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Canadiens are a part of Montreal's civic culture

Friday, 10.16.2009 / 5:00 PM / Off the Wall

By Evan Weiner - NHL.com Correspondent

"It is different in Montreal for sure. But you know something? It is like a football player in American cities or a baseball player. Hockey is the No. 1 sport in Canada, in Montreal, where the real major sport is hockey. So it is different from New York, which has basketball, baseball, football, two or three teams around each one of the leagues, so it is very different."
-- Rejean Houle

For the most part, the Montreal Canadiens' 100th anniversary celebration, which ends Dec. 4, is winding down. In 2008-09 there were many events, as Montreal hosted the All-Star Game and the Entry Draft. The city recently renamed a portion of De La Gauchetiere Street between Montagne and Peel Streets, Avenues des Canadiens de Montreal.

There is no New York Yankees Street in New York. Important to note since the Yankees and Canadiens share a similar history as champions, but the Yankees are not a way of life in New York. The Montreal Canadiens are a way of life in Montreal.

To honor the Habs, there also will be a monument in the city's Centennial Plaza that will acknowledge every player who ever put on the bleu, blanc et rouge jersey along with Habs coaches and general managers. The Canadiens are a major part of Montreal's cultural fabric, something that is not lost on Rejean Houle, who was drafted by the Habs in 1969 and was a member of five Stanley Cup teams in the 1970s.

Houle played junior hockey in the Montreal Forum as a member of the Montreal Junior Canadiens from 1967-69 and was familiar with the team while growing up in Quebec, but there is a big difference playing for the Junior Canadiens and coach Claude Ruel's Montreal Canadiens, or so he thought back in 1969.

"When I walked in (the Canadiens' dressing room) for the first time, I said, 'Hi Mr. Beliveau,' and he said, 'I am not Mr. Beliveau, I am Jean, I am your partner now. We are playing on the same line, we are teammates.' I won the first Cup with him in 1971. It was a big thrill," said Houle. "But for me, because I was playing with the Junior Canadiens, I was two years at the Forum, so I could see those guys before and meet them. They were always nice to meet. I was drafted in '69, played two years with the Junior Canadiens from '67-68, '68-69 and being able to win five Stanley Cups in the '70s was a great adventure for me."

Houle has been around Montreal for more than four decades, except for a brief stint with the World Hockey Association's Quebec Nordiques. He understands what hockey means in Montreal even if he sounds a little like Yogi Berra explaining life as a hockey player in a fishbowl.

"I would say to be a Montreal Canadiens hockey player, it is more than to be a hockey player," said Houle, who knows every move of every Canadiens player is scrutinized on and off the ice. "They (media and fans) know a lot. I would say the toughest job is the coach. He is in between the captain and the GM and he has to meet the media every day and he has to compose with 25 guys with all kinds of culture and all kinds of value. In Montreal everybody is a coach, also. So you are in front of 21,273 coaches. … But you know something? The fans in Montreal are great. They love their team and they are close to their team. It is a good thing.

"It is different in Montreal for sure. But you know something? It is like a football player in American cities or a baseball player. Hockey is the No. 1 sport in Canada, in Montreal, where the real major sport is hockey. So it is different from New York, which has basketball, baseball, football, two or three teams around each one of the leagues, so it is very different."

Houle's hockey life was shaped by a great number of Hall of Fame coaches, as well. He got to Montreal after Toe Blake retired, but that didn't mean he didn't get instruction from the legendary coach.

"I just missed Toe as a coach, but he was coming to the junior games," Houle said. "He was giving me some advice. The first Cup was with Al MacNeil, and of course, Scotty (Bowman)."

Rejean Houle still is with the Montreal Canadiens as an Ambassador and remains very active with the club. After playing 11 seasons with the club, he was GM from 1995-2000, and beside his ambassador role, he's the president of the team alumni association.

"I am a Canadien in my heart all the way, but I had to go there because (Canadiens General Manager) Sam (Pollock) didn't have enough money at the time, I guess we had problems with contracts. I went to the Quebec Nordiques for three years, they treated me very well there, they were the best franchise in the WHA at the time, but I came back to Montreal because my blood, everything for me is Montreal."

Even Molson is coming back after leaving the Canadiens for an eight-year period from 2001-09 after George Gillett purchased the majority share of the franchise in 2001. Members of the family have agreed to purchase the franchise from Gillett, pending League approval. The Molson family, led by brothers Senator Hartland de M. Molson and Thomas H. P. Molson first purchased the franchise from Senator Donat Raymond and Canadian Arena Vice President William Northey on Sept. 24, 1957.

The celebrations are winding down, but after the hoopla ends and the parties are over, Houle and all of his Montreal Canadiens teammates of the past 100 years still will enjoy the history of the franchise.

"It is great just to go in the room and see all the players that are members of the Hall of Fame," said Houle of his visits to the Canadiens' locker room in 2009. "Forty-four players who are member of the Hall of Fame and the builders, we are 54 -- it is something special."

The Canadiens are as much a part of Montreal as Mount Royal, so much so the franchise now has a street named after it, and every player, all 761 of them who played between 1909 and 2009, whether it is someone who played just one game for the team or Rocket Richard, will be immortalized by the city with their names inscribed on a monument. That is pretty heady stuff as cities usually remember those who died defending their city or their country or erect monuments to great leaders. But the Montreal Canadiens are more than just a hockey team in Montreal.


Quote of the Day

I didn't even know how to celebrate. I threw my hands up, they gave me a hug, so I guess that's all I needed.

— Sabres forward Tim Schaller on scoring his first NHL goal Sunday against the Bruins