The latest in Montreal haute couture is the brown paper grocery bag, worn chicly over the head with two holes for the eyes. This is what the smart women and the wise guys will be wearing to the Forum, home of the legendary Canadiens, if a handful of trendsetters are to be trusted. They arrived for a match last Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils en sac, making a fashion statement about the Canadiens' 0-3 start.
They wear paper bags now. By December, they'll be wearing plastic bags.
These Canadiens are toast, a realization that dawned even before the Stanley Cup-champion Devils beat them 4-1 and the city dragged its other foot onto the ledge. There is anguish, an overriding sense of uncertainty, in Montreal, but little of it has to do with the Oct. 30 referendum in which the province of Quebec will decide whether to separate from Canada. Montreal is inured to referendums, having suffered through the grim process 15 years ago, but it has not seen the Canadiens stumble so badly at the start of a season since 1938. The city, accustomed as it is to the 24 Stanley Cup banners that hang stiffly from the Forum girders, is properly in high dudgeon about a team that was outscored 20-4 in its first four games. Besides, the referendum question offers only two choices, out or non, while the Holy Flannel, as the Canadiens are called with no intended irony, offers several options for reproach: the heroic goalie turned goat, the impotent offense, the too easygoing coach, the reluctant general manager. All have taken their turns roasting on the spit of public opinion, which would seem as silly as a Gilbert and Sullivan opera this early in the season but is awfully compelling if you're shelling out $120 for a pair in the red seats. (By the way, if Gilbert and Sullivan can stop a puck, exhume them and ship them C.O.D. to Montreal.)
The braying began opening night during a 7-1 pounding by the Philadelphia Flyers. Canadien goalie Patrick Roy—St. Patrick, a two-time playoff MVP and the rock on which this secular religion currently rests—was yanked after allowing five goals on 15 shots. (Batting .667 is unacceptable in hockey.) It was a little early to unfurl those WAIT 'TIL NEXT YEAR banners, but Le Journal de Montreal, the city's most widely read newspaper, did proclaim Games 2 and 3 in Florida to be "must wins." The Canadiens lived down to expectations, losing 6-1 to the inoffensive Florida Panthers and then 3-1 to the execrable Tampa Bay Lightning. On the morning of the game against the Devils, La Presse ran a front-page column urging Canadien general manager Serge Savard to dump coach Jacques Demers and step behind the bench himself. (There was also one referendum-related story on Page One. Bosnia didn't even make Section A.) Savard, who made two piddling offseason trades, has never coached and isn't about to start. He is too busy trying to rebuild a proud franchise. Considering that he rebuilt the Flyers by sending them John LeClair and Eric Desjardins last February, at least he has some experience in this area.
When Demers won the 1993 Stanley Cup in his first season in Montreal, he was the humanist who mended rifts caused by his abrasive predecessor, Pat Burns. Now Demers's motivational magic is gone. Of course, charges that Demers is so inept he can't even locate the panic button, let alone push it, are blatantly unfair. Before 1995-96 was even five periods old, he had benched Pierre Turgeon and Vincent Damphousse, two of his best offensive players, and leading defenseman Vladimir Malakhov.
The sorry truth for this goal-a-game team is, There is no Plan B, and Plan A isn't working. There is no one in the organization who appears remotely qualified to replace Demers, no tradable players of value, no help in the minors. The Canadiens don't even have a No. 2 goalie as much as they have a No. 3, rookie Patrick Labrecque. And if the estimable Roy's crease keeps resembling the red-light district at Ste. Catherine Street and The Main—New Jersey beat him on four of its first 10 shots—no one is capable of playing 35 games in his place.
The Canadiens don't play again until this Friday, against the Islanders in New York, a break that gives them five days to stew in an atmosphere as friendly as Chernobyl's. Team captain Mike Keane thinks the players deserve to have their noses rubbed in it. "This is the best place in the world to play when you win, the worst when you lose," Keane says. "People won't be coming up to us to say, 'Hi, how are you?' this week. They'll be telling us to wake up." Or as assistant coach Steve Shutt once put it so eloquently, "The fans are behind you, win or tie."
The Canadiens missed the playoffs in 1995 for the first time in a quarter of a century, but huffy Montreal granted them absolution because of the lockout-truncated season. Now the team has used up its pity quota. Last Thursday, as the Canadiens were losing in Tampa, a table of men in Magnan's, a noted working-class brasserie, asked the waiter to put on the St. Louis Rams-Atlanta Falcons game. "Mais, non," the waiter said. "Les Canadiens...."
Exactly. The Canadiens. Put on the NFL. The waiter did, and no on else in the joint seemed to object. Unlike Forum fans, they were not half in the bag.