Photographs are now floating around the Internet—and seen by everyone in Montreal who has an e-mail address—dubbed HABS EN FÊTE! Undated and without context, they show Canadiens at frat-boy play. (In one photo Price has a lit cigarette between his lips. He says the picture was taken last summer. He adds that he does not smoke.) There has been some lamenting from boys-will-be-boys apologists that the players have been Phelps-like victims of cellphone cameras, but to blame the medium is to miss the point. As former NHL player Tom Chorske recalls of his Montreal days in the early 1990s, "I don't know if it had come from a fan, a bar owner or a taxi driver, but you'd show up at practice the next day and [then Canadiens coach] Pat Burns would say, 'I know where you were last night.' And he did." The Montreal night has 1,000 eyes. Says Gainey, "People call me up and give me information."
There is a maxim that hockey players get into trouble on the ice, not off it, which, of course, fails to give them enough credit for their incomes and ids. The Canadiens are like players anywhere, except they work in a city, and for a team, that bears the weight of hockey history. The chasm is not between the Montreal players' partying and the acceptable standard of behavior for men with excesses of money, fame and testosterone, but between the Canadiens' brand and incidents that rub the shine off the classy image.
Messing with the brand can be perilous. While Gainey and former Montreal G.M. Serge Savard both aver that they never made a trade strictly for off-ice reasons, players who have been viewed as nuisances have been curiously exiled, including bon-vivant star defenseman Chris Chelios, sent to Chicago 19 years ago; 2002 Hart Trophy winner José Théodore, dealt to Colorado in '06, three seasons after a photograph of him with Hell's Angels emerged; and boulevardier Mike Ribeiro, the center whom Gainey off-loaded to Dallas, also in '06. Says a member of the Montreal police familiar with investigations involving Canadiens players since the 1980s, "You can't do something that will harm the reputation of the Montreal Canadiens. They will not tolerate it, no matter how important you are to the team as a player." Carbonneau, the coach, was traded to St. Louis in the summer of '94 after a newspaper published a picture of him giving a middle finger to its photographer, who was shooting Carbonneau on a golf course.
"We live by a different standard, a different set of rules," says defenseman Mike Komisarek. "We represent ourselves, but we also represent more than a million people in Quebec and 100 years of history. This is not a place where they pick up the paper the next day to see if the team won or lost. We are role models. And we owe something to all those players, teams and Stanley Cups that came before us."
A 25th Stanley Cup in June is no longer widely anticipated, given the tortured nature of the season, but missing the playoffs in this, of all springs, would ruin the careful work done by a franchise that has always understood the importance of ceremony. To placate a passionate but increasingly restless fan base, Montreal must win at least one or two rounds to add another coat of lacquer to this shiny veneer of importance. If the Canadiens don't, they'll face the music.