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Tell you a true story. Fella was around here last week asking questions of one of the ushers. What is it about the Montreal Forum? the gent inquired. What makes it so special, eh? This season, the visitor noted, marks the 32nd time in the Forum's 69-year history that the place has hosted the Stanley Cup finals. So, he wanted to know, what's the secret?
The usher—red coat, white shirt, black tie, black trousers: best-dressed ushers in hockey—gave it to the man straight. "It's the ghosts," he said with a smile.
I got a kick out of that. Surely did. Folks say it's the 23 Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters that give the Montreal Canadiens their mystique. I've got news for you. It isn't the banners. You can fold banners up and take them with you. Some folks say it's the uniform, the beloved bleu, blanc et rouge. It isn't the uniforms. You can take the uniforms with you, too. But the ghosts—you can't take the ghosts unless the ghosts choose to go. And in 1995-96, when the Canadiens move into their new 21,500-seat Molson Forum or whatever they'll call it, I, for one, am not leaving. Can't speak for the other ghosts. But I'm staying right here at Atwater and St. Catherine till the wrecking ball comes or the Good Lord, at long last, calls me home.
Maybe you've heard of me. Howie Morenz, the Stratford Streak, at your service. Keeper of the flame at the temple of hockey, heavenly rabble-rouser, unofficial recorder of Forum facts and minutiae, bedeviler of Don (Too Many Men on the Ice) Cherry, angel in waiting. I guess that over the last 69 years I've pretty much seen it all in Montreal's Forum, the most storied and gloried building in hockey.
I helped open her the night of Nov. 29, 1924: Montreal Canadiens versus Toronto St. Patricks. It was the first time the Canadiens had ever played a game in November. Couple of funny things about that. The Forum wasn't our home ice. The Forum, so called because it had been built on the site of a roller-skating facility called the Forum Rink, was the spanking-new home of an NHL expansion franchise named the Montreal Maroons, who were opening on the road in Boston. We, the Canadiens, usually played at the Mount Royal Arena. But that year the arena was in the process of installing artificial-ice-making machinery, and on Nov. 29 our ice wasn't yet fit for play.
We were the defending Stanley Cup champions, so the owners of the Forum, mindful of the benefits of publicity, invited us to play our home opener in their $1.5 million, 9,300-seat facility, the biggest arena in the city. "Palatial quarters," the Montreal Gazette described it. "A more up-to-date building for sporting events could hardly be imagined."
The Forum was a beauty, all right: peaked stone facade, huge glass windows beneath a row of elegant arches along Atwater Avenue, a handsome marquee. Not like the rectangular K Mart-esque exterior on the Forum today, the ghastly result of the 1968 renovation. The seats back then were well spaced, the aisles were wider than those in any other arena in the city, and there were enough exits, according to the Gazette, "to safely evacuate the building in half an hour." Tramway lines were right across the street.
We drew 9,000 that opening game, just shy of a sellout, the largest crowd to see a hockey game in Montreal to that date by 2,000 fans. The game was delayed 10 minutes to allow the spectators waiting in the streets to file in. Many were still in the concourse when, 55 seconds into the game, my old linemate, Billy Boucher, scored the first goal in the Forum's history. Boucher had a hat trick that night, and we went on to an easy 7-1 win over the St. Pats. Humbly I report that I tallied once that opening night in the Forum.
The Club de Hockey Canadien moved into the Forum permanently in 1926, a year in which the archrival Maroons had won the first of their two Stanley Cups. So those 23 Stanley Cup banners hanging from the Forum's rafters don't tell the whole story. Two more should be up there for the Maroons, who went out of business the summer of '38.
What a rivalry it was! The Maroons were the choice of Montreal's English-speaking community, the Canadiens the team of the French. What was I, of German-Swiss descent from western Ontario, doing on a team of flying Frenchmen? Loving it. We were united by the language of hockey. Three times I was named the league's MVP, and three times I helped hoist the Stanley Cup. But then.... On Jan. 28, 1937, I was among the league leaders in scoring when I caught the blade of my skate in the crevice between the ice and the boards during a game against Chicago. With Earl Seibert checking me, I fell and twisted my leg, breaking it in two places. They carried me from the ice on a stretcher.