By Bob Gainey
“You can’t go back, but you can go there again.” These are the words that pushed me from decision-making to decision on a beautiful spring day in May 2003. As I turned my car into the long driveway at our home on Stony Lake, forty kilometres northeast of Peterborough, I knew I would be the next general manager of the Club de Hockey Canadien.
A few days later, on June 3, 2003, a press conference was held at the Bell Centre, home of the Canadiens, to introduce me in my new role.
The questions from the herd of journalists came at slap-shot speed. Cameras clicked and flashed even faster. Many of the questions I didn’t have answers for . . . yet. Would coach Claude Julien be returning? What would I do with player contracts? Who were the prospects in the system? How did I explain the dismal season the Habs had just completed, missing the playoffs?
There was one answer I did have, to a question which came both subtly and directly: Why would I agree to take this position? The team was a disaster. The fans were enraged. The media were on the warpath. The future looked dismal. Why put myself in this unenviable position?
The answer was easy and, to me, crystal clear; In Montreal, the Canadiens matter
! In Quebec, the Canadiens matter
! In Canada, the Canadiens matter
All of that only made the general manager’s job more challenging, a point captured by Terry Mosher, also known as Aislin, celebrated editorial cartoonist of the Montreal Gazette
. In the next day’s paper, Mosher depicted me standing behind the podium at the press conference being asked, “Do think you can walk on water?” Answer:see page viii!
The Montreal Canadiens mattered to me. And I knew how important, how vital and how deeply rooted they were in the culture and history of Montrealers, Quebecers, Canadians and others.
I had learned these lessons early in my playing days. In September of 1973, I began what would be a sixteen-year career with the Habs. I recall a situation about a year later, while looking for a dentist office early one morning in the borough of Verdun. Hoping to ask for directions, I walked into a café filled with diners enjoying breakfast. The entire place went completely silent. Nobody moved. Every person there recognized me. And all of us were in shock – they because I was there, and I at the realization they knew me. I got my directions and left, relieved, as quickly as I could.
I was reminded of the importance of the Montreal Canadiens in many ways and many places, like the time I was in Helsinki, Finland, playing with Team Canada. Walking incognito (I believed) along a downtown street, I was approached from the opposite direction by a person who made eye contact and then asked in heavily-accented English: “What happened to the Canadiens in the playoffs?” There is no escape from Montreal fans!
Loyalty to the Canadiens tends to run deep and long, as I learned from my old friend Richard Halford of New York City. A year ago, he called to let me know it was the fiftieth anniversary, to the day, of the game he saw with his father at Madison Square Garden between the Canadiens and Rangers. He got Rocket Richard’s autograph after the game and has been a fervent Canadiens fan ever since.
From my rookie season thrity-five years ago, I have been in contact, directly or indirectly, with much of the Canadiens’ history. In that time, I met many former players and staff. I was curious about their careers and put a lot of questions to Blake, Richard, Bouchard, Curry, Pollock, Mahovlich, Laperrière, Bowman and others. They were generous with their replies. Their memories let me touch, hear and see the reality of their lives with the Habs back to the 1930s.
In this centennial history, D’Arcy Jenish gets it right. He pushes aside the cobwebs of memory. He has sanded and scraped away the layers of time. He has resisted the fluffy, romantic versions which have become common, and delivered us the nitty-gritty, real-deal story – the good, and the not so good. I can tell you this because I know.
The Canadiens will be 100 years old on December 4, 2009. The story of the team runs parallel to, and often intersects with, the history of Canada. They are one and the same. Les Canadiens have been parts of the lives of our greatgrandparents, our grandparents, our parents and ourselves. May long life be the hallmark of this great Canadian, Quebec, Montreal institution. May not only our children, but grandchildren and great-grandchildren, have the opportunity to learn about, watch
and understand why the Habs are such an important part of our collective history and culture.
