It is one of Henri Richard's very old tricks, reserved for those rare moments when the great dynasty of the Montreal Canadiens seems ready to crumble—to make a dramatic, Gallic gesture. Richard, the proud captain of the Canadiens and the last link with their glorious past, waits for the darkest hour, then boldly speaks out in the mother tongue. The Canadiens hear him—indeed, three million fanatical French Canadians hear him—and the dynasty somehow survives.
One year, when the Canadiens were in immediate danger of losing the Stanley Cup to the Chicago Black Hawks, the volatile Richard purposely called Al MacNeil "the worst coach I have ever played for." A week later Richard and MacNeil jointly hoisted the cup after Henri's goal beat the Black Hawks in the final game. Last season the Canadiens won another cup after Richard personally settled a dressing-room squabble by telling a disrespectful young teammate to keep his mouth shut and then slapping him across the face Godfather-style. And so it was that Richard, a man with a perfect record in the amateur psychology league, felt compelled to reach for his rhetoric again a fortnight ago after the Canadiens had been humiliated 6-0 by the Philadelphia Flyers and 9-2 by the New York Rangers in successive games. "Notre fiert� est perdue dans les �gouts," Richard said. "Our pride has gone down the drain."
Richard fully expected that his harsh words would have their usual impact on the Canadiens, and to make certain that none of his teammates thought he had been misquoted, he repeated the statement when the team met at his tavern on Park Street on Montreal's West Side.
In their next game, a return match with the Rangers, the Canadiens did respond to Richard—and the constant jeering of their suddenly hostile Forum fans—by summoning up enough pride to come from behind and win 4-2.
"I think that I said the right thing at the right time," Richard commented afterward.
Maybe he did, but last Saturday night Richard was practically speechless after the Canadiens left the Forum ice to a chorus of boos and a hail of debris following a bitter 3-1 loss to the Black Hawks. "Our pride has gone down the drain," said Richard, staring at the dressing-room floor. "These guys, they are not working like the Canadiens should work. We are playing like a bunch of chickens with our heads cut off."
What happened to the Canadiens last week was an instant replay of much that has happened to them this season. Last year, like Canadiens of old, they finished first in the East and won the cup, but now they are drifting aimlessly in second place, some 14 points behind the Boston Bruins in a tight race with the Rangers. They already have lost 20 games, twice as many as all last season, and their record at the Forum is a dismal 21-10-3. With Ken Dryden now clerking for a Toronto law firm, the goalkeeping has been wildly erratic, and the 1973-74 Canadiens will enter the record books as the worst defensive team in Montreal history. General Manager Sam Pollock had foolishly believed that Wayne Thomas, Michel Plasse and Bunny Larocque, veterans of a grand total of 28 games in the National Hockey League, could provide the Canadiens with Dryden-like performances.
Besides the troubles in goal, Montreal has been plagued by injuries to defense-men—the regulars have been together for fewer than 20 games—a lack of muscle among the forwards and a new and curious style of attack that might be called backmanning. The real Canadiens always headmanned the puck to the lead skater—they constantly advanced. The 1974 Canadiens backman the puck to trailing skaters and spend the night going offside.
These negative factors have combined to produce humiliating defeats by such scores as 9-2, 8-4 and 6-0 on the road and 8-0 and 5-0 at the once-friendly Forum. There is a chill in relations between the players and the Quebecois and in recent weeks some French-Canadian journalists have even suggested that readers "Abstenez-vous d'aller au Forum"—stay away from the Forum. One writer had the audacity to call a Canadien effort "malhonn�te"—a dishonest spectacle. Another wrote, "How many people would pay $9.50 to see the hockey of 1974 if they could buy the days of [ Howie] Morenz and [Aurel] Joliat?" Astoundingly, the Canadiens' prestige has dropped so low that a recent poll conducted by the Montreal Gazette, the English-language morning paper, revealed that baseball's Expos have replaced the Canadiens as the darlings of the city. "Given the option of season tickets," the Gazette poll asked, "would you prefer the Alouettes [football], the Canadiens or the Expos?" The response was 503 for the Expos, 338 for the Canadiens and 159 for the Alouettes. The results stunned Forum officials. "I would have thought we'd have beaten both of the other teams combined," said one.
Not surprisingly, the people with the reddest faces—but also the fattest wallets—in Montreal are the Canadiens themselves. "It's tough on us, honestly," says Peter Mahovlich, the gangling, 6'5" center who has recently emerged as an on-ice leader. "The people in Montreal live or die with us—and now they're dying. Most people buy two or three of the French papers and one of the two English papers. If they want, they can read five different opinions about each hockey game. The writers have to be different in order to sell papers. I don't blame them, really, but that way we're never right no matter what we do. We're right in one paper, wrong in another."