There is a folk song that has been loved in Quebec for many years. It always breaks out on hockey night in the Montreal Forum moments after the Canadiens have put yet another game on ice. A hoarse fan up in the balcony will cup his hands to his mouth and shout "Les Canadiens sont l√†" to the red-shirted players far below, and as others chime in a fellow in the mezzanine will pick up his trombone and blow a few-bars. As the song spreads through the crowd, the bilingual young man sitting at rinkside will turn to his miniskirted date, a visitor who speaks only English, and clue her in. "Out, les Canadiens sont l√†," he will say very impressively. "The Canadiens are there."
There is first place, and this year is no different from so many of the rest. Last Saturday night, in one of the most dramatic games ever played, the Canadiens clinched their 18th league championship with a 5-3 victory over the hard-hitting Boston Bruins, sending a giddy-throng of more than 18,000 singing and laughing out into St. Catherine Street. Forum fans always exult when Montreal wins another championship, but this one had a special flavor to it. Never before had the first-and second-place teams come down to the final weekend to play each other home and home, your place, my place, with the championship still to be won.
Montreal and Boston had been at each other's scar tissue through the entire second half of the season, during which they exchanged first place no less than eight times. On Dec. 28 the Bruins had begun an absolutely ridiculous tear through the league, going unbeaten in 18 straight games and losing but one out of 22. Bouncing the Canadiens out of first place on Jan. 15, Boston went ahead by eight points on Jan. 31, and even the most skeptical Beantown rooters started dreaming of the team's first NHL championship in almost 30 years. The Canadiens, 15-8-1 during the same period, just could not keep up with the Bruins.
But Bobby Orr got hurt, and even though the Bruins had endured some crippling injuries through their streak they could not keep it up without their incomparable No. 4. There were additional injuries. Boston began to slip. "They say anybody who lives by the sword should expect to die by the sword," mused Coach Harry Sinden one day. "Well, if we didn't hit like we do, we wouldn't be where we are."
April 7, 1969
The Bruins at no time fell more than four points behind, however, and going into Montreal trailed by only three points, which meant they could capture the title by beating the Canadiens twice.
Claude Ruel, the delightful, chubby little Montreal coach, was showing signs of strain. Ruel had taken over a superteam, molded by a distinguished coach, Toe Blake—a team with 10 players older than he (30)—in a town that cannot abide losing.
On Friday Ruel slumped in his tiny cubbyhole of an office near the Canadiens' dressing room. Motioning to a picture on the wall, a color photograph of last year's team, he said, "You give me that team, with nobody hurt, and I will win the championship big, very big, like I am expected to do. This is a great team. But this year I have only four players on that team for a full season. Beliveau, Richard, Tremblay, Laperriere, Harper, they are all hurt. And my two goalies—I am without Gump Worsley and Rogatien Vachon for seven weeks. Our team is so good we should win easy, but every night this year it seems like we are playing a big game. One hundred and one points we have, the record. But still it all comes down to tomorrow night, the biggest game of them all."
On that night, as the Canadiens always seem to do in the big games, they left their coach speechless. In the opening minutes the Bruins appeared tense, especially during a power play with Montreal's Serge Savard off for holding. The Canadiens, led by little Claude Provost, who was to play an outstanding game, killed the penalty and then broke out of their own end fast. Referee Bill Friday's right arm was in the air, signaling a delayed penalty on Boston's Eddie Shack, when Henri Richard swept into the Bruins' zone and left the puck for J. C. Tremblay, who whipped a low 30-footer past Gerry Cheevers' glove side.
It was as if somebody had turned over a bucket of red paint in the Boston end; everywhere one looked there were red Montreal jerseys. Two minutes later Jacques Laperriere laced a 40-footer past Cheevers and at 10:15 Jean Beliveau tapped in a rebound to make Montreal's lead 3-0.
But in the second period the Bruins came out flying. With only 21 seconds gone and players colliding and falling in front of and on top of Worsley, Ken Hodge made it 3-l. The Canadiens' John Ferguson scored 46 seconds later on a 2-on-1 break (again to Cheevers' glove side), but Boston came right back seconds later to make it 4-2 on Ted Green's screen shot. When the Bruins' John Bucyk scored a minute after that the Canadiens were in deep trouble.
But then "Clear the Track" Shack destroyed the momentum that might have brought Boston victory. He slammed Richard into the boards and Friday's arm shot up again. The Canadiens had the puck, and before the referee could wave Shack off Eddie had decked J. C. Tremblay. Shack wound up with back-to-back two-minute minors, time enough to settle Montreal down. The Canadiens assumed command once more.
As the crowd chanted down the final seconds, Ruel was going batty on the bench, hugging every player in front of him. When the siren whined he hugged the trainer and then raced out onto the ice, almost falling down five times. "That little guy," John Ferguson said later. "We all wanted to win it for him. He came in here between the second and third periods smoking a cigarette. Claude doesn't smoke, you know."
In the anticlimactic Sunday finale the Bruins won 6-3. Montreal, of course, was favored to win the Stanley Cup playoffs—the Canadiens going against New York in the first round, Boston against Toronto, St. Louis against Philadelphia and Oakland against Los Angeles—and Ruel to reach new plateaus of anxiety.
"These players, there are no words I can say for them," he said, much moved, after Saturday's game. "I can say no words for this team."
"Les Canadiens sont l√†" will do.