We all know Canada is, along with Scotland, one of the most important ancestral homes of hockey. It's where the game as we've come to know it today was developed into modern form and perfected. We know the Stanley Cup was first awarded in Canada in 1893, and that it took 24 years for it to cross the border before the 1917 Seattle Metropolitans hoisted it before American spectators for the first time.
The city of Montreal, Quebec IS hockey. Montreal is the very essence of the rich history of the National Hockey League and the Stanley Cup. Hockey had been played there since the late 1800's, after all, and in 1893, it was the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association that was awarded the first Stanley Cup on behalf of the affiliated Montreal Hockey Club. Montreal teams, in fact, won the Stanley Cup the first four times it was awarded, and 14 of the first 20 times it was awarded, back when no one knew what the hell to do with a Stanley's Cup. At one time, Montreal fielded at least five professional hockey teams. Today, the Canadiens remain. And that's important, because the Montreal Canadiens represent the tradition, excitement, history, and hell, the very definition of professional hockey.
The Canadiens - who are nicknamed the Habs, which is short for Les Habitants - are the only NHL team to predate the NHL. In 1909, an industrialist named Ambrose O'Brien was in Montreal to buy supplies for a railroad contract. Since he was from Renfrew, Ontario, the Renfrew Creamery Kings asked him to attend the meetings of the Eastern Canada Hockey Association because they needed a representative if they were going to join the league. The ECHA ultimately said no, but later that day it turned out to be a diddled bullet because the ECHA also decided to disband their league and form the Canadian Hockey Association. Why that weird move? They were pissed off at the Montreal Wanderers because the Wanderers had performed their namesake by moving to a smaller venue which didn't allow their visitors to take as much cash at the gate. The formation of the CHA was an effort to ditch them. In the hotel lobby where the meeting was held, O'Brien ran into Wanderers manager Jimmy Gardner ask asked "Hey, why don't the two of us get together and form a new league? It'll be the Wanderers, Renfrew, Cobalt, and Haileybury." Gardner's response? "I like that idea! But you know, maybe you should consider forming a club in Montreal for the francophone players there? It'll be a good rivalry, and great for profit!" The league that emerged from this meeting was the National Hockey Association, which was founded on December 2, 1909. Two days later, Le Club de Hockey Canadien was founded.
Team foundings must have been really fast back then, because just a month and a day later, the Canadiens took to the ice for their first game. Jack Laviolette coached them to a 7-6 victory over Cobalt in overtime before a sellout crowd. After the season, Club Athletique Canadien owner George Kennedy bitched about the name "Canadiens" belonging to HIS team. O'Brien, not looking for a fight, sold him the team, and that same year, the Habs adopted their famous red sweater with a horizontal blue stripe across the front. The Canadiens reached the playoffs for the first time in the 1914 season when they tied the Toronto Blueshirts for the league lead. Here's how stupidly professional hockey was operated back then: In order to decide the Champion of the Universe, the two teams played in a two-game series with the winner based on - get this! - total GOALS. While the Canadiens had the services of legendary goaltender Georges Vezina at the time and used him to shut out Toronto in the first game, Toronto returned the favor in the next game, and since Montreal had scored two goals against Toronto's six, they lost the series. Don't feel too bad for the Habs, though, because two years later they won the NHA Championship, which came in the form of something called the O'Brien Cup. Not only did they win the O'Brien Cup, but the O'Brien Cup victory catapulted them into their first Stanley Cup Final to face the Portland Rosebuds of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. The best of five series ran for all five games, and in the deciding game, Montreal's Goldie Prodgers scored the winning goal with under four minutes remaining. The Montreal Canadiens were Stanley Cup Champions for the first time.
By 1917, the NHA was shot because Blueshirts owner Eddie Livingstone was always fighting the other owners over rights to players. The other owners - especially Kennedy - wanted to vote Livingstone's contentious ass out! Unfortunately, the NHA constitution didn't allow that, so the answer to the problem was an easy one: They'd just create a whole new league, the National Hockey League, and not invite him! Yeah, league founding must have been VERY easy back then.
