Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hockey: Montreal's return to prominence

The Montreal Canadiens are in tough against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first-ever NHL conference final between a #7 seed (Philly) and an #8 seed (Montreal). They're down 2-0 in the series, they've given up nine goals and they haven't yet been able to beat Flyers' goaltender Michael Leighton. As Bruce Arthur wrote in his column in today's National Post, Philadelphia's rounding into form nicely and Montreal hasn't been impressive. If that continues, it seems likely the Canadiens' Cinderella run will end here.

Yet, there are several factors that have me thinking this one isn't over yet. For one, Philadelphia's lineup doesn't overly impress me, especially without the injured Jeff Carter. They have talented players like Mike Richards, Danny Briere, Simon Gagne and, as much as it pains me to say it, Chris Pronger, but much of their roster is filled with guys who are most known for their thuggery. Montreal wasn't any better during the regular season (both teams finished with 88 points and the Canadiens had a worse goal differential), but they have plenty of weapons up front with the likes of Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta, and I've got more faith in Jaroslav Halak as a playoff saviour [Dan Steinberg, D.C. Sports Bog] than I do in Michael Leighton, who looks more like a very naughty boy than a messiah. Moreover, Montreal's already come back to knock off Washington and Pittsburgh, much better teams than Philadelphia in my mind.

For me, the biggest thing still in Montreal's favour is that they're returning to home ice tonight, though. Yes, home ice doesn't always mean that much these days, but there's something special about the atmosphere in Montreal, driven by the unique history of the Canadiens and their relationship to their city and province. To try and explain it, here's an excerpt from D’Arcy Jenish's book, The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory, sent my way by the good people at Random House. You can find more information on the book and buy it through their site. Without further ado, here's what makes Montreal unique and how the Canadiens got to where they are today:

This is Hockeytown

Other cities may lay claim to the title, says Pierre Boivin during an animated discussion in his corner office on the seventh floor of the Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens. Then, with a sweep of his arm, he gestures at the city beyond his windows. “Make no mistake about it, this is Hockeytown.”

Montreal is Hockeytown by dint of history and the citizenry’s enduring passion for the sport. It is where a raw and ragged game – shinny played on the icebound creeks and rivers and lakes of a wintry nation – came indoors and became hockey, the world’s first arena sport. It is where the first rules were written, where the first team was formed – the McGill University Redmen in 1877 – and where the sport’s most hallowed prize, the Stanley Cup, has come to rest thirty-nine times since it was first awarded in 1893, a prize captured by the Canadiens, Maroons, Wanderers, Shamrocks, Victorias and the Winged Wheelers of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association.

In the 1890s, when the sport was young and the Stanley Cup brand new, the Winged Wheelers, Victorias and Shamrocks and their rabid followers were hockey’s hottest rivals. A few decades later, in the Roaring Twenties and Dirty Thirties, English Montreal had its team, the Maroons, and French Montreal had its standard-bearer, the Canadiens, and games between them produced war both on the ice and in the stands.

For seven decades now, ever since the demise of the Maroons, Montreal’s sporting public has worshipped at one altar, that of the Canadiens, and the passage of time has done nothing to diminish the ardour of the citizenry. “When we win on Saturday night, you get on the subway Monday morning and three-quarters of the people are smiling,” says Boivin, president and CEO of the Canadiens. “If we lose a couple and Toronto’s ahead by a point, Montrealers are very unhappy. If we don’t make the playoffs, spring is hell. To some degree, the city’s productivity is influenced by the team’s performance. Hockey is part of what makes this city tick.”

And yet, in the first years of the current century, hockey in Montreal was in jeopardy. Le Club de Hockey Canadien was grievously ill and in danger of folding. The team was mediocre and missing the playoffs more often than not. Attendance was declining. Financial losses were mounting. Furthermore, there appeared to be no way out. The Canadiens were damned by circumstances beyond their control. Player salaries had risen to untenable levels, owing to the free-spending ways of wealthier rivals, most of them in the United States. The Canadiens, like the five other NHL teams based in this country, were paying their athletes in U.S. dollars but earning their revenues in a domestic dollar worth about twenty-five percent less. On top of all this, the Canadiens were saddled with over eight million dollars per year in municipal taxes, whereas the league average was less than a million per team.

“We were losing a ton of money year in, year out,” Boivin recalls. “There was no way we could make money because of structural economic and competitive disadvantages. We had no hope of surviving.”

The Canadiens and their Colorado-based owner, George N. Gillett Jr., solidly supported the lockout of the players that cost the NHL its entire 2004—05 season. The NHL Players’ Association eventually capitulated and accepted a new collective bargaining agreement with a yearly salary cap, initially set at $39 million (U.S.) per team. This drastic measure trimmed the Canadiens’ payroll by about $12 million annually and helped save the franchise.

“Toronto was the only Canadian club that could have survived long-term and been competitive under the old regime,” Boivin adds. “We would have seen the relocation or the demise of the other five teams, and Montreal was no exception.”

Hockey returned to the city in the fall of 2005. The Canadiens played their first home game against the Ottawa Senators on the evening of October 10, a Tuesday. About ninety minutes before the puck dropped, the main doors of the Bell Centre opened and a crowd several hundred strong surged into the lobby. Boivin was there to welcome them. So were Gillett and general manager Bob Gainey and former players Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer and Réjean Houle. By game time, they had greeted several thousand people, a slice of the sellout crowd of 21,273.

The return of the NHL was cause for jubilation in the city that gave birth to the game. The league’s financial foundation had been restored and the future of its oldest and greatest franchise seemed assured. And the Canadiens had something else to celebrate: the one-hundredth anniversary of Le Club de Hockey Canadien – formed on December 4, 1909.

That fall, the Canadiens launched their centennial celebrations. The first significant public event occurred prior to a Saturday night game on November 12, when the Canadiens retired jersey number twelve. Left winger Dickie Moore, a two-time scoring champion, wore that sweater from 1951 to 1963, and right winger Yvan Cournoyer from 1964 to 1979. In the run-up to 2009, the team also retired numbers worn by Bernard Geoffrion (five), Serge Savard (eighteen), Ken Dryden (twenty-nine), Larry Robinson (nineteen) and Gainey (twenty-three). These joined numbers already taken out of circulation to honour Jacques Plante (one), Doug Harvey (two), Jean Béliveau (four), Howie Morenz (seven), Maurice Richard (nine), Guy Lafleur (ten) and Henri Richard (sixteen).

Two major events were planned for the centennial year. The league awarded Montreal the 2009 All-Star Game and scheduled the contest for January 25, the one-hundredth anniversary of the first match to go into the books as part of the Canadiens’ official record. The league also named Montreal as host of the 2009 Entry Draft.

Amid this prolonged centenary, a remarkable transformation was taking place. Gillett, who was seen as an interloper when he acquired the club and its building in January 2001, was proving to be a good owner, and he was winning the respect of Montrealers. Boivin and his executive group were overhauling the Canadiens’ business organization, while Gainey and his staff in the hockey department were rebuilding the team through trades, free-agent signings and, above all, the draft.

As the Canadiens completed their ninty-ninth season, these efforts were beginning to yield results. Le Club de Hockey Canadien had reclaimed its status as one of the best in the sport. The Canadiens were contenders again, and another Stanley Cup – a twenty-fifth for the team and a fortieth for the city – seemed a distinct possibility.

Excerpted from The Montreal Canadiens by D'Arcy Jenish. Copyright © 2008 by D'Arcy Jenish. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Canada. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

We'll see if Montreal can live up to that tonight. I wouldn't bet against them, though. History is on their side.

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