Hitting The Skids The storied Canadiens have no one but themselves to blame for a series of bad hires and terrible trades that have left their dynasty in shambles

October 24, 1999

In an extraordinary nod to tradition and with a healthy dose of
audacity, the words from John McCrae's poem In Flanders
Fields--"To you from failing hands we throw the torch, be yours
to hold it high"--have been hung in the Montreal Canadiens'
dressing room above portraits of their 40 Hall of Fame players.
There's no other sports franchise that would have the hubris to
expropriate a poem about fallen soldiers and apply it to men who
shoot pucks at a four-by-six-foot net. But now, for a club that
has won 24 Stanley Cups and has had a legacy of stars and
nobility, those words seem cruel and mocking. The "failing
hands" still apply, but if a poet tried to capture the spirit of
the Canadiens today, he might be inspired to write, "Like,
whatever."

These are the dark ages of a crumbled dynasty, hockey's
equivalent of the Horace Clarke New York Yankees of the late
1960s and the Sidney Wicks-Curtis Rowe Boston Celtics of the
late '70s. The Canadiens have won one postseason series since
their last Stanley Cup in 1993. They've missed the playoffs
twice in the past five years. If they don't win the Cup this
season--they're bucking Powerball odds--it will mark the first
time since 1944 that Montreal has gone seven years without a
title. New team president Pierre Boivin, a former sporting goods
executive who has been on the job for seven weeks, recognizes
the depth of the malaise and is championing a three-year plan
that may or may not work, but at least is two years shorter than
Stalin's.

The symbol of the decline of the Canadiens' empire is not their
middling 3-4-0 record through Sunday, not a decade of mediocre
drafting and substandard European scouting and poor trades, not
even overwhelmed general manager Rejean Houle. It is the
hipsters who take to the three-year-old Molson Centre's ice
between periods in a souped-up Molson Export Patrol cart and
shoot T-shirts from an air cannon into the crowd. At the
Montreal Forum, intermissions were reserved for repairing to the
cramped corridors, eating steamed hot dogs, drinking beer,
breathing secondhand smoke and talking about the game. That was
serious hockey. Now the Canadiens are in the dubious business of
"sports entertainment," which includes such accoutrements as
numbing rock music in the arena and a high-tech video system
that ogles sweet young things. (Love those navel rings!) The
Canadiens, who had a better grasp of pomp and ceremony than any
organization except the House of Windsor, have ceded the high
ground of class and dignity. If a legendary franchise chooses to
comport itself like an ordinary team, it demands to be judged as
one.

Although some Montreal fans still genuflect to a sport
tiresomely referred to as the secular religion of Quebec, the
Canadiens have ceased to be what novelist Mordecai Richler
described in the mid-1970s as "a spiritual necessity." In the
past two years the Saturday institution La Soiree du Hockey, the
French version of Hockey Night in Canada, has been buffeted by
Montreal's indifferent play and dull teams: Viewership has
dipped more than 20%. The Canadiens announced a sellout of
21,273 against the Toronto Maple Leafs on opening night three
weeks ago, but there were at least 1,000 no-shows for their
archrivals, a stunning display of ennui. The Canadiens also
failed to sell out the next week in Edmonton, Calgary and
Vancouver--cities in which almost as many fans once rooted for
Montreal as for the local teams--and then returned home to
perhaps 4,000 empty seats, even though the fabulous Pavel Bure
of the Florida Panthers was in town. "If the fans don't care as
much, maybe it's because the players don't care as much as they
used to," says left wing Benoit Brunet, who made his Canadiens'
debut 11 seasons ago. "The fans know who gives a good, honest
effort."

That Gallic shrug by the fans is one of the few things French
about a team once known as the Flying Frenchmen: Only seven
Quebecers were among the 28 players who have been on the roster
this season. During training camp, coach Alain Vigneault called
in seven veterans and floated the idea of an English-only
dressing room, a policy adopted by the Panthers. Imagine. A
francophone coach in the world's third-largest French-speaking
city asking his players if they thought the team once graced by
Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur might be more
united if they spoke strictly English. The players wisely told
Vigneault to forget it.

