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Hundreds of reasons to celebrate

Wednesday, 09.24.2008 / 9:00 AM / History

By Phil Coffey - Sr. Editorial Director

Few have come away from a Canadiens game in Montreal not taken aback by the sheer majesty of the franchise's accomplishments.

The Bell Centre, and the fabled Montreal Forum before it, are shrines to the accomplishments of a franchise that rivals the likes of the New York Yankees and Boston Celtics.

The 2008-09 season will be a season-long celebration of all things Canadien as the club marks its 100th season. NHL All-Star Weekend will be held at the Bell Centre, Jan. 24-25, 2009. In addition, the Entry Draft will be at Bell Centre on June 26-27, 2009. In addition, the team is planning a season's worth of celebrations to mark the centennial.

How important have the Canadiens been to hockey history? Well, a tour of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto includes an exact replica of the Habs' dressing room at the Forum, lovingly created to the last detail. Lining the walls in that room are photos of Montreal greats, a stunning array of talent that includes Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Doug Harvey, Jacques Plante, Larry Robinson and Bob Gainey among many, many others.

The famed passage from the World War I inspired poem "In Flanders Field" is an emotional reminder of the importance of hockey in Montreal.

"To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high"

In the rafters, first at the Forum and now the Bell Centre hang tangible examples of the Canadiens' excellence. Twenty-four Stanley Cup banners mark the accomplishments of the Canadiens, with the first win dating back to 1915-16 and the most recent, 1992-93.

Obviously, this is the text-book definition of a dynasty, but even within the overall greatness there are accomplishments that stand out. Between 1955 and 1960, the Canadiens won five-straight Cups, icing a roster that is a virtual wing of the Hall of Fame – Maurice Richard, Jacques Plante, Doug Harvey, Tom Johnson, Jean Beliveau, Bernie Geoffrion, Dickie Moore, Henri Richard and coach Toe Blake.

"The fans just expected us to do it every year. We did it for five straight, but lost out in the sixth. The fans weren't satisfied. We just couldn't win." -- Jean Beliveau

Frank Selke, a Hockey Hall of Famer, was general manager of the team. It was Selke who set up the farm system that provided the parent team with the talent it needed to win five Cups in-a-row.

Blake, another Hall of Famer, ruled the Canadiens with an iron fist and a velvet glove. And the Montreal fans kept the players on their toes too. Games in Montreal are "events", not games, so the fans always have demanded excellence.

"They were always critical of us," Beliveau said of the fans. "But we all accepted that as part of the job. I know that the late Rocket Richard felt that way. He always felt that no matter how he performed, he could always do better for them. And I think that's what he always tried to do.

"I think it was that way for some other players as well. We all knew that there was no other bottom line that the Stanley Cup. There is no doubt that playing in Montreal, there was a lot of pressure. The fans did get tough. Some nights, they're even worse. I might have scored three goals and people would ask 'why didn't you score four?' Another night I would score four and they would ask 'why didn't you score five?'

"It was the same way when we kept winning the Cup. The fans just expected us to do it every year. We did it for five straight, but lost out in the sixth. The fans weren't satisfied. We just couldn't win."

That demanding crucible produced a dynasty that many believe won't be seen again.

"I don't know if anyone will ever break our record of five straight Stanley Cup championships," Beliveau said. "I know it has been said that records are made to be broken, but with the NHL, the way it is set up today with free agency and all, it will be hard for one team to have a run at five straight Stanley Cups."

The classy Beliveau came to symbolize that segment of the Canadiens' dynasty. He was the first-line center for that Cup run. Then, the Canadiens played a fast, offensive style called "firewagon hockey" that often resulted in routs. It was common for the Canadiens to break open close games with four- and five-goal outbursts.

"The Canadiens of that time were known for our skating," Beliveau said. "We were a very good skating team and we were known as an offensive-minded team. We had the caliber of talented players to play that type of game. And we had quite a few of them. The offense was well supported when Doug Harvey was on defense and when you have great goaltending you can go all out."

Those Montreal teams were the best of the best for one of two reasons, depending on who you ask. Lots of people will tell you they were the class of the hockey world because they had the talent, which they did. But they also cared very much about each other, which is the backbone of any successful team. No matter what era you're talking about.

"It seems like yesterday," Henri Richard said. "We still act like kids. We were doing that when we were a little younger, late to early 30's I guess, but we're still the same. It's just another joke.

"I think it was just like a family," he said. "After the game we'd go out together and have a few beers and have fun. It went on for five years. I think that's life. You have to enjoy life and have fun. And I always said that having fun was playing hockey. It was a big joke. It's just fun. I say hockey, but any sport, I guess. Baseball, football, whatever."

Those Canadiens clubs traveled together by train. There were no cliques in the dressing room. The idea of one player going out on the town all alone was just something they didn't do. They were best friends on and off the ice, and that camaraderie helped to forge the greatest hockey dynasty we'll ever see.

“(Ralph Backstrom) played most of his career at center behind myself and Henri Richard. He could have been a star on many other teams. But he stayed with us. We really didn't make too many changes with players over that period of time. Once you made the team you were on it. It was tough for young players to make our team"
-- Hall of Famer, Jean Beliveau

"When we went on the road," Beliveau said, "I had my crew -- four per cab."

The Habe went on another run starting in 1964 and concluding in 1973, the Canadiens rattled off another six championships as players like Yvon Cournoyer, J.C. Tremblay, Serge Savard, Rejean Houle, Frank Mahovlich and John Ferguson starred.

Scotty Bowman produced the Canadiens' last dynasty that produced four-straight Cups between 1975 and 1979 with Guy Lapointe, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Jacques Lemaire, Steve Shutt and Ken Dryden playing leading roles.

Joining the banners are 14 more commemorating the numbers retired by the team, another legendary list that includes the likes of Guy Lafleur, Bernie Geoffrion, Howie Morenz, Yvan Cournoyer, Serge Savard and Ken Dryden. A 15th banner will be added this season as Patrick Roy will be so honored on Nov. 22, 2008.

The Canadiens have been blessed with an incredible array of talent over the course of their storied history, but a common thread through the years has been the importance of teamwork and team success over personal goals.

"Many players to put personal goals aside for team success," Beliveau said. "Like Ralph Backstrom. He played most of his career at center behind myself and Henri Richard. He could have been a star on many other teams. But he stayed with us. We really didn't make too many changes with players over that period of time. Once you made the team you were on it. It was tough for young players to make our team.

"I would say that our farm teams were almost as strong as we were at times. Many could have played in the NHL right away, but just couldn't break into our lineup."

Beliveau also pointed out that the Canadiens had a very strong defense, led by the legendary Doug Harvey on the blue line and anchored by Jacques Plante in the nets. Those strong points continued over the years with players like Robinson, Savard and Lapointe on defense and Gump Worsley and Ken Dryden on defense.

"Doug was the best defenseman I ever saw play the game," Beliveau said. "Nobody could control the game the way he did. He could slow things down or speed them up.

"Jacques was the best. He could do so many things well. He had a good glove hand and great reflexes. If there was a big game on the line, you could count on Jacques to come through."

And many others as well.

Quote of the Day

There's standards that this team is going to play to and there are expectations. We're going to hold these guys accountable to high standards.

— Coach Dave Lowry on Canada's junior team, the defending IIHF World Junior champions