A longtime friend of Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman sat in the stands one morning last week watching the Canadiens practice for their game that night with the Minnesota North Stars. A native of Montreal, he was on holiday, traveling with the team to St. Louis, Bloomington and, finally, Los Angeles. He is in the clothing business, but he has lived in a hockey culture for 54 years. He understands the game. He is an aficionado, more or less typical of the thousands like him back in Quebec. He understands it is not so much the killing of the bull, but how you kill it, and how the bull fights before he dies. Within this ring, before such men, the Montreal Canadiens perform night after night, year after year.
The practice is optional. The Canadiens had beaten the St. Louis Blues 6-0 the night before, extending their record to 19-6-4, exactly what it was after 29 games a year ago, when they finished 59-10-11 and won their third consecutive Stanley Cup. At center ice, Rejean Houle is doing wind sprints. At the near end, Claude Ruel, Montreal's director of player development and assistant coach, is passing the puck with four of the players—crisp passes, faster and faster. Ruel, who himself coached the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 1969, is a short, heavy man of 40 who looks like a bull terrier that has been thrown into one pit too many. "Now shoot!" he bellows. Doug Risebrough receives the pass and shoots. "Head up, Dougie. You must look."
The Montreal native leans forward in his seat, thinking of the previous night's game. "St. Louis—they pass it like women," he says. "You must pass it quick, hard, on the stick. These are fundamentals," To an aficionado, hockey is, in the end, a simple game. "Perfection—Les Canadiens are far from it," he says. "But they are far, far ahead of anyone else."
Perfection. This is the key to the Montreal Canadiens. Not talent or numbers or those other tangibles that people cite when they raise their silly cry to break up the Canadiens. The Canadiens do not play against a team; they play against perfection. In this way they can never win, so they never tire of winning.
As well they otherwise might. Last season at this time, the Canadiens began an unbeaten streak that ended 10 weeks and 28 games later, the longest such streak in hockey history. Then, in March, they put together the season's longest winning streak—nine games. This year they have stopped the Flames' 10-game winning streak and the Islanders' 15-game unbeaten streak, and they are currently on a 10-game unbeaten streak of their own. Including the playoffs, over the last 12 months the Montreal Canadiens have been beaten just 12 times in 96 games. In the 1975-76 season they played 93 games and lost only 12. In 1976-77 they played 94 games and had 10 losses.
Clearly, the competition has improved each year, but Montreal has kept pace. This is what separates the Canadiens from other great teams of recent years—the undefeated Miami Dolphins of 1972, the 1975 Cincinnati Reds. Les Canadiens have reached the peak of their profession and have stayed there, struggling for something higher.
"It irritates us to be called head and shoulders above everyone else, the class of the league, this sort of thing," says Goaltender Ken Dryden. "I don't think anything is that cut and dried. A gap like that can be narrowed so quickly. Yes, it starts with talent, but a lot of other things spring out of that. For one thing, our spectacular players have been remarkably consistent. Guy Lafleur has very few mediocre games."
The Canadiens are not only expected to win the Stanley Cup, but they are also expected to win each individual game—by the fans, the press, by the players themselves. Broadcaster Dick Irvin, the namesake son of the winningest NHL coach in history, declares, "If we tie—never mind lose to—a team like St. Louis on the road, I guarantee that I'll have a dozen phone calls from people asking what happened. They don't believe it if you tell them the other team played well. Nobody's willing to give the other guys any credit. It's always, 'What happened to the Canadiens?' "
Aficionados will not accept a flawed kill. In a game played earlier this year against Pittsburgh, the Canadiens led 6-0 before the Penguins came back to make the score 8-4. Still, the cry arose: What happened to the Canadiens?