The Wanderers folded soon after a stadium collapse, but the Canadiens won the 1919 NHL Championship. They were scheduled to play a series against the PCHA Champion Seattle Metropolitans in the Stanley Cup Finals, but the season never got that far; the Finals were cancelled because of a nasty Spanish Flu outbreak. Kennedy's team was almost entirely bedridden, Kennedy tried to borrow players from the PCHA's Victoria Aristocrats, but PCHA president Frank Patrick put the clamps on that idea. Since there was no team left to field, Kennedy forfeited the Stanley Cup to Seattle. The Metropolitans did the sportsmanlike thing and turned it down because their coach, Pete Muldoon, didn't think it would be right to claim it just because his opponents had no team. Montreal's star defenseman, Joe Hall, died of the Spanish Flu on April 5, 1919.
One of the NHL's first superstars, Howie Morenz, made his debut in the 1924 season. Although the Habs finished the year second to the Ottawa Senators, they beat the Senators in the playoffs. In the Finals, they defeated the Calgary Tigers of the Western Canada Hockey League to win the Stanley Cup for the second time. They also opened their classic home arena, the Montreal Forum. They couldn't repeat the following season, so when they introduced a special jersey design celebrating it, it looked bad until they went on a playoff rampage, beating the Toronto St. Patricks. Their would-be championship opponents, the Hamilton Tigers, then refused to play a playoff series until they were paid extra. In response to that, NHL president Frank Calder suspended the whole team, declared Montreal the champs, and sent them west to play the WCHL's Victoria Cougars for the Stanley Cup. The Cougars won the series and the Cup. It was the last time a non-NHL team was ever awarded the Stanley Cup.
During the first game of the 1926 season, Georges Vezina collapsed. He had tuberculosis. He never played again, and died in 1926. In his honor, the Vezina Trophy was created to be given to the goalie who allowed the fewest goals in one season. In the 1928 season, Morenz became the first player to ever score 50 goals in one season. In the 1930 Stanley Cup Finals, Morenz became the first player to ever net more than one Stanley Cup-winning goal with a victory over the Boston Bruins.
During The Great Depression, the Habs suffered both in standings and attendance. They had to make ends meet by selling Morenz to the Chicago Black Hawks in 1934. Chicago won the Cup that year, and Montreal's pissed fans let their voices out on the season's last day when they gave Morenz a standing ovation when he scored against them. The sale didn't help, and the Canadians were sold by 1935, and their on-ice success reflected their instability when they finished last. Cecil Hart was hired to bring Montreal back to respectability, but he only agreed of they could get Morenz back. Although the Canadiens managed to do that - and Morenz was overjoyed - his return lasted less than a season. In 1937, he died of a coronary embolism induced during a game against Chicago in which his leg was broken in four places. Meanwhile, the Habs continued to act as a bottom step. Another tragic nadir happened in 1939 when Babe Siebert - who retired from playing that year and was automatically named coach after retiring - drowned before the season began. The decimated, devastated Habs only won ten games, and the team was so strapped that it considered at least suspending operations, at least for World War II. Instead, it was sold.
The Depression had forced three teams to shut down by now, and the New York Americans' time was on the clock. (They folded in 1942.) Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe viewed this all from afar, with increasing frustration. Maybe the Canadiens WERE his main rivals, but he would be damned if he let them fall out into the night! So in order to get people to see the Habs again, he went to Montreal's owners and told them about this one guy, Dick Irvin, who had coached his Leafs to seven Finals and a Cup in nine years. Hire him, Smythe said! Montreal took him up on the idea. By 1943, the war had wrecked rosters across the NHL. The Detroit Red Wings lost nine guys, the New York Rangers ten, the Leafs six. But Canadiens GM Tommy Gorman managed to ensure jobs in key war industries to keep players, so they only lost Ken Reardon. Their young phenom, Maurice Richard, tried to enlist but his medical history got him turned down.
Slowly but surely, Irvin turned the Canadiens around. In 1944, the Habs were finally champions again. In 1946, they won it again. Irvin won his third and final Montreal Stanley Cup in 1953. In the 40's, the Canadiens had fielded Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Toe Blake, and Elmer Lach. By 1950, Jean Beliveau had made his debut, and he was signed full-time a couple of years later. By now, the Canadiens were no longer some scrappers who had lucked out a few times. They had risen to become the class of the NHL, the epitome of on-ice greatness and off-ice professionalism. The were now the MONTREAL CANADIENS, the Canadian, NHL response to the New York Yankees. For the 1956 season, the long-retired Toe Blake was placed behind the bench to coach, and coached the hell out of the Habs. From 1956 to 1960, Montreal won the Stanley Cup every year. The 1960 Finals were Montreal's tenth straight appearance in the Finals. Richard retired in 1960, and the league was temporarily relieved when the Chicago Black Hawks broke Montreal's Cup streak in 1961.
