They are down in the standings and perhaps destined to be out of the playoffs, but the Montreal Canadiens are still royalty, which is why their rare visit to the United Center Wednesday night seemed so special. And so retro.
Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
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Thankfully, by virtue of NHL realignment effective next season, every team will play each of 29 opponents at least twice—once at home, once on the road—during the regular season. To your ancient historian, that feels better than the current system. Les Habitants hadn’t appeared here since October of 2009, too long an absence. Progress has levied a heavy cost on the Original Six era, when teams growled at each other 14 times, followed by playoffs that invariably exacerbated contempt built up over a winter of familiarity.
If old Chicago Stadium was a madhouse, the bygone Montreal Forum was a cathedral, a shrine. Goalie Corey Crawford, a 5-1 winner Wednesday night and first star in his first start since December 5, was raised on a steady diet of Canadiens. There is no other way in the province of Quebec.
“The Habs were life back when I was a kid up there,” he said. “That’s what everybody did. Watched hockey and talked hockey. My dad took me to a few games in the Forum. Seeing that logo tonight brings back memories.”
Les Habitants exude history, pedigree, tradition. To wit:
- The franchise was established in 1909, thus predating the NHL, and is the longest existing professional hockey team.
- The Canadiens have claimed 24 Stanley Cups, including their most recent in 1993, also the last by a team based in Canada.
- There are 61 members of the Canadiens enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, either as players or builders.
- The Canadiens have 15 retired numbers, including two mothballed for two different legends: No. 12 for Dickie Moore and Yvan Cournoyer; No. 16 for Henri Richard and Elmer Lach.
Le Bleu Blanc Rouge is to hockey what the New York Yankees are to baseball, and the Boston Celtics to basketball. The Canadiens were so dominant that they effected changes in league policy. Until the 1956-57 season, a player incurring a minor penalty had to serve two minutes, regardless of how many goals his team surrendered while shorthanded. Les Habitants feasted often on more than one, so the “Montreal Rule” came into existence. A player sitting out an infraction can return when his side is scored upon.
The Blackhawks and Canadiens have met 17 times in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the first in 1930, yet not since 1976, for a total of 81 games—virtually an entire season. The Blackhawks eliminated Montreal in 1934 and 1938, en route to their first two Stanley Cups, then lost a final series to the Canadiens in 1944. Montreal won the next four series against Chicago, leading up to 1961, when the Canadiens were overwhelming favorites to annex an unprecedented sixth consecutive title.
The Blackhawks were just beginning to emerge from the dark ages with Glenn Hall in goal and a couple of precocious twentysomethings—Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita—energizing the roster and the city. Also on board was Ab McDonald, whom the Blackhawks had acquired from Montreal. He brought with him a shiny ring and a blunt message few in Chicago could believe.
“Ab kind of took me under his wing,” recalls Mikita. “And I remember him saying before our series against them…’Stan, we can beat the Canadiens.’ They had finished way ahead of us in first place during the regular season. We were in third. I was just a kid, so when Ab spoke, I listened. He was confident.”
The teams split the first two games. In Game 3 at the Stadium, Murray Balfour scored for the Blackhawks at 52:12 of the third overtime. Toe Blake, Montreal’s legendary coach, already was on record as accusing the Blackhawks of rough-house tactics. When they won that classic, 2-1, Blake stormed from the visitors’ bench and took a swing at referee Dalton McArthur. Blake was fined $2,000, big money in those days. The Canadiens won Game 4 by a count of 5-2, to regain home ice advantage and, presumably, some momentum. Little did the Habs know that they would not score again. Hall blanked them in the next two games, and the Blackhawks registered a monumental upset.
“That was only the first series,” Mikita says. “But there was no doubt in our room that we were going to win the next one too. Which we did. We beat Detroit in six games and won the Cup.”
Ten years later, as is their wont, Les Canadiens avenged. The Blackhawks won the first two games of the 1971 finals at home, lost two in Montreal, then split the next pair to set up a nationally-televised Game 7 at the Stadium on a warm night in mid-May. The Blackhawks gained a 2-0 lead and had multiple opportunities to make it 3-0; for example, Hull clanked a drive against the pipe behind goalie Ken Dryden.
Alas, the proud Canadiens rallied to tie it, 2-2. Then Richard, who earlier in the series blasted Al MacNeil as “the worst coach I ever played for,” won it for Montreal, 3-2, dancing around the Chicago defense. How good was Dryden? He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the postseason, then the Calder Trophy the next season as best rookie in the NHL.
In 1973, with Hull gone to the World Hockey Association, the Blackhawks made it to the finals again and appeared doomed after falling behind, 3-1 in games. The Forum was ripe for a celebration, but the Blackhawks won 8-7 in Game 5, one of the wildest games in Cup annals.
“You had two Hall of Fame goalies, Ken Dryden and Tony Esposito,” recalled Montreal coach Scotty Bowman. “And neither could stop a beachball.”
The Canadiens, however, won Game 6 in Chicago to complete their fifth finals victory over the Blackhawks in as many attempts.
The Canadiens swept the undermanned Blackhawks in the 1976 quarterfinals, their last playoff encounter. In 2010, it appeared they might relive old times when the Blackhawks won their conference and the Canadiens were in their conference finals. They lost to Philadelphia, and now are trying to exit last place in the Northeast division.
The Flying Frenchmen aren’t what they used to be, or what they will be again, but you didn’t bother looking at the standings Wednesday night. There were five Montreal players wearing numbers in the 70s, and even if none is destined to be retired, that sweater stands for hockey aristocracy.