The name is ceaselessly evocative. The jersey is borderline sacred. The history is intoxicating. To the outside world of casual sports fans, the Montreal Canadiens are the hockey team. From the Original Six heritage to twenty-four Stanley Cups glistening in the cabinet, this is an illustrious jewel on the sporting landscape, operating in that rarefied circle with Real Madrid and the New York Yankees. It’s the hallowed Forum, the rabid fanbase; the implacable mystique and the indelible memories. It’s Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau, Patrick Roy and Guy Lafleur. It’s the essence of all that hockey once was.
However, times change and eras drift away. Power shifts and new chapters are written. Unfortunately for Habs fans across the globe, the relevance of their beloved team is now fuelled only by the fruits of former glories. The Canadiens are still by far the most successful team ever to grace the ice, but the Stanley Cup hasn’t returned to Montreal since 1993. Indeed, the Habs have only won two championships in the last thirty-six years, a far cry from bygone hegemony.
An entire generation has grown up worshipping the idea or notion of Canadien dominance, rather than experiencing it first hand. I was born a year after the Habs’ last triumph, which is extremely disconcerting. I adore the sweater, so ingrained with meaning. I love the stories, passed down from tribe elders, about Canadien class and dignity. I appreciate the phenomenon, all while dealing with the frustrating reality of modern Habs hockey.
That frustration is largely born of a yawning chasm between past and present, then and now, perception and reality. As fans, we’re proud of the tradition and history. Winning twenty-four Stanley Cups provides a licence to gloat, a reason to be confident. But, in my lifetime, the Montreal Canadiens have been decidedly mediocre in almost every facet of the game. Since 1993, twelve franchises have won more games, and thirteen have scored more goals. The Habs have only had three MVP winners in the last thirty-eight years, and one forty-goal season since Jean Chretien was Canadian Prime Minister.
For the past twenty-three years, so bland and unforgiving, the Montreal Canadiens have been an ordinary team trapped in a legendary body, an average assemblage weighed down by La Sainte-Flanelle. That is cause for nagging disappointment.
When the impenetrable Patrick Roy led the Habs to their twenty-fourth Cup, causing celebratory riots throughout Montreal, very few people could have foresaw the impending drought. The favoured sons offered a fairly weak defence of their championship in 1994, falling in the Conference Quarter-Finals, before missing the playoffs entirely a year later. That was the first postseason shorn of the Canadiens in twenty-five years, and fingers were swiftly pointed towards infighting between rich players and poor players, French players and English-speaking players. It was all quite unsavoury, as head coach Jacques Demers lost control and, ultimately, his job.
However, a new nadir was authored by his successor, the vastly inexperienced Mario Tremblay. Despite no previous coaching experience, Tremblay seized control of the most powerful hockey team in the world. It was rather like a rookie Priest becoming Pope, tasked with leading a global faith despite lacking the requisite tools. Naturally, it ended in disaster, as the players struggled to respect Tremblay, who wielded unbelievable autonomy and stoked disputes with several players.
The sorry situation boiled over on 2nd December 1995, one of the darkest days in Canadiens history. The Habs were dismantled by the Detroit Red Wings, who ran out 11-1 victors in the Forum. Roy, a legendary goaltender, was left in to allow nine goals on twenty-six shot, as fickle fans jeered mercilessly. This thorough degradation was yet another episode in the saga between Roy and coach Tremblay, who almost came to blows on several occasions.
When Roy was eventually pulled from the worst game in Habs history, midway through the second period, he stormed past Tremblay and approached team President Ronald Corey. “This is my last game in Montreal!” barked Roy, who was subsequently traded to the Colorado Avalanche, where he won the Stanley Cup on two further occasions.
Meanwhile, the Canadiens were plunged into an extended stretch of mediocrity without their franchise cornerstone. Between 1995-2003, Montreal missed the playoffs on four of eight occasions, as their birthright was snatched away. At the beginning of that run, Corey purged the front office, with Rejean Houle, a communications man within the Molson Brewery, becoming GM. Unfortunately, he was ill-equipped to run a team of this magnitude, and things unravelled swiftly for the Canadiens.
Where once patience and pragmatic construction led to repeatable success, Houle oversaw a transient philosophy lacking in conviction and clarity. Essentially, it was boom or bust, with only infrequent booms. The Habs traded away numerous marquee players, namely Pierre Turgeon and Vinny Damphousse, for minimal return, as Houle resembled a troubled gambler chasing his money in Vegas. A series of poor draft choices compounded the misconceived trades, as a talent vacuum opened up in Montreal. The NHL’s expansion from just six teams prior to 1966 to twenty-four teams by 1992 also contributed to the demise, as the Habs’ empire crumbled, one myopic move at a time.