The Habs weren't slowed down for very long. Starting in the 1965 season, they started off on what may be hockey's greatest dynastic tear: From 1965 to 1979, they won the Stanley Cup a whopping ten times! What made it even more impressive was that most of those titles came after expansions began in 1967. Their GM, Sam Pollock, is often considered the greatest GM in NHL history, and he was often quick to trade aging stars for draft picks. The Canadiens kicked off this dynasty in 1965, winning again in 1966. In 1967 - the last Final of the Original Six era - they returned to the Finals again, and Montreal was so confident about the Habs' victory because the Canadiens were such heavy favorites that the Expo '67 site even had a spot built for the Stanley Cup. The Leafs rose to the occasion and won the Cup.
Not that the Finals loss or the expansions mattered to Pollock. He was already hard at work drafting greats like Larry Robinson, Ken Dryden, and the immortal Guy Lafleur. In this era, pretty much everything just went Montreal's way. Coach Al MacNeil getting into juvenile spats with a bunch of his players? Fire his ass after one season, even though he won the Cup, and replace him with fucking Scotty Bowman! Soviet Red Army in town? Ended in a tie, which was fitting because the Red Army and Canadiens were, at the time, the two greatest hockey teams in the world. Down 4-3 in the 1979 semifinals with two minutes to go in the deciding game? Watch Bruins coach Don Cherry flip his shit and get penalized for sending too many players onto the ice, then let Lafleur do his thing on the power play! World Hockey Association setting itself up as a legitimate rival to the NHL? Hold onto your guys while they raid all the other teams! The 1977 Montreal Canadiens are often considered the greatest team in NHL history. They won 60 games on an 80-game schedule, lost just eight games - just once at home - and Guy Lafleur led the league in scoring while taking home the Hart, Lester B. Pearson, Art Ross, and Conn Smythe Trophies. Bowman got the Jack Adams Award, and Robinson took the Norris. Ken Dryden - who won the Vezina that year - said the Canadiens were so dominant that he was a little bored by the lack of competition.
Everyone was getting older, though, so Dryden and Yvan Cournoyer retired in 1979. Serge Savard was gone by 1981. Things weren't going badly, though. Lafleur still played, and produced several more good years. They picked up solid contributors like Mats Naslund and Guy Carbonneau, and Bob Gainey capably replaced Savard as Captain. They did screw up by using the 1980 entry draft to take Doug Wickenheiser, though. Wickenheiser struggled in the league, and was traded to the St. Louis Blues in the 1984 season. The guy taken immediately after him was projected star Denis Savard, who was a huge hit in Chicago, and whom everyone expected Montreal to take. He was a native, after all. Unfortunately, the team's fortunes WERE starting to take a noticeable dip, and the team's mystique had been hurt by straight playoff exists against upstart teams like the Minnesota North Stars, Edmonton Oilers, and Quebec Nordiques. In 1985, they did luck out and draft Patrick Roy, the greatest goaltender in history, and in his rookie season, he goaltended Montreal to Stanley Cup number 23 against the Calgary Flames. The two met in the Finals agin in 1989, and Calgary won. Over the 80's and 90's, the Canadiens were led by players like Roy, Claude Lemieux, Vincent Damphousse, Chris Chelios, and Petr Svoboda. For the 100th anniversary of the Stanley Cup, it returned to Montreal after a five-game Final against the Los Angeles Kings.