To be sure, player depth has enabled the Canadiens to cope with everything this season from the retirement of legendary General Manager Sam Pollock, to a change in ownership, to Defenseman Bill Nyrop's decision to hang up his skates prematurely at the age of 26. Gilles Lupien, a 6'6" giant, has taken Nyrop's place and surprised everyone with his skating. Captain Yvan Cournoyer has reinjured his back and, as a result, likely has played his last game, but he is missed only in spirit. Jacques Lemaire, the first-line center, penalty killer, and point man on the power play, is out with a dislocated shoulder, but this just means more ice time for budding third-year star Pierre Mondou. The Canadiens are undefeated since Lemaire was injured on Dec. 3, and they were undefeated for 23 straight games last year when All-Star Defenseman Guy Lapointe was out of the lineup with an eye injury. As Ruel says, "The pride of the Canadiens is hard work."
"When you say 'a team,' that is what Montreal is, a team," says Pierre Larouche. The 23-year-old Larouche, the only skater on the Montreal roster to play for another NHL team, is one of Bowman's "specialty players"—once a 53-goal scorer with the Pittsburgh Penguins but now a spare with the Canadiens. After the nucleus of stars—Lafleur, Dryden, Lemaire, Bob Gainey and defensemen Lapointe, Serge Savard and Larry Robinson—Bowman has put together a team of specialists. "We have a lot of players who are not excess-talent players," says Bowman. "But they work hard, and they are skilled at specialty situations. One of our strong points is that we can have a great goal scorer like Steve Shutt, and afford not to play him in certain situations. Conversely, I'm not going to play a Doug Jarvis that much when we're behind a couple of goals." Unless Bowman needs to win a face-off—Jarvis' specialty.
"As far as I'm concerned," says Dryden, "there is only one legitimate superstar on this team, and that's Lafleur. And even Lafleur needs the team. The rest of us are very good, yes, but the team is superior."
The team. Yes, this is a team. The Canadiens respect that. They see it as bigger than themselves. So a 53-goal scorer like Larouche sits on the bench and waits his chance, and the team is not decimated by a mass declaration of free-agentry. "On other teams, statistics are the big thing," says Dryden, whose own statistics—never mentioned—show him having the lowest lifetime goals-against average of any goaltender in the last 30 years. "The only statistic that means anything here is wins and losses. If your statistics are great and we lose, you're still characterized as part of the problem."
The statistic Bowman is most proud of is that the Canadiens are perennially the least penalized team in hockey. Last year, for example, the team had 23 major penalties. Toronto's Tiger Williams had 35. With a lineup that includes giants like Lupien, Robinson, Rick Chartraw and Yvon Lambert, few teams even bother to attempt to intimidate the Canadiens anymore. The result is hockey—the sport, not the war. A skating, free-wheeling game on offense, a hustling body-checking game on defense. Quick crisp passes at both ends, with wingmen circling free. They do not just play to win; they play to be perfect, which is a nice thing to watch. The Montreal Canadiens could no more win a Stanley Cup in the manner of the old Broad Street Bullies than Manolete could have killed a bull with an ax.
Night after night, city after city, the Canadiens bring out the best in those teams that lie in wait for the champs. Even after the Blues absorbed their 6-0 drubbing, St. Louis announcer Dan Kelley lamented, "Why can't the Blues skate like that against the Rockies?" In Minnesota, the North Stars, hockey's worst team a year ago, took a 2-1 lead before succumbing 3-2 in front of their largest home crowd of the season. This bull did not die easily. It was a splendid game for both teams. When Montreal scored the winning goal with 13 minutes remaining, its bench emptied in celebration. Afterward, Doug Risebrough, who sat out the game with a shoulder injury, pointed to the ice packs on the knees of Lupien, Lambert and Mark Napier. "Look at them," he said. "They had to scratch and claw for this win. But tomorrow people will say, 'Who did they beat? The North Stars.' "
In trying to define the success of the Canadiens, Larouche says, "The other players on this team make you so hungry to wear the Canadiens' sweater, that once you do, you remember what it was like, and you don't ever want to take it off again."