It is one of Henri Richard's very old tricks, reserved for those rare moments when the great dynasty of the Montreal Canadiens seems ready to crumble—to make a dramatic, Gallic gesture. Richard, the proud captain of the Canadiens and the last link with their glorious past, waits for the darkest hour, then boldly speaks out in the mother tongue. The Canadiens hear him—indeed, three million fanatical French Canadians hear him—and the dynasty somehow survives.
One year, when the Canadiens were in immediate danger of losing the Stanley Cup to the Chicago Black Hawks, the volatile Richard purposely called Al MacNeil "the worst coach I have ever played for." A week later Richard and MacNeil jointly hoisted the cup after Henri's goal beat the Black Hawks in the final game. Last season the Canadiens won another cup after Richard personally settled a dressing-room squabble by telling a disrespectful young teammate to keep his mouth shut and then slapping him across the face Godfather-style. And so it was that Richard, a man with a perfect record in the amateur psychology league, felt compelled to reach for his rhetoric again a fortnight ago after the Canadiens had been humiliated 6-0 by the Philadelphia Flyers and 9-2 by the New York Rangers in successive games. "Notre fierté est perdue dans les égouts," Richard said. "Our pride has gone down the drain."
Richard fully expected that his harsh words would have their usual impact on the Canadiens, and to make certain that none of his teammates thought he had been misquoted, he repeated the statement when the team met at his tavern on Park Street on Montreal's West Side.
In their next game, a return match with the Rangers, the Canadiens did respond to Richard—and the constant jeering of their suddenly hostile Forum fans—by summoning up enough pride to come from behind and win 4-2.
March 24, 1974
"I think that I said the right thing at the right time," Richard commented afterward.
Maybe he did, but last Saturday night Richard was practically speechless after the Canadiens left the Forum ice to a chorus of boos and a hail of debris following a bitter 3-1 loss to the Black Hawks. "Our pride has gone down the drain," said Richard, staring at the dressing-room floor. "These guys, they are not working like the Canadiens should work. We are playing like a bunch of chickens with our heads cut off."
What happened to the Canadiens last week was an instant replay of much that has happened to them this season. Last year, like Canadiens of old, they finished first in the East and won the cup, but now they are drifting aimlessly in second place, some 14 points behind the Boston Bruins in a tight race with the Rangers. They already have lost 20 games, twice as many as all last season, and their record at the Forum is a dismal 21-10-3. With Ken Dryden now clerking for a Toronto law firm, the goalkeeping has been wildly erratic, and the 1973-74 Canadiens will enter the record books as the worst defensive team in Montreal history. General Manager Sam Pollock had foolishly believed that Wayne Thomas, Michel Plasse and Bunny Larocque, veterans of a grand total of 28 games in the National Hockey League, could provide the Canadiens with Dryden-like performances.
Besides the troubles in goal, Montreal has been plagued by injuries to defense-men—the regulars have been together for fewer than 20 games—a lack of muscle among the forwards and a new and curious style of attack that might be called backmanning. The real Canadiens always headmanned the puck to the lead skater—they constantly advanced. The 1974 Canadiens backman the puck to trailing skaters and spend the night going offside.
These negative factors have combined to produce humiliating defeats by such scores as 9-2, 8-4 and 6-0 on the road and 8-0 and 5-0 at the once-friendly Forum. There is a chill in relations between the players and the Quebecois and in recent weeks some French-Canadian journalists have even suggested that readers "Abstenez-vous d'aller au Forum"—stay away from the Forum. One writer had the audacity to call a Canadien effort "malhonn√™te"—a dishonest spectacle. Another wrote, "How many people would pay $9.50 to see the hockey of 1974 if they could buy the days of [Howie] Morenz and [Aurel] Joliat?" Astoundingly, the Canadiens' prestige has dropped so low that a recent poll conducted by the Montreal Gazette, the English-language morning paper, revealed that baseball's Expos have replaced the Canadiens as the darlings of the city. "Given the option of season tickets," the Gazette poll asked, "would you prefer the Alouettes [football], the Canadiens or the Expos?" The response was 503 for the Expos, 338 for the Canadiens and 159 for the Alouettes. The results stunned Forum officials. "I would have thought we'd have beaten both of the other teams combined," said one.
Not surprisingly, the people with the reddest faces—but also the fattest wallets—in Montreal are the Canadiens themselves. "It's tough on us, honestly," says Peter Mahovlich, the gangling, 6'5" center who has recently emerged as an on-ice leader. "The people in Montreal live or die with us—and now they're dying. Most people buy two or three of the French papers and one of the two English papers. If they want, they can read five different opinions about each hockey game. The writers have to be different in order to sell papers. I don't blame them, really, but that way we're never right no matter what we do. We're right in one paper, wrong in another."
