Without the strength of the past, the team may face a choice—to win, or, to be French-Canadian?
—KEN DRYDEN, The Game
For most of this century the Montreal Canadiens were a team like no other. Le Club de Hockey Canadien was a symbol of French-Canadian dominance of hockey. Montreal's stars arrived in a glittering procession: Georges Vezina, Aurele Joliat, Maurice and Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau, Guy Lafleur—French-Canadians who played hockey with a kind of patriotic fervor.
And with them came the Anglo-Canadians—George Hainsworth, Doug Harvey, Tom Johnson, Dryden, Larry Robinson—stars of the first magnitude in their own right, but they seemed to shine a little less brightly than their Gallic counterparts. Known to the Canadian French as Les Habitants or, with reverence, Nos Glorieux, the Canadiens rank with the Yankees and the Celtics as pro sports' leading dynasties, having won 22 Stanley Cups. But they haven't won the Cup since 1979, and they're determined to get back on track, even if that means radical changes in the team's traditional ethnic and national character.
The voice of singer Bruce Springsteen booms out of the stereo speakers in the Montreal apartment shared by Chris Chelios and Tom Kurvers:
I'm a cool-rockin' Daddy in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.
Chelios and Kurvers, both 22, are not rockin' daddies. They're rookie defense-men with the Canadiens. But both were born in the U.S.—Chelios in Chicago, Kurvers in Minneapolis—and they are among a record six Americans, five of them former college stars, on the Canadiens this season. Chelios played two seasons for Wisconsin before joining the U.S. Olympic team and then going to the Canadiens in March. Kurvers played four seasons at Minnesota-Duluth and won the 1984 Hobey Baker Award as the best college player in the country.
The other Americans who are making the historic bleu, blanc et rouge look more like red, white and blue are third-year defenseman Craig Ludwig of Eagle River, Wis., who played at North Dakota; second-year defenseman/forward Kent Carlson of Concord, N.H. via St. Lawrence University; five-year veteran forward Chris Nilan of Boston and Northeastern University; and rookie center Alfie Turcotte of Milford, Mich. and the Portland (Ore.) Junior A Winter Hawks. For the first time ever, the Montreal roster lists as many Americans as it does French-Canadians.
But more than merely being "on the team," three of the Americans—Chelios, Kurvers and Ludwig—are key figures in the surprising early-season surge of the Canadiens. After coming off their worst season in 33 years (35-40-5) and being picked to finish fourth or fifth in the five-team Adams Division in many preseason polls, at week's end Montreal was 8-3-2, No. 2 in the Adams Division, and unbeaten at home (7-0-1). With little of the goal-scoring power they enjoyed in the past (Lafleur was the club leader last season with a modest 30), the Canadiens have thus far successfully compensated for their so-so offense (48 goals in 13 games and no player among the league's top 20 scorers) with the NHL's second-best defense (only 38 goals allowed).
Chelios, Kurvers and Ludwig are three of the six defensemen most often used by coach Jacques Lemaire, patrolling blue lines that years ago seemed the private domain of Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe and Jacques Laperriere. Indeed, it was not so long ago that the possibility of Americans anchoring the Canadiens' defense would have seemed extremely remote. But though the arrival of the Americans in Montreal was sudden, it also was inevitable.
"This all started in 1968, when the NHL eliminated the rule that used to let the Canadiens have the rights to the top two French-Canadian players," says Savard, now the club's G.M. "In the old days it was easier to build a great team."