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How the 100-year-old Habs brought together a divided city

Saturday, 11.28.2009 / 11:38 AM / News

The Canadian Press

MONTREAL - It was a meaningless mid-November game whose only memorable play occurred in the stands, yet decades later it still illustrates more than any Stanley Cup-winning heroics what the Montreal Canadiens have meant to their city.

It was Nov. 15, 1976, and turbulent political tides were rocking Quebec. The province would make international news that night by electing, for the first time, a separatist government.

Inside the old Montreal Forum, it was eerily silent.

The overhead scoreboard flashed election updates showing Rene Levesque's Parti Quebecois gaining seats, and spectators were subdued - some out of fear of unwelcome changes sweeping their way, others in anxious anticipation of dreams coming true.

Ken Dryden explains what happened next. Now a federal politician, Dryden was tending goal against the St. Louis Blues on that historic night, when even hockey's greatest cathedral found its pews rattled by the events stirring outside.

"In the middle of the third period, the message board flashed again - 'Un Nouveau Gouvernement.' No longer afraid to hope, thousands stood up and cheered and the organist played the PQ anthem," Dryden wrote in his acclaimed book, "The Game."

"And when they stood and cheered, thousands of others who had always stood and cheered with them stayed seated and did not cheer.

"At that moment, people who had sat together for many years in the tight community of season-ticket holders learned something about each other that they had not known before. The last few minutes of the game were very difficult. The mood in the Forum had changed."

On that night, the Forum became a little more like the world outside.

Montreal is a place traditionally divided by language, where two solitudes have lived in different neighbourhoods, listened to different music, watched different movies and TV shows and, as illustrated on that night in 1976, even longed to live in different countries.

But they share a hockey team. And given those 24 Stanley Cups, they have had many occasions to cheer together.

The city has changed drastically over the Canadiens' 100 years, an anniversary the team celebrates Dec. 4.

This modern, cosmopolitan, multilingual mishmash of a place can no longer be so neatly bisected into two traditional halves - with the English no longer confined to the enclave west of what they call St. Lawrence Boulevard, and the French to the east of what they call boulevard Saint-Laurent.

For a hint of that change, listen to the crowds. For decades, they chanted in only two languages: games began with fans singing in French, "Les Canadiens sont la" (The Canadiens are here), and they frequently ended with vanquished visitors being taunted in English as thousands crooned the chorus of the '60s tune, "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye."

Nowadays, the 21,000-member choir is not only bilingual - it's added a third language to its repertoire. Habs goals are regularly greeted with the Spanish soccer chant, "Ole-ole-ole." That imported cheer is now so popular in the city that it's occasionally heard at political rallies.

To one social scientist, the hockey team is like a religion shared by the entire city. In fact, he's a theology professor who teaches a university class on the subject.

"It has played a role as a unifier and social bond between Montrealers," said Olivier Bauer, who teaches at the Universite de Montreal.

"Its heritage is very mixed - just like Montreal."

The Canadiens have always been touted as a symbol of Quebecois pride, but that description barely scratches the surface of their story.

It ignores the thousands of Roman Catholic francophones who crammed into the Forum for the 1937 funeral of an Ontario Protestant, superstar Howie Morenz; the Anglos who chanted, "Guy! Guy! Guy!" when Guy Lafleur came bursting down the right wing, his trademark mane billowing behind him; those who egged on, in French, the flying fists of John Ferguson and Chris Nilan; and the varied backgrounds of the masses who showered Maurice Richard with an endless standing ovation on the night they closed the Forum.

Bauer says it was the Quebec Nordiques, when they existed, who were clearly Quebecois right down to the Fleur-de-lis on their blue uniforms. The Canadiens, in their red-white-blue, embodied the polyglot where they played.

Of course, history is never quite so tidy. As illustrated on that night in 1976, even in a house of hockey worship, politics will occasionally drift in to divide the most united congregation.

Recent Canadiens captain Saku Koivu drew scorn from local commentators for failing to learn French. Today, the near-total absence of Quebec players on the team is so lamented that even the trade of fourth-liner Guillaume Latendresse triggered polemical debates this week.

Then there was the Richard riot.

The events of March 17, 1955, are now viewed through the prism of politics - touted today as an early example of Quebec nationalism, with members of an aggrieved minority rising in revolt against Anglo oppression. In this case, the affront was a season-ending suspension handed down against the local hero by league boss Clarence Campbell.

Dickie Moore is still steaming about Richard's suspension, five-and-a-half decades later. He was on the ice when the Rocket punched a linesman and says it was an accident. He calls the severity of the subsequent punishment "ridiculous."

But what about the fans' reaction? Was that riot the start of Quebec's Quiet Revolution?

"Oh, come on," Moore said in an interview. The rampaging mob that tore apart Ste-Catherine Street that night, he said, included representatives of both official language groups.

