In an extraordinary nod to tradition and with a healthy dose of audacity, the words from John McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields—"To you from failing hands we throw the torch, be yours to hold it high"—have been hung in the Montreal Canadiens' dressing room above portraits of their 40 Hall of Fame players. There's no other sports franchise that would have the hubris to expropriate a poem about fallen soldiers and apply it to men who shoot pucks at a four-by-six-foot net. But now, for a club that has won 24 Stanley Cups and has had a legacy of stars and nobility, those words seem cruel and mocking. The "failing hands" still apply, but if a poet tried to capture the spirit of the Canadiens today, he might be inspired to write, "Like, whatever."
These are the dark ages of a crumbled dynasty, hockey's equivalent of the Horace Clarke New York Yankees of the late 1960s and the Sidney Wicks-Curtis Rowe Boston Celtics of the late '70s. The Canadiens have won one postseason series since their last Stanley Cup in 1993. They've missed the playoffs twice in the past five years. If they don't win the Cup this season—they're bucking Powerball odds—it will mark the first time since 1944 that Montreal has gone seven years without a title. New team president Pierre Boivin, a former sporting goods executive who has been on the job for seven weeks, recognizes the depth of the malaise and is championing a three-year plan that may or may not work, but at least is two years shorter than Stalin's.
The symbol of the decline of the Canadiens' empire is not their middling 3-4-0 record through Sunday, not a decade of mediocre drafting and substandard European scouting and poor trades, not even overwhelmed general manager R�jean Houle. It is the hipsters who take to the three-year-old Molson Centre's ice between periods in a souped-up Molson Export Patrol cart and shoot T-shirts from an air cannon into the crowd. At the Montreal Forum, intermissions were reserved for repairing to the cramped corridors, eating steamed hot dogs, drinking beer, breathing secondhand smoke and talking about the game. That was serious hockey. Now the Canadiens are in the dubious business of "sports entertainment," which includes such accoutrements as numbing rock music in the arena and a high-tech video system that ogles sweet young things. (Love those navel rings!) The Canadiens, who had a better grasp of pomp and ceremony than any organization except the House of Windsor, have ceded the high ground of class and dignity. If a legendary franchise chooses to comport itself like an ordinary team, it demands to be judged as one.
Although some Montreal fans still genuflect to a sport tiresomely referred to as the secular religion of Quebec, the Canadiens have ceased to be what novelist Mordecai Richler described in the mid-1970s as "a spiritual necessity." In the past two years the Saturday institution La Soir�e du Hockey, the French version of Hockey Night in Canada, has been buffeted by Montreal's indifferent play and dull teams: Viewership has dipped more than 20%. The Canadiens announced a sellout of 21,273 against the Toronto Maple Leafs on opening night three weeks ago, but there were at least 1,000 no-shows for their archrivals, a stunning display of ennui. The Canadiens also failed to sell out the next week in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver—cities in which almost as many fans once rooted for Montreal as for the local teams—and then returned home to perhaps 4,000 empty seats, even though the fabulous Pavel Bure of the Florida Panthers was in town. "If the fans don't care as much, maybe it's because the players don't care as much as they used to," says left wing Benoit Brunet, who made his Canadiens' debut 11 seasons ago. "The fans know who gives a good, honest effort."
That Gallic shrug by the fans is one of the few things French about a team once known as the Flying Frenchmen: Only seven Quebecers were among the 28 players who have been on the roster this season. During training camp, coach Alain Vigneault called in seven veterans and floated the idea of an English-only dressing room, a policy adopted by the Panthers. Imagine. A francophone coach in the world's third-largest French-speaking city asking his players if they thought the team once graced by Maurice Richard, Jean B�liveau and Guy Lafleur might be more united if they spoke strictly English. The players wisely told Vigneault to forget it.
The Canadiens have far more profound problems than conjugation, starting with injuries. On Oct. 11, Montreal practiced without 12 regulars. The following night the Canadiens lost 2-1 to Florida while using six skaters who had a combined 101 games of NHL experience. In his post-match press conference Vigneault declared, "No one's going to take self-pity on us."
Vigneault has hinted that he could use reinforcements, the province of the universally liked but beleaguered Houle, who won five Stanley Cups as a forward with Montreal in the 1970s. Houle was plucked out of the offices of Molson Companies (the team's owner) in October 1995 by former Montreal president Ronald Corey, whose blind loyalty to all things Canadien bordered on corporate inbreeding. Houle, who didn't know the league and barely knew the team at the time, compounded his problems by hiring former teammate Mario Tremblay, a coaching novice, to work behind the bench. (Corey had fired Jacques Demers.) The passionate Tremblay drove the Canadiens to 90 points and the playoffs that season, but in the long run he was temperamentally unsuited to being a coach. If the Feb. 9, 1995, trade of future star left wing John LeClair and premier defenseman Eric Desjardins to the Philadelphia Flyers by Houle's predecessor, Serge Savard, marked the start of the franchise's decline, then Tremblay's tardy removal of goaltending god Patrick Roy during an 11-1 thumping by the Detroit Red Wings at the Forum 10 months later sent the Canadiens down an elevator shaft. Houle traded the incensed Roy and captain Mike Keane to the Colorado Avalanche four days later, effectively handing the Stanley Cup to the Avalanche.
Houle has made 18 trades since then, acquiring 23 players and nine draft choices, but too often his deals have blown up. Twelve of those players came from the Calgary Flames, the Chicago Blackhawks, the New York Islanders and the Tampa Bay Lightning—the NHL's dregs. (The surest way to look like a lower-echelon team is to trade with one.) Houle's best trade was picking up Eric Weinrich, who gamely has tried to fill the role of No. 1 defenseman during the many absences of the injury-prone Vladimir Malakhov, and goaltender Jeff Hackett, who went 24-20-9 last season behind a team that did not have a 20-goal scorer for the first time since 1940-41.
Hackett says playing in Montreal is like experiencing the birth of a first child: Everyone tells you how much your life will change, but until it happens you have no clue. He has become the Canadiens' moral center, and he reacted viscerally two weeks ago when defenseman Sylvain C�t�, then being shopped by Toronto, said he would prefer to go to the U.S. and to a winning team rather than be dealt to Montreal. "I thought it was a shame that a French Canadian didn't want to play in Montreal," Hackett says. "Growing up, it must have been a dream for him. It's an honor to play here, and every guy should understand that."
Boivin vows to bring that feeling back. He plans to lose the kitschy on-ice diversions, improve player development and add luster to a brand that has suffered from a benign neglect. Within three years he envisions the Canadiens winning a playoff round and filling the arena at least two-thirds of the time. "We've done nothing to build heroes of our team today," Boivin says. "There have been a ton of missed opportunities."