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Voices In the Rafters

June 07, 1993
June 07, 1993

Table of Contents
June 7, 1993

NBA Playoffs
Indy 500
Cincinnati Reds
Stanley Cup Playoffs
D. Wayne Lukas
John Daly
Point After

Voices In the Rafters

Ghosts of a glorious hockey past live on in the Montreal Forum. Just listen

Tell you a true story. Fella was around here last week asking questions of one of the ushers. What is it about the Montreal Forum? the gent inquired. What makes it so special, eh? This season, the visitor noted, marks the 32nd time in the Forum's 69-year history that the place has hosted the Stanley Cup finals. So, he wanted to know, what's the secret?

This is an article from the June 7, 1993 issue Original Layout

The usher—red coat, white shirt, black tie, black trousers: best-dressed ushers in hockey—gave it to the man straight. "It's the ghosts," he said with a smile.

I got a kick out of that. Surely did. Folks say it's the 23 Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters that give the Montreal Canadiens their mystique. I've got news for you. It isn't the banners. You can fold banners up and take them with you. Some folks say it's the uniform, the beloved bleu, blanc et rouge. It isn't the uniforms. You can take the uniforms with you, too. But the ghosts—you can't take the ghosts unless the ghosts choose to go. And in 1995-96, when the Canadiens move into their new 21,500-seat Molson Forum or whatever they'll call it, I, for one, am not leaving. Can't speak for the other ghosts. But I'm staying right here at Atwater and St. Catherine till the wrecking ball comes or the Good Lord, at long last, calls me home.

Maybe you've heard of me. Howie Morenz, the Stratford Streak, at your service. Keeper of the flame at the temple of hockey, heavenly rabble-rouser, unofficial recorder of Forum facts and minutiae, bedeviler of Don (Too Many Men on the Ice) Cherry, angel in waiting. I guess that over the last 69 years I've pretty much seen it all in Montreal's Forum, the most storied and gloried building in hockey.

I helped open her the night of Nov. 29, 1924: Montreal Canadiens versus Toronto St. Patricks. It was the first time the Canadiens had ever played a game in November. Couple of funny things about that. The Forum wasn't our home ice. The Forum, so called because it had been built on the site of a roller-skating facility called the Forum Rink, was the spanking-new home of an NHL expansion franchise named the Montreal Maroons, who were opening on the road in Boston. We, the Canadiens, usually played at the Mount Royal Arena. But that year the arena was in the process of installing artificial-ice-making machinery, and on Nov. 29 our ice wasn't yet fit for play.

We were the defending Stanley Cup champions, so the owners of the Forum, mindful of the benefits of publicity, invited us to play our home opener in their $1.5 million, 9,300-seat facility, the biggest arena in the city. "Palatial quarters," the Montreal Gazette described it. "A more up-to-date building for sporting events could hardly be imagined."

The Forum was a beauty, all right: peaked stone facade, huge glass windows beneath a row of elegant arches along Atwater Avenue, a handsome marquee. Not like the rectangular K Mart-esque exterior on the Forum today, the ghastly result of the 1968 renovation. The seats back then were well spaced, the aisles were wider than those in any other arena in the city, and there were enough exits, according to the Gazette, "to safely evacuate the building in half an hour." Tramway lines were right across the street.

We drew 9,000 that opening game, just shy of a sellout, the largest crowd to see a hockey game in Montreal to that date by 2,000 fans. The game was delayed 10 minutes to allow the spectators waiting in the streets to file in. Many were still in the concourse when, 55 seconds into the game, my old linemate, Billy Boucher, scored the first goal in the Forum's history. Boucher had a hat trick that night, and we went on to an easy 7-1 win over the St. Pats. Humbly I report that I tallied once that opening night in the Forum.

The Club de Hockey Canadien moved into the Forum permanently in 1926, a year in which the archrival Maroons had won the first of their two Stanley Cups. So those 23 Stanley Cup banners hanging from the Forum's rafters don't tell the whole story. Two more should be up there for the Maroons, who went out of business the summer of '38.

What a rivalry it was! The Maroons were the choice of Montreal's English-speaking community, the Canadiens the team of the French. What was I, of German-Swiss descent from western Ontario, doing on a team of flying Frenchmen? Loving it. We were united by the language of hockey. Three times I was named the league's MVP, and three times I helped hoist the Stanley Cup. But then.... On Jan. 28, 1937, I was among the league leaders in scoring when I caught the blade of my skate in the crevice between the ice and the boards during a game against Chicago. With Earl Seibert checking me, I fell and twisted my leg, breaking it in two places. They carried me from the ice on a stretcher.

I never got out of the hospital. Lord knows I tried. Tried too hard, I guess. I had a nervous breakdown after being in there for a month. Deep down I must have known my career was over. At 34, I would never play hockey again. On March 8, five weeks after my last game, I was sitting up in my bed, having a conversation with a friend, when I crumpled over and died of a heart attack. Some said of a broken heart. Who knows?

