" Montreal is the Mecca of hockey. Everybody in this city thinks he knows the game."
First there was the fire wagon. Fire wagon hockey was the swirling, breakneck offensive style of the Montreal Canadiens when they had the rights to every player born in Quebec, were referred to as the Flying Frenchmen or, in moments of reverence, Nos Glorieux, and the Stanley Cup looked out of place anywhere but at the Forum.
The fire wagon has been replaced by the Zamboni. Zamboni hockey, like the sturdy, effective vehicles that resurface the ice between periods, is predictable, deliberate and inexorable. The Flying Frenchmen have given way to a plodding potpourri of American, Anglo-Canadian, Swedish and Czech players. The only similarities between the eras can be discovered on the bottom line: At week's end the Canadiens were working on a 10-game winning streak, and their record of 40-20-10 was second only to the Calgary Flames' 41-21-8.
Instead of a flashy scorer, today's typical Canadien is more apt to be a burly forward who bumps, grinds and obeys orders—if he wishes to play. To wit: When rightwinger Claude Lemieux, who was upset with his shrinking ice time, had words with coach Jean Perron between periods of Montreal's 5-0 skunking of the Hartford Whalers on Saturday night, he was suspended indefinitely. It was business as usual at the most intriguing franchise in the NHL. You could write a soap opera about this team. In fact, Rejean Tremblay, a sports columnist for La Presse in Montreal, does for a Quebec TV station. The show, He Shoots, He Scores!, is loosely based on the Canadiens and is an enormous hit.
Zamboni hockey beat the leg-weary Calgary Flames in a war of attrition in the 1986 Stanley Cup finals, and Zamboni hockey is the reason the Canadiens had a six-point lead over the second-place Boston Bruins in the Adams Division as the week ended. "I'd be the first one to admit it," says defenseman Chris Chelios. "We play a boring style of hockey." Chelios, a Chicago native of Greek descent who arrived in Montreal via San Diego, Moose Jaw, Sasketchewan, and the University of Wisconsin, must constantly restrain himself in Coach Perron's system. A natural puck-rushing defenseman, Chelios would probably be happiest doing a Paul Coffey imitation all day, taking the puck the length of the ice while leaving his partner, Czechoslovakian-born Petr Svoboda, to defuse trouble in the Montreal end.
"We know we put our fans to sleep some games," continues Chelios. "We try to put the other teams to sleep is the idea." Until he broke a knuckle in his left hand on Dec. 9, Chelios had been a leading candidate to win the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman. On Saturday he had two goals and an assist to raise his totals to 17 and 39, respectively.
Systematically wearing down opponents with discipline and forechecking—that is the kind of hockey the Canadiens are playing better than anyone else in the league right now. Except for a third-period breakaway Saturday, against which Montreal goalie Patrick Roy dove to his left to make a spectacular glove stab of Paul MacDermid's shot, the Whalers were pretty much muzzled offensively. Indeed, Roy faced only one shot in the first 13 minutes of the second period and only 17 all told. In a 4-1 win over Stanley Cup champion Edmonton last Wednesday, the Canadiens didn't allow the Oilers a shot on goal for the first 11 minutes of the second period.
Boring is in the eye of the beholder. "These guys are flying" said Whalers coach Larry Pleau after Saturday's game.
Said Max McNab, executive vice-president of the New Jersey Devils, who was in Montreal last week on a scouting mission, "The Canadiens' defense is absolutely dominating right now. And I expect, with their youth, they'll be dominating for the next couple of years, at least. That's the scary part."
Make that part of the scary part. The Canadiens are big, too, and not just the defensemen. Forwards Ryan Walter, Brian Skrudland, Mike McPhee, Bobby Smith, Bob Gainey, Guy Carbonneau, Sergio Momesso and Lemieux are among the tough and burly. Montreal attacks in waves, using four strong lines. With only 20 of the players on the roster allowed to suit up per game, Perron usually has to scratch four guys who could waltz into any other lineup in the league. "It's called depth," says goalie Brian Hayward, who shares net duties with Roy.