In 1996, the Canadiens moved into a new arena, the Molson Centre, leaving behind the original cathedral of hockey. Many fans believe that part of the Canadiens’ soul was damaged irreparably in the move, as an intrinsic part of Habs mystique was lost. Indeed, the team managed to win just one playoff series in its first five years at the new barn. A new divisional alignment made the Stanley Cup even more elusive, and Tremblay eventually resigned, only for his replacement, the obscure Alain Vigneault, to mastermind the Habs’ worst statistical season in forty years in 1998-99.
On the ice, Montreal lacked a distinct identity. However, those problems were accentuated by a changing business landscape within the wider industry. “The Canadiens balance sheet was also a mess,” writes D’Arcy Jenish in The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory. “Molson Companies Ltd. announced that its sports and entertainment division – which essentially consisted of the Canadiens and the Molson centre – had lost $3.8 million in the year ended March 31, 1999.
“Free agency and rising salaries were driving costs through the roof. The low value of the Canadian dollar compounded the problem. The team earned its revenues in Canada, but paid its players in US dollars. Then there was the tax burden. The city of Montreal charged the Molson Centre $9.6m annually in property, business and water taxes – more than the combined bill of the NHL’s twenty-one American clubs.
“Once, hockey decisions alone – draft choices, trades and the capabilities of those hired to coach and manage – had determined how the team performed. Now, an onerous tax burden and unfavourable economics were undermining the organisation’s ability to compete.”
In January 2001, a Wisconsin businessman named George Gillett bought an 80% stake in the Canadiens and their arena for US$185 million. By most measuring sticks, this was a considerable bargain for such a flagship franchise, but Molson needed to cut its losses and the Canadiens were judged as little other than a faltering business. Gillett had a pretty murky past, with bankruptcy cases blighting his reputation, and many Habs fans were sceptical of American ownership. However, he did restore the franchise to a sound footing, with clear signs of commercial growth, even if problems persisted on the ice.
During the 2001-02 season, the Habs were inspired by influential centre Saku Koivu, who overcame a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to help Montreal secure a playoff place. The Finn wasn’t expected to return that season, and was showered with an eight-minute ovation by the faithful crowd upon his early return. That night, the new arena discovered its soul. That night, some of the grand Canadiens lustre returned. That night, a sense of building momentum was palpable.
With Koivu leading the way, Montreal beat the top-seed Boston Bruins in the Conference Quarter-Finals, only to exit abruptly against the Carolina Hurricanes. Nevertheless, people began to believe in rookie coach Michel Therrien, and hope for a bright future was tangible. In retrospect, that just made the subsequent struggle even more arduous.
In 2003, Bob Gainey, a beloved Habs icon, returned as General Manager. The move was lauded by fans and the media, as better times seemed to lurk around the corner. Yet, Gainey inherited a fairly mediocre team, and most of his attention was dedicated to extinguishing real time fires, at the expense of long-term planning. Ever prideful, Canadiens fans wouldn’t tolerate a full-scale rebuild to lose profusely and accrue high draft picks, so a melancholy stasis pervaded in Montreal.
New coach Claude Julien led the Habs to another Conference Semi-Final defeat in 2004, before an ugly lockout wiped away the 2004/05 season. During the intense labour negotiations, a salary cap was instituted across the league. In times gone by, the Canadiens relied on the Reserve Clause and player loyalty to keep their teams together, only for the advent of free agency to blow that modus operandi apart. Theoretically, the salary cap should have helped a franchise still feeling the effects of a turbulent economy, but the rule placed greater emphasis on quality drafting and player development, areas in which the Habs struggled mightily.
Accordingly, the wait for a Canadien renaissance was fairly long. It almost came in 2007-08, when coach Guy Carbonneau secured the Habs’ first division title in fifteen years, with a team featuring future building blocks like Carey Price, Andrei Markov, Alexei Kovalev and Tomas Plekanec. But, in a familiar tale, the Habs couldn’t progress beyond the Conference Semi-Finals, where the Philadelphia Flyers beat them in five games.
In 2009, the Molson family regained ownership of the franchise, with Geoff Molson and his brothers Andrew and Justin paying around $575 million for the Canadiens and their arena, by then known as the Bell Centre for sponsorship reasons. Unfortunately, the new group couldn’t inspire success in its first season, as the Canadiens took a step back in losing at the Conference Quarter-Finals stage once again. Increasingly, this was becoming a problem more of hunger and pride rather than skill and semantics. Quite frankly, the Habs lacked that invincible belief of yesteryear, to the chagrin of fans.
Gainey finally hired an experienced coach in Jacques Martin, who steered the Habs to an unlikely Conference Finals showdown with the Flyers. Nevertheless, Montreal was demolished in five games, by a combined score of 17-7, concluding a mediocre decade of Habs hockey. Indeed, it was the first decade since the 1900s in which Montreal failed to win a single Stanley Cup.