Shocked. That was the reaction in Montreal. The papers had been writing that I was looking forward to coming back the next season. Three days after my death they held a memorial service for me at the Forum, during which they placed my body at center ice. The Canadiens, Maroons and Maple Leafs were all seated around me, and a floral number 7 adorned my casket. "Howie himself was where he was wont to be—at center," reported the Gazette. "But he was no longer vital and tensed for the fray; he lay silent and still in his casket, a tiny spray of blossom in his hands."

Fifteen thousand fans sat in silence. It was an eerie scene, believe me. Another 10,000 gathered outside on St. Catherine Street, and thousands more lined the route to the Mount Royal Cemetery, where they laid my body to rest. The service was broadcast over the radio, and the chaplain called me "the greatest of them all." I heard every word. I was up there in the Forum rafters, getting used to the surroundings, feeling sorry for myself and wishing like hell I'd cut in on Seibert instead of trying to beat him along the boards. You live. You die. You learn. I never did do things in the right order.

"Hello, Howie."

It was Georges Vèzina, welcoming me to the rafters. He had been our goaltender for nine years. He led the league in '24-25 with a 1.87 goals-against average. What reflexes he had! But in the first game of the '25-26 season he collapsed with a high fever after the first period; he was spitting blood. They took him to the hospital, and four months later, on March 27, 1926, he died of tuberculosis.

"Hello, Georges," I said. "This isn't...."

"Heaven? No, Howie. It's the Forum."

I reached over to touch him, and my hand went right through his. "Still a sieve," I teased. "So, what's next?"

"We're to be here for a while," said Georges. "Kind of watch over the boys. It's fun. You'll see. Some of the boys drop in and we skate at night, after the Forum is empty. We fly."

It was fun. Vèzina was right about that. The years flew by so fast we couldn't keep track of them. How many times did I sit up there among the banners and cheer the Punch Line of Toe Blake, Rocket Richard and Elmer Lach—the most famous scoring unit in Canadien history? I remember Richard's 50 goals in 50 games in '44-45 as if it were yesterday. Young Jean Bèliveau. Crafty Doug Harvey. Boom Boom Geoffrion, who married Marlene, my only daughter, who was just four when I passed away.

What a laugh I had on Cherry in the 1979 semifinals! That former Boston coach still has nightmares about me. The Bruins were leading the Canadiens 4-3 in the waning moments of the seventh game when I donned my old number 7 and skated past Cherry, looking him right in the eye. I believe I even winked. He sent a Bruin over the boards to check me and was whistled for too many men on the ice. He was speechless, flabbergasted, nonplussed. Guy Lafleur tied the game on the power play. We beat the Bruins in overtime and then went on to win our fourth straight Stanley Cup. Cherry, I believe, hasn't been the same man since.

Hockey wasn't our only entertainment in the Forum. Sonja Henie skated four shows here in 1938. Buster Crabbe swam in the Forum's Aqua-Parade. Princess Elizabeth attended a hockey game in 1951. The great Archie Moore, the light heavyweight champion of the world, was knocked down four times in the first round of a 1958 title fight by a New Brunswick fisherman named Yvon Durelle before stopping Durelle in the 11th round. On Sept. 8, 1964, the Beatles made the Forum their first North American stop. A sprite named Nadia Comaneci had a raft of 10's here in 1976 to become the darling of the Montreal Olympics. The Bolshoi Ballet, Lippizaner stallions, Moscow circus—the Forum has had them all.

Then there was the night Yukon Eric, a pro wrestler, lost his ear. Literally. Big galoot by the name of Killer Kowalski jumped down on Yukon Eric and sheared his ear off with his shinbone. You never saw such bleeding in your life. Yukon Eric went straight to the hospital. The ref scooped up the ear—which had been rolling around on the canvas like a marble—and tucked it into his pocket. Later he gave it to someone in Yukon Eric's dressing room. But nobody seems to know what happened to that hunk of cauliflower after that. I've heard it was eventually tossed in a trash bin.

But hockey was the Forum's lifeblood. Atwater and St. Catherine was a busy corner most weekends between November and April. The Canadiens played on Saturday nights. On Sunday afternoons an amateur team named the Montreal Senior Royals played. Then the building was cleared for Sunday night's Montreal Junior Royals' games. Every game was a sellout, or pretty near, so each weekend 40,000 spectators passed through the Forum's turnstiles in 24 hours.

Management kept fancying up the place. First thing Mr. Frank Selke did when he became general manager of the Canadiens in 1946 was get rid of the Millionaires' section at the north end of the arena. Bleacher seats—that's what the Millionaires' section really was. Fifty cents a seat, and many was the usher who pocketed the four bits instead of asking for a ticket. The Millionaires' section was separated from the rest of the Forum by a chain link fence to keep the bleacherites from mingling with the tonier gents in the good seats.

