Montreal needs new memories

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The most extended celebration in the history of sports ends on Friday with a two-and-a-half-hour pregame salute and then an actual hockey match, although given the interminable nature of the Canadiens' 100th anniversary, Montreal's storied team and its opponent, the Boston Bruins, should deviate from the schedule and just reenact the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia.

(I'm guessing that you don't get Thirty Year's War humor anywhere else on the Internet.)

Anyway, this December 4th marks 100 years to the day since the Canadiens, the most significant team in the history of hockey and the most self-important team this side of the New York Yankees, began play. Their origins pre-date the formation of the NHL by some eight years. This probably comes as a surprise to you.

Like unfortunate Florida Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun, you have been beaten over the head with this centennial thing for so long you probably think the actual date was a year ago. The franchise kicked off the whoop-de-do at the start of 2008-09. Normally, 15 months is an absurdly long time to wallow in your own grandeur, but Montreal has plowed ahead with panache although they have drawn things out to the point that even some True Believers are viewing matters with a rheumy eye.

During the celebration, the Canadiens retired one sweater (Patrick Roy), unveiled four statues (Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau, Guy Lafleur) on a new plaza outside the Bell Centre, inaugurated a Hall of Fame inside the arena, and served as host for a concert by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra that allowed someone else to toot their horns for them for a night. The Habs were honored with a $3 stamp from Canada Post and a one-dollar coin (called a loonie because of the bird, not general manager Bob Gainey's trade of Mike Ribeiro for Janne Niinimaa) by the Royal Canadian Mint.

I also think I saw Willard Scott mention the birthday on the Today show.

As part of the never-ending special occasion, the Canadiens changed uniforms more often than Secretary of State Clinton changes pantsuits. According to the team's archivist -- to the best of our knowledge, the Minnesota Wild and the Canadiens are the only two NHL teams that have had archivists on the payroll -- Montreal has worn six different jerseys from the past 100 years, other than the basic, and classic, bleu-blanc-rouge.

In various games the Canadiens have dressed as skating barber poles (the hideous 1912-13 sweaters), impersonated rogue Christmas trees (the red jersey, green pants from 1910-11) and channeled their inner Quebec Nordiques (the 1909-10 iteration that was bleu and blanc). Coincidentally, you can find replicas of all of them on sale at the Canadiens boutiques.

And buying them is a lot easier than getting a seat to a game. If the ongoing 100th anniversary party has worn on some of the locals, the Canadiens remain a tough ticket in hard economic times. They continue to sell out every seat -- 21,273 -- in the NHL's largest arena.

If Gainey had as good a 15 months as vice-president of marketing Ray Lalonde, the on-ice portion of the franchise -- judged the NHL's third-most valuable by Forbes magazine - would be in fabulous shape.

Behind the smoke and mirrors and tributes, this is the flip side of the team that has spent much of the past 15 months playing as if it had a lampshade on its head. Along with the six sweaters and four statues, the Canadiens had 10 free agents go unsigned last summer after four straight playoff losses to the Bruins. Prior to the Tuesday game against Toronto, Montreal stood 12th in the Eastern Conference with 12 wins in 26 games; only four of those victories had come in the regulation 60 minutes.

Maybe it is still unfair to judge a squad that is one-third through the season. In a wholesale re-jigging of Canada's Team -- more popular than the Maple Leafs, a new poll revealed this week -- the Canadiens are still sniffing around for an identity under new coach Jacques Martin. They have also been decimated by injuries, starting with the sliced tendon sustained by cornerstone defenseman Andrei Markov in the opener. Among the new players imported for the world's biggest meat grinder, several -- including Brian Gionta, Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek and Scott Gomez -- have been injured. On some nights, Montreal has fielded a team that wouldn't even be a lock to win the AHL's Calder Cup.

(Of the wave of Montreal free agents that walked, no player is exactly ripping up the league. Robert Lang, a bargain at $1 million in Phoenix, has been an important contributor with 16 points in 27 games, and Francis Bouillon has been a fit on Nashville's defense despite his -8 rating, but former captain Saku Koivu in Anaheim, Alex Kovalev in Ottawa, Chris Higgins on Broadway and Mike Komisarek in Toronto have been non-factors.)

But Montrealers' willingness to embrace the centennial -- at least until addendum of the 2009-10 season - is instructive. The immersion in the 24 Stanley Cups and players who made this franchise (and indeed the sport) great are also signs that fans subconsciously don't have much faith in the near and mid-term future.

There has been no Stanley Cup parade -- "along the usual route," as the press releases from former Mayor Jean Drapeau used to read -- since 1993, and there likely won't be one any time soon. Gainey went all-in last summer by signing Gionta and Mike Cammalleri and trading for Gomez, marrying expensive players whose production isn't necessarily commensurate with their salaries. If these three and 22-year-old goalie Carey Price can't spark a revival, Montreal will be one of those teams that will spend the next five years or so battling for the last two or three playoff spots, an annual eighth-place dance of death that will not fire up the bandwagons.

If you can't anticipate the next Cup, why not blow the dust off some icons, recreate some frocks from a century ago and honor the Stanley Cups you do have?

But December 4 should also be about bringing closure to the Canadiens' Century. (Of course, there is a gala dinner the following night to support the team's charitable foundation and there are still two appearances in vintage jerseys on the calendar. You couldn't expect the franchise to go cold turkey.)

As much as the past 15 months have been a grand exercise in reflected glory, in engraving the CH on the soul of a new generation of hockey fans, it also has been an inconvenient reminder of how little the organization has accomplished in the past 15-plus years.

The ashtrays are full. The drinks are empty. It's four in the morning, metaphorically, and time for someone to shoo out the lingering guests and shut the lights.

Starting next week, the Canadiens have to be utterly committed to creating new memories, not rehashing old ones.