That closed the curtain on Montreal's hockey dominance. It's possible they might have a 25th Stanley Cup under their belt by now, or maybe more, but the entire era pretty much went up in flames on December 2, 1995. Those proverbial flames would be the ones coming out of Patrick Roy's ears that night after he had allowed nine goals on 26 shots by the second period. Montreal lost that game to Detroit 11-1, and Roy believed coach Mario Tremblay had deliberately left him in to be embarrassed. Upon getting to the bench, Roy swooshed by Tremblay and told team president Ronald Corey that it was his last game in Montreal. Four days later, Roy and a grab bag of other players were traded to the Colorado Avalanche, who won the Stanley Cup that very season. He would take Colorado to another Cup in 2001 before retiring in 2003. Montreal, meanwhile, is stuck in a lull. Since the 1993 Finals, they don't even have a Prince of Wales Trophy to show for any success. They've had highlights, like Jose Theodore winning the 2002 Hart Trophy and participating in the Heritage Classic in 2003, the first outdoor game in league history, and the one which resulted in the creation of what is now the Winter Classic. They went through what was, for them, a serious stretch of mediocrity. In 2010, they finally returned to the Conference Finals, but lost to the Philadelphia Flyers. Hopefully, though, that can be a success to build on.
Considering the history of the Montreal Canadiens, it's a hell of an honor to have your number retired by them. They've honored 17 players with 15 hanging numbers, and they're not schlumps, either. They're among hockey's great luminaries: Jacque Plante. Doug Harvey. Emile Bouchard. Jean Beliveau. Bernie Geoffrion. Howie Morenz. Maurice Richard. Guy Lafleur. Dickie Moore. Yvan Cournoyer. Henri Richard. Elmer Lach. Serge Savard. Larry Robinson. Bob Gainey. Ken Dryden. Patrick Roy. Morenz was hockey's first great superstar, the first player to score 50 goals in a season. Plante was the first player to ever regularly don a mask; he played his first NHL game in a mask in 1959, after taking one too many pucks to the face and getting fed up. Beliveau is the all-time leading scorer in playoff history. If you're into Hall of Fame numbers, over 50 Hall guys have played in Montreal.
Going back as far as they do, the Canadiens have rivalries against a lot of teams, most notably the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. If you're this successful, everyone wants a shot at you. Montreal has pretty much dominated through the bulk of this rivalry, although Boston is taking a late edge, winning seven of their last eleven playoff meetings dating back to 1988, and taking the Stanley Cup in 2011. In 1955, this rivalry caused the Richard Riot, and that's not hockey context for "riot" I'm using. In a game, Maurice Richard took a high stick from Boston's Hal Laycoe, opening a gash which required five stitches. The ref signaled a delayed penalty, and play kept going because the puck was still in Montreal's possession. When it ended, Richard skated up to Laycoe, and smacked him in the face with his stick. The linesmen tried to restrain him, but he kept breaking free to keep attacking. He broke his stick over an opponent's body, was restrained by linesman Cliff Thompson, and violently broke away to punch Thompson in the face, knocking him out. Then he left the ice with Montreal's trainer. Laycoe was punished hard with both a five-minute major and a ten-minute misconduct, and in the locker room, Boston Police tried to arrest Richard. They left him alone after the promise that the league would take care of it. There was a hearing before league president Clarence Campbell, and since Richard had slapped a ref in an earlier game against Toronto, you can guess how it went. Richard was suspended for the rest of the season. Montreal people didn't take it well, and accusations of racism flew because Richard was French-Canadian. After the hearing, Montreal played against Detroit in a game with first-place implications, but considering what happened, the game came off as almost secondary. Players and officials were worried about the too-sullen crowd. Campbell was at the game, and fans started pelting him. One fan attacked him, and soon afterward, someone set off a tear gas bomb. The Forum was evacuated, the game forfeited to the Red Wings, and the departing crowd joined some demonstrators outside The Forum. They smashed windows, attacked bystanders, overturned cars, and started fires.
The Montreal Canadiens have been one of the NHL's enduring symbols of class, tradition, and professionalism. Their logo and jersey are among the most recognizable in the league - red with a blue stripe for home, white with red shoulders for away. A C with an H in the middle. Many people believe the H stands for Les Habitants, the team's nickname, but it actually means hockey. This is perhaps the thing they're most associated with, along with how old they are, being the first NHL team, and being symbolic of everything professional hockey in Canada.
The Montreal Canadiens are one of my favorite teams. I grew up cheering for them because one of the first little league teams I played on was called the Canadiens, and our sponsor sent us team photos and trading cards and other nice little knickknacks. They basically made my teammates and I think of ourselves as an offshoot of the real Montreal Canadiens. And you know what? I still am a fan. To me, the Canadiens represent everything everything a band of professionals should be.
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Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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