"It was Canadiens fans. They worshipped the guy. So did we. We were being shellacked that night by Detroit and we didn't appreciate (the suspension). That's when they came down and threw the smoke bomb, and then all hell broke loose."

Moore grew up in Montreal and was such a devoted Canadien that once, upon learning he might be traded, he quit hockey for a year. He sat next to the Rocket in the locker room, and they would go fishing and hunting together.

Late in 1957-58, Moore broke his wrist and offered to sit out the season's final few games. He was gunning for the scoring title and so was Richard's brother, Henri. Moore feared he would hurt the team by playing with only one good wrist.

"Both the Richard brothers got up and said, 'No God damned way. You're staying with us,' " Moore recalled. He won the scoring title.

A francophone player from that era has a slightly different memory of the Richard riot. Effortlessly bilingual, renowned for his elegance on and off the ice, Jean Beliveau is the living, skating embodiment of the city's self-image. Although Jean Chretien once offered to name him governor general, he is also steadfastly apolitical.

He says linguistic grievances might have fuelled the events of 1955.

"Maybe the riot over Maurice might have started with that," Beliveau said in an interview. But, he hastens to add, it was pure harmony inside the dressing room.

"There were never any confrontations," Beliveau said. "There was no doubt - with my colleagues, we were good friends."

He said he's always believed that sports, in general, unites people. It's not exclusive to the Canadiens.

The Habs, however, repeatedly pushed people outside their comfort zones.

Countless Anglos insist on watching their hockey broadcasts in French because they prefer the animated play-by-play and hometown boosterism - even those Anglos who would otherwise never tune their radios or TVs to the language of Moliere.

For many francophones, a trip to the hockey game was the only time they ever ventured west into the heart of English Montreal.

The arenas themselves tell the city's story.

The old Forum lay a stone's throw from wealthy Westmount - near the homes of powerful families like the Molsons, Bronfmans, Mulroneys and Trudeaus, and an economic galaxy removed from the daily reality of the city's blue-collar fans.

Today the Forum is a megaplex movie theatre, across the street from a sushi restaurant and an old Catholic convent that is now Dawson College.

The team's previous home from 1920-26, the Mount Royal Arena, became a textile factory. When the city's textile industry died, it became a hub for clothes shipped from Asia. Today, it's a supermarket nestled between the countless cafes of the trendy Plateau neighbourhood.

The team's current home - the Bell Centre - sits sandwiched between new condo developments and the touristy string of bars and restaurants on Crescent and Bishop streets.

Bauer, the university professor, noticed a common theme about Montreal when he arrived several years ago from his native Switzerland. It was reflected at the hockey rink.

"I've noticed a difficulty to communicate," he said. "But there's a desire to live together."

It wasn't always so easy.

Dryden's book, "The Game," describes one of the sadder memories from his Stanley Cup-winning rookie season. It was October 1970, and he walked past Canadian military jeeps, soldiers and trucks, as they grabbed control of the city's downtown core.

Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau had just invoked the War Measures Act amid a wave of terrorism that included bombings, kidnappings and the murder of a Quebec cabinet minister.

Still, Dryden wrote, it was an exciting place to live. It was like being in a foreign city - with one key difference: he could still flip a channel, turn a page, or drive west a few blocks, and he was in English Canada again.

During his time in that city, Dryden won six Stanley Cups and played on what may have been the greatest hockey team ever assembled.

In that historic year for the province, 1976-77, the Canadiens set a league record with 60 wins, eight losses, 12 ties, and a whopping 132 points.

On the night the Parti Quebecois was elected, crowds of jubilant sovereigntists celebrated in the streets near the Forum and some, according to newspaper accounts at the time, chanted, "On les a eus" (We got them).

That same night countless Anglos planned their exodus from the city, petrified by the prospect of language laws, economic turbulence and an imminent battle for Quebec independence. Thousands left forever.

But in the Forum that night, the distracted locals still cheered as the Canadiens got a pair of early goals from Mario Tremblay and Yvan Cournoyer. They cheered again as Doug Risebrough and Steve Shutt netted a crucial pair later in the game.

The scoresheet from that night shows an ironic pattern in the assists: the Flying Frenchmen's early goals were set up by Larry Robinson, Pete Mahovlich, Murray Wilson and Risebrough. The Anglos got assists from Yvon Lambert, Pierre Bouchard, Rejean Houle and Serge Savard.

Things might have changed that night. But the Habs still won, 4-2.

Quote of the Day

Your team is going to want to recapture the feeling. What they're going to have to figure out is they're going to have to rewrite the story. Because you're going to rewrite the story doesn't mean you want a different end. It's just that you're going to have to learn that there's different challenges to get there, and if you're going to try and tap the same feeling, it ain't going to happen.

— Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi on maintaining their success from last season