Had the league not eliminated that rule, the Canadiens might today boast veteran superstars Denis Potvin ( New York Islanders), Marcel Dionne ( L.A.) and Gil Perreault (Buffalo); players in their prime like Mike Bossy (Islanders), Ray Bourque ( Boston) and Denis Savard ( Chicago); and the league's most exciting rookie since Wayne Gretzky, Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux.
The rule is what Dryden was referring to when he wrote of "the strength of the past," a strength that, while it lasted, was overwhelming. "Now we have to draft our players like everyone else, and we'll go for the best no matter where they are from," says Savard.
"Our fans would rather have us win in English or in Chinese than lose in French," says team president Ron Corey.
That Montreal had made its decision to go for the best player regardless of nationality was obvious at the NHL's June entry draft. Savard used Montreal's first-round pick, the fifth overall, to claim Petr Svoboda, an 18-year-old defector from Czechoslovakia, while two excellent French-Canadian defensemen (J.J. Daigneault, drafted by Vancouver, and Sylvain Cote, taken by Hartford) were still available.
Svoboda is a good skater and stickhandler who, when he adds some muscle to his 6'1", 161-pound frame, should excel in the NHL. But it's the bigger, stronger (6'1", 190), more exciting Chelios who may be just a season or three away from being the next great Montreal defense-man and the team's first U.S.-born superstar. Chelios was claimed in the second round, 40th pick overall, in 1981. He played poorly in the Olympics, but has been a solid performer for Montreal.
"He has the potential to be the best," says Savard. And Savard isn't just whistling Yankee Doodle. After 13 games this season, Chelios has two goals and nine assists, and is first in scoring among the league's rookie defensemen and second on the Canadiens to center Bobby Smith. He is already the regular left point on Montreal's power play, on which Lemaire often teams him with Kurvers.
Wearing a hat to cover a head of hair that had been partly sheared off last week as part of the team's rookie initiation rites, Chelios reflected on his new celebrity. "I was proud," he said, "to be drafted by a team with a history like Montreal's." Though he doesn't speak French—his parents are from Greece and live in San Diego, where they moved when Chelios was 12—he says he had no doubts about being given a fair chance by Montreal or about his ability to adjust to life in a bilingual city. "Fans here want a winner," he says. "They don't really care where you're from."
Says U.S. Olympic team coach Lou Vairo, now an assistant with the New Jersey Devils, "They should love Chris up there. He's Greek and Greeks are just as flamboyant as French-Canadians." Vairo characterizes Chelios, who has a penchant for rushing the puck the length of the ice or suddenly dashing in from the point, as "aggressive, daring and courageous," qualities that are obviously appreciated in Montreal. At a preseason rally at the Place des Jar-dins, Chelios drew cheers that ranked second in volume only to those for Lafleur.
Chelios's ability was well showcased in Detroit on Election Day. Montreal was trailing 3-1 early in the third period when Chelios, on a power play, chased a puck back into neutral ice, whirled toward the Red Wing goal and, just as he approached the blue line and looked as though he would pass off or dump the puck in a corner, suddenly slammed a slap shot off Detroit goalie Corrado Micalef's pads. Smith picked up the rebound for an easy goal. Montreal teams of the past would have gone on to win that game. But, without the scoring punch, these Canadiens lost 4-2.
Chelios and Kurvers have adjusted quickly to playing together. They were first paired as members of the 1981 U.S. Junior National team, and both tried out for the '84 Olympic team. Chelios had an outstanding camp, Kurvers did not.