By 1949, the Forum's silver anniversary, the management had added the blue section above "the reds" and "the whites," increasing the grand old dame's seating capacity to 13,551. Richard was in his prime then, and the tempestuous Rocket owned the city as no Canadien player has before or since. He shattered the league scoring record, finishing his career with 544 goals. But he was also central to the scariest, most shameful night in Forum history, which became known as the Richard Riot.

The episode actually began in Boston on March 13, 1955, when Richard got into an ugly stick-swinging duel with the Bruins' Hal Laycoe. Three times Richard was restrained by a linesman, and three times he broke away, the final time turning to punch the linesman twice in the face. At a March 16 hearing NHL president Clarence Campbell threw the book at Richard, suspending him for the final three games of the regular season and the entire playoffs.

Canadien fans were furious and read anti-French sentiment into Campbell's decision. The team played Detroit at the Forum on March 17, St. Patrick's Day, and spectators toting WE WANT CAMPBELL banners were milling about St. Catherine Street before the game. Campbell, who lived in Montreal, arrived at his regular Forum seat at the south end of the arena midway through the first period, when we were trailing 2-1. Fans began throwing eggs, tomatoes and pigs' feet at him. At the end of the period, with Detroit leading 4-1, a number of young ruffians assembled near Campbell's box, and one of them slapped him twice in the face. A tear-gas canister was thrown, and many fans bolted for the concourse in a panic. On orders from the fire department the rest of the crowd left the building, and the Canadiens had to forfeit the game.

All hell then broke loose. As the fans exited, they began to riot. Cars were overturned and tires slashed. Forum windows were smashed, and stores on St. Catherine Street were looted. Forum workers were pelted with rocks. Newsstands were burned, phone booths wrecked, and approximately 40 people were injured. More than 60 people were arrested.

Richard appealed to the citizenry for calm, which was restored the following day. In the playoffs the Canadiens—without Richard—lost to the Red Wings in the finals in seven games. The entire episode seemed to galvanize the team. We won the next five Stanley Cups—a record string that still stands. The streak ended when the Rocket retired in 1960.

In 1968, at a cost of $10 million, the Forum was completely renovated to the form it retains today. The demolition crews moved in hours after we had swept the St. Louis Blues for coach Toe Blake's eighth Stanley Cup, another NHL record. Everything was replaced but the seats. New roof, lobby, concourses, escalators, plus that awful new boxlike exterior. Inside, though, the old girl looked better than ever, the epitome of what a hockey arena should be. The interior pillars were removed, and the sight lines—the best in hockey—were improved. The 16,197 seats seemed to hang right over the ice.

Another 1,700 standing room tickets were made available for each game, which raised the capacity to 17,909. It's quite a show when the ushers open the doors an hour and a half before game time for the standing room patrons. Young, old, men, women—anyone with a standing room ticket sprints for his favorite spot. They run as if there is a pot of dreams waiting for them inside.

Perhaps there is. There's hardly a citizen in Montreal who can't tell you precisely when it was that he went inside the Forum for the first time. "There's only going to be one Forum," says the great Lafleur. "This place is like church for a lot of fans across Canada."

Sometimes people think they see us. Ghosts in Canadien sweaters. Not often, but sometimes. Like that time with Cherry. Canadien players sometimes think they see us in the dressing room: Vèzina, Aurèle Joliat, Joe Malone, Bill Durnan, Doug Harvey, Jacques Plante, Sprague Cleghorn, George Hainsworth. Our faces are all up on the wall—37 Canadiens who've been elected to the Hall of Fame, from me right up to Bob Gainey. The names of every other player on every Canadien roster since our first season, in 1917-18, are on dark-brown plaques covering the dressing room walls. And above our pictures that marvelous line from In Flanders Fields, written in 1915 by John McCrae, a Canadian poet who was also a surgeon at a Montreal hospital: "To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high."

The boys seem to take those words pretty seriously. Year after year they've put on a pretty good show. They've seldom lacked for effort. A time or two brought a tear to my eye. I know one thing: This old beautiful barn and I will sure miss them when they move to that big new place that's being built, that won't ever be the Forum, no matter what they call it.

I wonder if they won't missus.

ILLUSTRATIONJULIAN ALLENThe Canadien dressing room is always under the watchful eyes of Montreal Hall of Famers.ILLUSTRATIONJULIAN ALLENFans holding standing room tickets dash for prime position—a Forum event unto itself.ILLUSTRATIONJULIAN ALLENThe rafters hold 23 Stanley Cup banners—and, it is said, some unseen Canadien allies.ILLUSTRATIONJULIAN ALLENReminders of the great Canadien teams and their players are found throughout the arena.