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Once More With the Charm
Jerry Kirshenbaum
July 19, 1976
Lucky old Montreal has survived through all its turbulent years because of its spirit. Now, financial and ethnic troubles aside, it is ready for another Olympian effort
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July 19, 1976

Once More With The Charm

Lucky old Montreal has survived through all its turbulent years because of its spirit. Now, financial and ethnic troubles aside, it is ready for another Olympian effort

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Reacting to the violence, many Montreal-based corporations fled to Toronto while anglais bosses who stayed behind began hiring French-speaking employees and boning up on the language themselves. The change was dramatically evident at the recent dedication of a new $210 million downtown office-hotel development called Complexe Desjardins. The ceremonies were attended by a full complement of business leaders and politicians and not a single word of English was heard.

While the Battle of Downtown is pretty much over, separatism by peaceful means remains a hot political issue and some French-speaking people, infused by the new nationalism, refuse to reply when addressed in English by fellow Montrealers. "I'll speak English to Americans because they have an excuse," says TV script girl Viviane Legault. Feelings run high over Bill 22, a law enacted by the Quebec government two years ago in an effort to channel more immigrant children, most of whom have been educated up to now in English, into French schools. Bill 22 touched off angry sit-ins in Montreal's Italian neighborhoods and the language issue in general led to the recent nationwide strike by Canadian airline pilots, who were protesting the use of French in addition to English in control-tower instructions at Quebec airports. But French Canadians feel that measures protecting their language are essential to their cultural survival.

One who feels strongly about the fragility of that culture is Lise Payette, a large, radiant woman whose weekly talk-variety show on CBC's French-language TV network has earned her the sobriquet, "The Johnny Carson of French Canada." Payette pointedly rejects the comparison, noting, "When we French talk, unlike Johnny Carson, we must say something." Which is what she did one evening after taping her show in a Montreal TV studio.

"Visitors to Montreal see friendly faces and are misled," Lise Payette said in the gloom of the now-darkened studio. "We French Canadians are very alone. We are too far from the mother country to consider ourselves French and do not always have the appetite for success of our neighbors on this continent. We are not Americans and we are not really Canadians. Sometimes I feel we are more like the Russians than anything. We are open with strangers, but inside there is a great sadness."

Until the sport recently began to outdo itself, the Richard Riot of 1955 was one of hockey's most shameful hours. It occurred after NHL President Clarence Campbell suspended the Montreal Canadien superstar Maurice Richard for slugging a referee in a late-season game. The suspension covered the final three games of the regular season and the entire playoffs, and when Campbell arrived at the Forum for a St. Patrick's Day game with Detroit the trouble began. One fan slapped Campbell, another smeared him with a tomato and somebody else set off a tear-gas bomb. The game was forfeited to the Red Wings, after which a mob roamed the streets near the Forum, overturning cars and smashing store windows.

The passions of that evening are easier to understand in light of a heartfelt French Canadian need for homegrown heroes. These can be as dissimilar as Richard Blass, a hoodlum who received standing ovations in seedy Montreal bars before police shot him down last year in the Laurentian Mountains (a tawdry magazine-style publication, Blass. His Life. His Death, sold 100,000 copies) and folk-singing idol Felix Leclerc, whose protest songs drew ovations during a recent engagement in a smoke-filled Montreal bo�te � chanson called Le Patriote. But hockey players are the greatest heroes of all, none greater than Richard, a fiery performer who during 18 years with the Canadiens led the "Flying Frenchmen" to eight Stanley Cups.

It no doubt added to Richard's stature that Montreal during his era was, hockey excepted, a determinedly sleepy minor league town. Novelist Richler recalls that during his boyhood kids were let free into the left-field bleachers at Delormier Downs on weekdays to watch the Montreal Royals, and that local heroes included Yvon Robert, "who week after week gave the blond Anglo-Saxon wrestlers what-for at the Forum." Today everything in town smacks of the big time. Once-humble Blue Bonnets Raceway now boasts the $100,000-added Prix d'�t�, one of harness racing's richest events (although the most wondrous thing about the place is still the way the nimble-tongued track announcer calls races in two languages), and Place Bonaventure, the local exposition hall, was the scene this past spring of a dog show offering, almost inevitably, the biggest purses of the year anywhere.

But Montrealers are discovering that traveling first class has its discomforts. Jean Drapeau's tireless courtship of the NFL has only further undermined the money-losing Alouettes, the local Canadian Football League entry, while the Expos, who have never finished above .500 in seven years at Jarry Park, last season fell below the million mark in attendance for the first time. Charles Bronfman decided to put up the money for the new franchise in 1968 after brooding on the matter alone for two hours in his office at Seagram headquarters, a building modeled after a Scottish castle. Now Bronfman sits in the same office, brooding over what will happen when the Expos, in the cellar this year as usual, make their scheduled move into the Olympic Stadium next year. "Montrealers are getting used to the best," the Expo boss frets. "If you're major league, they want you to be major league. And if we're in a fine new stadium like that, that's all the more reason we'd better be a good attraction. We are going to have to start winning."

There also is continued pressure on the Canadiens, a team that finished the past regular season with the best record in NHL history (58-11-11) and then won 12 of 13 Stanley Cup playoff games, polishing off the Philadelphia Flyers in the finals in four straight. The extraordinary season further burnished a mystique that has long since elevated the Forum, where no smart-aleck homemade banners are allowed to offend the gaze of the faithful, to the status of sacred shrine. For all that, there were always empty seats when Washington or Kansas City came to town, for which a 50ish fan named Mike Dydyk supplies the ritual explanation, "I remember when hockey was hockey. Now it's watered down like the Scotch."

A different kind of dilution was caused by elimination of the rule that used to allow the Canadiens automatic draft rights to the top two French players every year, assuring them the services of every Maurice Richard and Jean B�liveau who ever skated down a frozen Quebec river. There were nine Frenchmen on this year's club, including NHL scoring leader Guy Lafleur, but the rule change cost the Canadiens the likes of Gilbert Perreault, Marcel Dionne and Richard Martin, with consequences that Trainer Eddy Palchak lamented during a game at the Forum against Buffalo. "I was down checking some equipment in the dressing room and I heard this tremendous cheer," Palchak says. "In the old days that would have meant we scored a goal." Palchak shakes his head in disbelief. "I came running out and... Gil Perreault had scored for the Sabres."

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