At that point, Gainey stepped aside, to be replaced by Pierre Gauthier, a former scouting director with the team. Montreal reached the Conference Quarter-Finals in 2011, before the Bruins halted their less than convincing progress. Increased playing time for heralded prospects like defenceman PK Subban and left winger Max Pacioretty informed of a bright future, even if extreme teething problems were felt in 2011-12, when the Habs finished last in their division.
Gauthier was subsequently fired, and Marc Bergevin seized control of hockey operations. He inherited something of a mess from a salary cap standpoint, but at least had a tangible core with which to work. Though inconsistent, Price, Pacioretty and Subban were widely considered jewels in the next Canadien crown, and that notion was justified in 2012-13, as the Habs won their division in a lockout-shortened campaign. A crushing Conference Quarter-Finals defeat to Ottawa seemed painfully predictable, but it was great to see the Canadiens back in contention. After bottoming out, they finally had a new bedrock. The next problem was rebuilding the mansion and crashing through its ceiling of expectation.
In 2013-14, the Canadiens felt like a team of destiny. Price was growing; Subban was more effective; and Pacioretty was a constant danger. The Habs qualified for their second successive postseason, and managed to topple the Bruins before facing the New York Rangers in a tense Conference Final. In many ways, that was one series too far for this precocious team, which battled with refreshing vigour but came unstuck in six absorbing games.
The following season, Price morphed further into the planet’s greatest goalie, winning the Vezina and Hart Trophies. On many nights, he seemed almost impenetrable, and his phenomenal performance created a genuine buzz among Canadiens fans, who saw Price as a throwback to former glories. With Carey acting like a one-man blockade, the Bell Centre became a trendy destination again. And with Subban, Pacioretty and Plekanec providing enough offensive ammunition, the Habs became relevant once more. They won the Atlantic division, amid excited Cup chatter, only to meet a buzz-saw in Tampa Bay as injuries and fatigue crept in. It was all over before it ever really begun.
This season, any notion of a playoff hangover was dispelled as the Canadiens enjoyed a phenomenal start. They won their first nine games, and were one victory short of equalling the best start in league history. Montreal talk radio was alive with optimism; the papers waxed lyrical about the outstanding nucleus driving this team forward; and Habs fans began to dream of a resurfacing juggernaut.
Then, the bottom fell out.
On 25th November 2015, Price sustained a lower body injury against the Rangers. The initial assessment called for a six-week absence, which dragged on for months. At the time of writing, he still hasn’t returned. Removing an all-world player from any team in any sport for that length of time will cause major problems. However, these things are sent to test teams, and the best find ways to rise above individual loss. Take the St Louis Cardinals of baseball or the New England Patriots of gridiron. They fill the void, share the load. The next guy steps up. Yet, for the Montreal Canadiens, that simply never happened, as a vacuous culture was exposed, intensified by managerial paralysis.
From a skill standpoint, Mike Condon and Ben Scrivens weren’t adequate replacements for Carey Price. But, from a leadership standpoint, Pacioretty didn’t do enough as captain, while Subban, though exceptionally talented, embodies the Habs’ current irascibility. Also, veterans like Plekanec, Markov and Brendan Gallagher struggled to make an impact.
Therrien was exposed as a poor tactical coach without Price’s magnificence to counteract his chronic mistakes. His man-management skills may be even worse, as his repeated criticism of core players has contributed to a fairly poisonous environment. Similarly, Bergevin was seemingly stuck in a state of paralysis as the wheels fell off. He didn’t acquire a better goaltender or fire Therrien or upgrade the roster, when all those things would have improved the Canadiens’ situation.
The result? Montreal has played atrocious hockey for a very long stretch. After leading the Conference for a fleeting period, the Habs have plunged so low that even a Wildcard berth appears improbable.
Accordingly, the future, seemingly so bright even a year ago, now appears rather uncertain. It’s logical, although far from guaranteed, to expect a new coach next season, and Bergevin probably deserves an opportunity to resuscitate his project, but the baseline of hope is blurry at best. The core is still in its prime years and under team control for the medium-term future, so optimism can be found. The major question is whether Price, Pacioretty and Subban can skate on the ice together for any sustained regularity. If they can, the Habs are an instant contender. If they can’t, the riddle continues unabated.
At the Bell Centre, still a mystical seat of hockey tradition, numerous banners hang from the rafters. Nineteen denote those legends whose numbers were retired, while twenty-four hang in perpetual homage to the championships captured by this storied franchise. However, none of those cherished players ever skated a single minute for the Habs at the Bell Centre, and exactly zero of the Cups were won there. Therefore, it’s almost like a monument to a different team, a bygone era. Montreal yearns for a Cup, if only to unite the Canadiens’ illustrious past with its disconcerting present, and restore order where chaos reigns.