, was Mr. Quebec. In addition to being the best player, blue line in, in NHL history, the Rocket was a galvanizing figure, a man who, by dint of circumstances, became the standard-bearer for a province, a personification of its hopes and its grievances. The combustible mix erupted on March 17, 1955, in the infamous Richard Riot, one of the red-letter dates in franchise history. (The trigger: NHL president Clarence Campbell suspended Richard for the rest of the season for allegedly intentionally trying to injure Boston's Hal Laycoe and for knocking a linesman unconscious with a punch, both during a March 13 game, effectively depriving the Rocket of a chance at the scoring title.) Another right wing, Guy Lafleur, would follow a decade later, stirring Montreal passions in less inflammatory ways. Like the Rocket, the Flower was the most viscerally appealing player of his day, a skater who attracted eyeballs with his speed and flowing blond hair the way he did praise.
If the Canadiens became the cornerstone of the NHL, many who wore the uniform were prime movers in hockey's ever-shifting landscape. Well before Bobby Orr, defenseman Doug Harvey was rushing the puck. (Last year I asked Tom Johnson, a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman with Montreal from 1947 through '63 who would later coach Orr in Boston, if Harvey was second only to Orr among blueliners he had seen. Johnson -- who has since passed away -- replied, "I wouldn't say that." He meant that Harvey was Orr's equal.) When Jacques Plante donned a mask in a game on Nov. 1, 1959, he paved the way for his goaltending progeny to protect themselves -- and truly changed the faces of hockey. Plante didn't invent the mask, just as Roy didn't invent the butterfly technique when he broke into the league in the mid 1980s. Yet it was Roy, the prickly backstop of Montreal's last two Cups, in 1986 and '93, who popularized the predominant style of goaltending worldwide.
To grasp the significance of Canadiens players, consider that since the 1967 NHL expansion, they have won 33 individual awards. The other heritage franchise in Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs, has three -- and not a Hart or Norris trophy among them. (You can't write about the Canadiens without at least one snide reference to the Maple Leafs.)
So sit back and enjoy the continuing Hab-a-thon, a season in which the NHL alphabet starts with the letters C and H. And if 2008-09 at times seems a little Canadiens-centric and the nonstop fete a little too precious, realize that in the sporting firmament, this unique franchise is a shining star.
GALLERY: The 15 most legendary Canadiens