"Montreal is the Mecca of hockey. Everybody in this city thinks he knows the game."
First there was the fire wagon. Fire wagon hockey was the swirling, breakneck offensive style of the Montreal Canadiens when they had the rights to every player born in Quebec, were referred to as the Flying Frenchmen or, in moments of reverence, Nos Glorieux, and the Stanley Cup looked out of place anywhere but at the Forum.
The fire wagon has been replaced by the Zamboni. Zamboni hockey, like the sturdy, effective vehicles that resurface the ice between periods, is predictable, deliberate and inexorable. The Flying Frenchmen have given way to a plodding potpourri of American, Anglo-Canadian, Swedish and Czech players. The only similarities between the eras can be discovered on the bottom line: At week's end the Canadiens were working on a 10-game winning streak, and their record of 40-20-10 was second only to the Calgary Flames' 41-21-8.
Instead of a flashy scorer, today's typical Canadien is more apt to be a burly forward who bumps, grinds and obeys orders—if he wishes to play. To wit: When rightwinger Claude Lemieux, who was upset with his shrinking ice time, had words with coach Jean Perron between periods of Montreal's 5-0 skunking of the Hartford Whalers on Saturday night, he was suspended indefinitely. It was business as usual at the most intriguing franchise in the NHL. You could write a soap opera about this team. In fact, Rejean Tremblay, a sports columnist for La Presse in Montreal, does for a Quebec TV station. The show, He Shoots, He Scores!, is loosely based on the Canadiens and is an enormous hit.
Zamboni hockey beat the leg-weary Calgary Flames in a war of attrition in the 1986 Stanley Cup finals, and Zamboni hockey is the reason the Canadiens had a six-point lead over the second-place Boston Bruins in the Adams Division as the week ended. "I'd be the first one to admit it," says defenseman Chris Chelios. "We play a boring style of hockey." Chelios, a Chicago native of Greek descent who arrived in Montreal via San Diego, Moose Jaw, Sasketchewan, and the University of Wisconsin, must constantly restrain himself in Coach Perron's system. A natural puck-rushing defenseman, Chelios would probably be happiest doing a Paul Coffey imitation all day, taking the puck the length of the ice while leaving his partner, Czechoslovakian-born Petr Svoboda, to defuse trouble in the Montreal end.
"We know we put our fans to sleep some games," continues Chelios. "We try to put the other teams to sleep is the idea." Until he broke a knuckle in his left hand on Dec. 9, Chelios had been a leading candidate to win the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman. On Saturday he had two goals and an assist to raise his totals to 17 and 39, respectively.
Systematically wearing down opponents with discipline and forechecking—that is the kind of hockey the Canadiens are playing better than anyone else in the league right now. Except for a third-period breakaway Saturday, against which Montreal goalie Patrick Roy dove to his left to make a spectacular glove stab of Paul MacDermid's shot, the Whalers were pretty much muzzled offensively. Indeed, Roy faced only one shot in the first 13 minutes of the second period and only 17 all told. In a 4-1 win over Stanley Cup champion Edmonton last Wednesday, the Canadiens didn't allow the Oilers a shot on goal for the first 11 minutes of the second period.
Boring is in the eye of the beholder. "These guys are flying" said Whalers coach Larry Pleau after Saturday's game.
Said Max McNab, executive vice-president of the New Jersey Devils, who was in Montreal last week on a scouting mission, "The Canadiens' defense is absolutely dominating right now. And I expect, with their youth, they'll be dominating for the next couple of years, at least. That's the scary part."
Make that part of the scary part. The Canadiens are big, too, and not just the defensemen. Forwards Ryan Walter, Brian Skrudland, Mike McPhee, Bobby Smith, Bob Gainey, Guy Carbonneau, Sergio Momesso and Lemieux are among the tough and burly. Montreal attacks in waves, using four strong lines. With only 20 of the players on the roster allowed to suit up per game, Perron usually has to scratch four guys who could waltz into any other lineup in the league. "It's called depth," says goalie Brian Hayward, who shares net duties with Roy.
In fact, although his phone was ringing off the hook before last week's trade deadline, general manager Serge Savard did not make a single move. Nicknamed the Senator, the Hall of Fame defenseman won a Stanley Cup in his third year as G.M. Indeed, Savard's patience and sound hockey instincts earned him a new five-year contract from Canadiens president Ronald Corey. And most general managers would have given up on Stephane Richer, whose immaturity and runaway ego made him all but unbearable in 1986-87, but Savard had faith in the richly talented but poorly adjusted 21-year-old forward. Result: Richer should score 50 goals this season, and he leads the NHL in game-winners with 11. They don't exactly hate it around Montreal that he happens to be a French-Canadian.
All in all these Canadiens are far superior to the group that won Montreal its 23rd Stanley Cup two years ago. The defensive corps, among the three most talented in the league, is more mature. Larry Robinson, the 36-year-old future Hall of Famer, is only the third-best defenseman on the team, behind Chelios, 26, and Svoboda, 22. Even without Robinson, who missed the first 21 games of the season after breaking his right leg while playing polo last summer, Montreal got off to a great start, losing just nine of its first 40 games. However, fissures appeared in the foundation toward the end of the year. The Canadiens would look like world-beaters for two periods and then relax and hope for the best. From Jan. 2 through Feb. 15, Montreal went 8-11-1.