The Canadiens have far more profound problems than conjugation,
starting with injuries. On Oct. 11, Montreal practiced without
12 regulars. The following night the Canadiens lost 2-1 to
Florida while using six skaters who had a combined 101 games of
NHL experience. In his postmatch press conference Vigneault
declared, "No one's going to take self-pity on us."

Vigneault has hinted that he could use reinforcements, the
province of the universally liked but beleaguered Houle, who won
five Stanley Cups as a forward with Montreal in the 1970s. Houle
was plucked out of the offices of Molson Companies (the team's
owner) in October 1995 by former Montreal president Ronald
Corey, whose blind loyalty to all things Canadien bordered on
corporate inbreeding. Houle, who didn't know the league and
barely knew the team at the time, compounded his problems by
hiring former teammate Mario Tremblay, a coaching novice, to
work behind the bench. (Corey had fired Jacques Demers.) The
passionate Tremblay drove the Canadiens to 90 points and the
playoffs that season, but in the long run he was temperamentally
unsuited to being a coach. If the Feb. 9, 1995, trade of future
star left wing John LeClair and premier defenseman Eric
Desjardins to the Philadelphia Flyers by Houle's predecessor,
Serge Savard, marked the start of the franchise's decline, then
Tremblay's tardy removal of goaltending god Patrick Roy during
an 11-1 thumping by the Detroit Red Wings at the Forum 10 months
later sent the Canadiens down an elevator shaft. Houle traded
the incensed Roy and captain Mike Keane to the Colorado
Avalanche four days later, effectively handing the Stanley Cup
to the Avalanche.

Houle has made 18 trades since then, acquiring 23 players and
nine draft choices, but too often his deals have blown up.
Twelve of those players came from the Calgary Flames, the
Chicago Blackhawks, the New York Islanders and the Tampa Bay
Lightning--the NHL's dregs. (The surest way to look like a
lower-echelon team is to trade with one.) Houle's best trade was
picking up Eric Weinrich, who gamely has tried to fill the role
of No. 1 defenseman during the many absences of the injury-prone
Vladimir Malakhov, and goaltender Jeff Hackett, who went 24-20-9
last season behind a team that did not have a 20-goal scorer for
the first time since 1940-41.

Hackett says playing in Montreal is like experiencing the birth
of a first child: Everyone tells you how much your life will
change, but until it happens you have no clue. He has become the
Canadiens' moral center, and he reacted viscerally two weeks ago
when defenseman Sylvain Cote, then being shopped by Toronto,
said he would prefer to go to the U.S. and to a winning team
rather than be dealt to Montreal. "I thought it was a shame that
a French Canadian didn't want to play in Montreal," Hackett
says. "Growing up, it must have been a dream for him. It's an
honor to play here, and every guy should understand that."

Boivin vows to bring that feeling back. He plans to lose the
kitschy on-ice diversions, improve player development and add
luster to a brand that has suffered from a benign neglect. Within
three years he envisions the Canadiens winning a playoff round
and filling the arena at least two-thirds of the time. "We've
done nothing to build heroes of our team today," Boivin says.
"There have been a ton of missed opportunities."

"Part of the problem is that people are living in the past,"
says Lafleur, the former right wing who works for the club as an
ambassador. "People talk about the 1970s. We had nine Hall of
Fame guys on that 1979 team. There's no team that could afford
to keep nine guys like that now. The older people have a tough
time understanding that. They wonder why players aren't attached
to the team like they used to be, why they don't play with the
same pride. The fans go to games, but they don't always see a
good show."

The Renaissance took 250 years; Montreal is shooting for three.
Like, whatever. The writing is on the wall.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Checked out If Matt Higgins and Montreal miss the playoffs, it would be the first time in 78 years the team failed to qualify in consecutive seasons. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Crass act With their reputation for success shot, the Canadiens have used gimmicks like a T-shirt cannon to entertain the home fans.

The Canadiens, who had a terrific grasp of pomp and ceremony,
ceded the high ground of class and dignity.

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