Bonne Anniversaire centième Club de Hockey Canadien! Many, many, more to come!Prologue
This is Hockeytown
Other cities may lay claim to the title, says Pierre Boivin during an animated discussion in his corner office on the seventh floor of the Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens. Then, with a sweep of his arm, he gestures at the city beyond his windows. “Make no mistake about it, this
Montreal is Hockeytown by dint of history and the citizenry’s enduring passion for the sport. It is where a raw and ragged game – shinny played on the icebound creeks and rivers and lakes of a wintry nation – came indoors and became hockey, the world’s first arena sport. It is where the first rules were written, where the first team was formed – the McGill University Redmen in 1877 – and where the sport’s most hallowed prize, the Stanley Cup, has come to rest thirtynine times since it was first awarded in 1893, a prize captured by the Canadiens, Maroons, Wanderers, Shamrocks, Victorias and the Winged Wheelers of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association.
In the 1890s, when the sport was young and the Stanley Cup brand new, the Winged Wheelers, Victorias and Shamrocks and their rabid followers were hockey’s hottest rivals. A few decades later, in the Roaring Twenties and Dirty Thirties, English Montreal had its team, the Maroons, and French Montreal had its standard-bearer, the Canadiens, and games between them produced war both on the ice and in the stands.
For seven decades now, ever since the demise of the Maroons, Montreal’s sporting public has worshipped at one altar, that of the Canadiens, and the passage of time has done nothing to diminish the ardour of the citizenry. “When we win on Saturday night, you get on the subway Monday morning and threequarters of the people are smiling,” says Boivin, president and CEO of the Canadiens. “If we lose a couple and Toronto’s ahead by a point, Montrealers are very unhappy. If we don’t make the playoffs, spring is hell. To some degree, the city’s productivity is influenced by the team’s performance. Hockey is part of what makes this city tick.”
And yet, in the first years of the current century, hockey in Montreal was in jeopardy. Le Club de Hockey Canadien was grievously ill and in danger of folding. The team was mediocre and missing the playoffs more often than not. Attendance was declining. Financial losses were mounting. Furthermore, there appeared to be no way out. The Canadiens were damned by circumstances beyond their control. Player salaries had risen to untenable levels, owing to the freespending ways of wealthier rivals, most of them in the United States. The Canadiens, like the five other NHL teams based in this country, were paying their athletes in U.S. dollars but earning their revenues in a domestic dollar worth about twentyfive percent less. On top of all this, the Canadiens were saddled with over eight million dollars per year in municipal taxes, whereas the league average was less than a million per team.
“We were losing a ton of money year in, year out,” Boivin recalls. “There was no way we could make money because of structural economic and competitive disadvantages. We had no hope of surviving.”
The Canadiens and their Coloradobased owner, George N. Gillett Jr., solidly supported the lockout of the players that cost the NHL its entire 2004—05 season. The NHL Players’ Association eventually capitulated and accepted a new collective bargaining agreement with a yearly salary cap, initially set at $39 million (U.S.) per team. This drastic measure trimmed the Canadiens’ payroll by about $12 million annually and helped save the franchise.
“Toronto was the only Canadian club that could have survived long-term and been competitive under the old regime,” Boivin adds. “We would have seen the relocation or the demise of the other five teams, and Montreal was no exception.”
Hockey returned to the city in the fall of 2005. The Canadiens played their first home game against the Ottawa Senators on the evening of October 10, a Tuesday. About ninety minutes before the puck dropped, the main doors of the Bell Centre opened and a crowd several hundred strong surged into the lobby. Boivin was there to welcome them. So were Gillett and general manager Bob Gainey and former players Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer and Réjean Houle. By game time, they had greeted several thousand people, a slice of the sellout crowd of 21,273.
The return of the NHL was cause for jubilation in the city that gave birth to the game. The league’s financial foundation had been restored and the future of its oldest and greatest franchise seemed assured. And the Canadiens had something else to celebrate: the onehundredth anniversary of Le Club de Hockey Canadien – formed on December 4, 1909.
That fall, the Canadiens launched their centennial celebrations. The first significant public event occurred prior to a Saturday night game on November 12, when the Canadiens retired jersey number twelve. Left winger Dickie Moore, a two-time scoring champion, wore that sweater from 1951 to 1963, and right winger Yvan Cournoyer from 1964 to 1979. In the runup to 2009, the team also retired numbers worn by Bernard Geoffrion (five), Serge Savard (eighteen), Ken Dryden (twenty-nine), Larry Robinson (nineteen) and Gainey (twenty-three). These joined numbers already taken out of circulation to honour Jacques Plante (one), Doug Harvey (two), Jean Béliveau (four), Howie Morenz (seven), Maurice Richard (nine), Guy Lafleur (ten) and Henri Richard (sixteen).