The low point came on Jan. 21. The St. Louis Blues outplayed the Canadiens in Montreal, winning 4-1, and the game wasn't as close as the score. Afterward, Robinson publicly questioned Perron's coaching. The power play, which had been abysmal all season, was faltering as usual. Why not give right wing Kjell Dahlin more ice time? asked Robinson. "He [Perron] wants respect from the players," Robinson said, "but in order to get respect from players, you've got to respect them."
Perron questioned why Robinson didn't simply come into his office and speak his mind. "I'm a good listener," he said. "Who's got the right to go in the press and say he's not happy about the coach, like Darryl Strawberry? Nobody has that right."
As fate would have it, Robinson was the goat in the Canadiens' next defeat, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 23. ("If a player's going to criticize the coach, he should make sure it's when he's at the top of his game," says Perron.)
Hired by Savard in 1985, Perron has survived several crises, including a near-mutiny late in his first season. With the help of the Montreal press, the players let it be known that they didn't care for Perron's drill-sergeant style. Savard went into the dressing room and spoke to the team. To punctuate his points, he hit the walls. His message: Perron is my coach, and a lot of players will lose their jobs here before Perron does. Two months later Montreal had its first Stanley Cup in seven years.
Savard defused another incendiary situation six weeks ago. Perron had booted Chris (Knuckles) Nilan off the club's premier checking line, on which he played with Carbonneau and Gainey. A forward with passable offensive skills, a busy mouth and an all-league uppercut, Nilan made no secret of his displeasure with Perron. Choosing to excise the disaffection before it spread, on Jan. 27 Savard traded Nilan to the New York Rangers. The deal made the front pages of all three Montreal dailies.
Sans Knuckles, Montreal went 4-6. On Feb. 15, the Canadiens lost for the fifth time in a row—to the Rangers. Nilan gave new teammate Michel Petit $100 for scoring the winning goal.
But two days later Montreal beat the Bruins 3-2, and the Zamboni was looking like a Rolls again as the Canadiens accelerated into their winning streak. During those 10 victories they have scored 44 goals, while allowing only 20. As of last weekend. Roy's save percentage (.898) and Hayward's goals-against average (2.94) were among the league's best.
Montreal had solid defensemen and goaltenders last season, but Richer, desperately trying to live up to his billing as "the next Guy Lafleur," was maddeningly inconsistent. When Perron started sitting him down. Richer was baffled. "In juniors, I was like a king," he says. Richer ran his mouth, and the media ate it up.
Savard and Perron have a time-honored solution for such behavior. They shipped Richer back to the Sherbrooke Canadiens, Montreal's minor league team in Quebec, for a month. That got his attention. After having breathed the heady air of the Forum, Richer found Sherbrooke to be a brutal comedown. "In juniors I had a lot of ice time," he says. "When I came here, I didn't understand why I couldn't play all the time. I want to play. So I talked in the newspaper. I thought I was too good. So I paid the price for a month, and when they called me back up, I said, 'I don't want to do no more in the minors.' "
Richer learned his lesson. He no longer behaves like a spoiled brat. Moreover, after working hard on his game and his conditioning in the off-season, he's better prepared for the rough-and-tumble of NHL hockey. "Night and day," says Perron of Richer's new attitude.
"Let me tell you, this is a tough place to play," says Perron. "Montreal is the Mecca of hockey, the Vatican of hockey, however you like. Everybody in this city thinks he knows the game. Everybody can advise. Here you have the worship of the hero. They are still missing Guy Lafleur, still missing Jean Beliveau, still missing Rocket Richard. It's a cult. They want to see Lafleur pass the torch to Richer. People are just dying to see him score 50 goals."
Missing two open net chances on Saturday night, Richer failed to add to his season total of 44 goals. Still, when Richer was escorted to the penalty box after an ineffectual scuffle with Hartford's Kevin Dineen, the 17,000 fans at the Forum chanted "Richer! Richer! Richer!"
"Sometimes they chant 'Naslund! Naslund!' but it's not the same," says center Shayne Corson, referring to left-winger Mats Naslund, who hails from Sweden.
Among the big stories in the Montreal press last week was a plan by Quebec's language advisory council, or Conseil de la langue fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºaise, to use undercover shoppers to infiltrate places of business. Its mission: to find out how many of the city's merchants use French as their primary language. Among those who think the Parti Quèbècois is somewhat overzealous is writer Mordecai Richler, an English-speaking Montreal native and longtime observer of the Canadiens.
"While nobody was looking, something happened," wrote Richler in a 1985 column for The New York Times. "The pride of the Quèbècois were infiltrated—no, overwhelmed—by the sneaky linguistically impure. Such was the desperation of the sinking Club de Hockey Canadien, the Flying Frenchmen of legend, that they were reduced to putting imports on the ice." Richler had great fun wending through a list of possible successors to Lafleur, but came up empty-handed: "Pierre Mondou won't do," he wrote. "Spunky Mario Tremblay certainly hasn't got it in him. Alfie Turcotte has delivered very little. In Guy Carbonneau, what you see is what you get."
But Richler hadn't yet seen Richer.