Richard, characteristically, is more severe: "Too often we look like an expansion team. It is fortunate for us that Washington and Kansas City will be coming into the league next year. Maybe then we will have a chance to win some games. Tell me, what happened to hard work? Where is it? I do not see it on the ice with the Canadiens. Look at Philadelphia. They work harder than any team in hockey, and look where they are: first place. The trouble in Montreal is these guys know if they do not play for the Canadiens they can play somewhere else in the league and still make big money. It is sad, I tell you."
When Defenseman Serge Savard listens to Richard, he loses his cool. "Henri shouldn't talk that way," Savard says. "He says big money has ruined us, that it has taken away our desire to work and our desire to win. Let me tell you, Henri plays for big money, too. Henri has got to realize that everything has changed. I don't ask my kids to be like me. He should not ask us to be the way he is."
But the defeats weigh heavily on Savard: "One night we lost to the New York Islanders. If I played for the California Golden Seals, I would not have felt worse than I did in New York."
Richard says, "A good part of the pride I'm talking about is not quitting when you get behind in a game. This year our guys get behind by a couple of goals and then they quit, no doubt about it."
Savard shakes his head in disagreement. "Look at the Rangers," he says. "When they beat us 9-2, their millionaire line [Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield, Rod Gilbert] scored three or four goals. After the game nobody said anything about their pride or their money. But when they lost to us three nights later, there it was again: they had no pride. I'm sorry, but I don't go along with the argument. You can have all the pride in the world but if you do not get any breaks then you will lose the game."
After defeating the Rangers in Montreal, the Canadiens flew to Pittsburgh and beat the Penguins 5-4, but they would prefer to forget that game. The remodeled Penguins outshot the Canadiens by the amazing margin of 57-18—the most one-sided bombardment anyone from Montreal can remember—and, worse yet, beat them physically without any apparent resistance. On one play Pittsburgh's Battleship Kelly chopped down Claude Larose with a two-handed swipe that broke Larose's ankle. Did any Canadien, in the tradition of hard-nosed John Ferguson, discuss the matter with Mr. Kelly? Not one. They all copped a plea, insisting they never saw Kelly's stick hit Larose. But they all saw it clearly enough to protest to the referee that Kelly should get a five-minute penalty for a deliberate attempt to injure, not just the standard two minutes.
All season long opponents have manhandled the Canadiens without fear of retaliation. One night Boston's Don Marcotte ran over Goaltender Plasse, another night Pittsburgh's Steve Durbano repeatedly elbowed and high-sticked Richard, and in every game with Philadelphia the Flyers' Dave Shultz, Bob Kelly and friends have molested the Canadiens. Ferguson watched Montreal take a mauling one night and said disgustedly, "Any former Canadien who saw that game must have died a million deaths." He suggested that Peter Mahovlich become the team's enforcer. "Not me," Mahovlich said. "The role of retribution is rough. I do play better when there's a lot of body contact in a game, but I don't want to play the role of enforcer or intimidator."
Nor does Serge Savard. "I don't have the killer instinct," he says. "None of us do. I really don't understand the fighting anyway. Fighting should not be the name of the game, but that's how they promote it. The league promotes fighting on one hand, then fines us for fighting on the other. Now people talk more about Dave Shultz than Bobby Orr. They make big heroes of the fighters. We all should have learned a lesson from the games against the Russians. They don't fight. They play hockey."
Before last Wednesday's game with the Black Hawks, Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman passed out slips of paper to all his players. On each slip was the time of an appointment. All day long Bowman met the Canadiens—some individually, others in small groups. "These next two games against Chicago will tell me all I want to know about my team," Bowman said. "I have laid it on the line. The trouble with this club is that we have a lot of guys who have enjoyed nothing but success, and maybe it has spoiled them. I get the impression they all feel that things will fall into place at the right time, regardless of what they do themselves."
Bowman talked toughest to Jacques Lemaire and Yvan Cournoyer, particularly Lemaire, who has become known as Le Perruque—The Hairpiece—because he wears one. Last season at this time Lemaire had an efficiency rating of plus 53; that is, while he was on the ice Montreal scored 53 more goals than the opposition. At present his rating is a sorry plus 4. While Lemaire tends to blame his poor play (44 goals last year, only 23 so far this season) on a shoulder separation that forced him from the lineup for 10 games, Bowman says, "Injuries aren't responsible for that plus-4 rating. Lemaire was a great player because he worked hard. Now he no longer does."
Lemaire normally centers a line with Cournoyer on the right wing, and when they are skating effectively they are masters of the headman play. These days they are not effective; one reason, some Montrealers insist, is that they are feuding over a hockey school they own.
It took a goal by Richard with 50 seconds remaining in Wednesday's game to gain a 3-3 tie with the Black Hawks, who had gotten their own scores on-plays that were flagrantly offside. Back at the Forum on Saturday night, the Black Hawks needed no favors, dominating the game all the way in their 3-1 victory. The dynasty of Morenz and Joliat, Maurice Richard and Doug Harvey, Jean Beliveau and Bernie Geoffrion seemingly had reached a point where talk of pride just wouldn't work anymore.