Two major events were planned for the centennial year. The league awarded Montreal the 2009 AllStar Game and scheduled the contest for January 25, the onehundredth anniversary of the first match to go into the books as part of the Canadiens’ official record. The league also named Montreal as host of the 2009 Entry Draft.
Amid this prolonged centenary, a remarkable transformation was taking place. Gillett, who was seen as an interloper when he acquired the club and its building in January 2001, was proving to be a good owner, and he was winning the respect of Montrealers. Boivin and his executive group were overhauling the Canadiens’ business organization, while Gainey and his staff in the hockey department were rebuilding the team through trades, freeagent signings and, above all, the draft.
As the Canadiens completed their nintyninth season, these efforts were beginning to yield results. Le Club de Hockey Canadien had reclaimed its status as one of the best in the sport. The Canadiens were contenders again, and another Stanley Cup – a twenty-fifth for the team and a fortieth for the city – seemed a distinct possibility.Preface
A Team Like No Other
When we think of the Montreal Canadiens, we think of many things, some obvious, some less so. There’s the Stanley Cup, of course, which was awarded to the Canadiens for championships won in 1916 and 1924, in 1930 and ’31, in 1944, ’46 and ’53, in fifteen of twentythree seasons between 1956 and 1979, in 1986 and again in 1993. We think of longevity, because the Canadiens have been playing for a hundred years, longer than any professional hockey team.
We think of the gods of hockey: Plante in goal, Harvey and Robinson on defence, the Rocket, Béliveau and Lafleur for the offence. And a host of lesser deities: the Pocket Rocket, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Cournoyer and Moore; Dryden, Savard and Gainey. Stars from the edge of living memory: Elmer Lach, Butch Bouchard, Ken Reardon and Bill Durnan. Stars from an era beyond memory: Newsy Lalonde, Aurel Joliat and George Hainsworth, the Cleghorns, Didier Pitre and Jack Laviolette. And those who went from the rink to hospital beds to their graves: Bad Joe Hall in 1919, Georges Vézina in 1926 and Howie Morenz in 1937.
We think of stern and demanding coaches: Dick Irvin, Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman, each of whom was the best of his day. Shrewd managers: Tommy Gorman, Frank Selke and Sam Pollock, who ran the team for a total of thirtynine years and won eighteen Stanley Cups. Owners who spanned the spectrum from aristocratic to flamboyant: George N. Gillett Jr. and the Bronfmans; the Molsons and Senator Donat Raymond; Ernest Savard, Colonel Maurice Forget and their partners in the depths of the Great Depression; Léo Dandurand, Joseph Cattarinich and Louis Létourneau (the three musketeers of the 1920s and early 1930s); George Kennedy, who named the team, created the logo, guided the Canadiens to their first Cup, led them into the NHL, died prematurely in 1921 and fell into obscurity; and Ambrose O’Brien, one of the founders, the original financier and the nominal proprietor for the first twelve months.
We think of a team that has had five homes: the Jubilee Rink, deep in the city’s Frenchspeaking east end; the Westmount Arena, Montreal’s premier hockey venue until fire devoured all but its brick walls in January 1918; the Mount Royal Arena, which replaced the Westmount; the Forum, which was erected on the site of an outdoor roller skating rink of the same name and was the most famous hockey stadium in the world by the time the Canadiens played their final game there on March 11, 1996; and the Bell Centre, which, with its seating capacity of 21,273 is the biggest arena in North America, and which acquired a heart, according to the Frenchlanguage journalists who cover the team, on the night of April 9, 2002, when Canadiens captain Saku Koivu skated onto the ice after six months of chemotherapy treatments for cancer and received an eightminute standing ovation from the fans.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Montreal Canadiens by D'Arcy Jenish. Copyright © 2008 by D'Arcy Jenish. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.