MONTREAL - While the current members of the Montreal Canadiens have their sights set on January 1, 2016 and the annual Winter Classic, the Canadiens alumni - who will skate on the very same ice at Gillette Stadium - are equally excited.
Although the eyes of Canadiens fans will surely be glued to the screen when the Habs face the Bruins in the 2015-16 Winter Classic, a matchup featuring some of the biggest names in hockey history will take place just one day prior. On Thursday, December 31 2015, more than 40 former players and coaches are scheduled to take part in the 2016 NHL Winter Classic Alumni Game.
The man in charge of building the Canadiens lineup for the special occasion, Rejean Houle, has already completed his recruitment campaign. Despite the fact that the game will take place in the heart of the holiday season, Houle didn’t need to twist any arms to convince the former Habs to lace up their skates once more.
"New Year's Day is a bigger celebration than a Christmas party. It is a day that we spend with our friends and our family. For an event like the Alumni Game, I believe that it couldn’t have come at a better time because it'll be very festive,” noted Houle, the President of the Canadiens Alumni Association since 2000. “There were players who contacted me and offered me their services, and in some cases it was us who called them. We tried to get players representing the various decades. We also looked also at the level of seniority of the guys, the members of the Hall of Fame and former captains too. Together with Guy Carbonneau, we looked at everything and we have players of all ages, all decades and all levels.”
With help of the captain of the Habs 1993 Stanley Cup winning team, Houle has built a lineup that will bring together some of the biggest stars in Canadiens history. From Larry Robinson and Steve Shutt, to José Théodore and Alex Kovalev, and Mats Naslund and Éric Desjardins, fans of all ages will see many familiar faces on December 31, 2015. The Canadiens Alumni roster will also be coached by legends Jacques Demers, Yvan Cournoyer and Guy Lafleur in the throwback classic that has become ingrained in the tradition of the Winter Classic experience.
"We agreed to form fairly balanced teams as much as possible, to have a good mix of players of different ages. You also need big names in there. We will have four pairs of defensemen and four forward lines in the lineup," mentioned Houle, who has been in contact with his counterparts Rick Middleton and Bob Sweeney who are tasked with building the Bruins roster. “All of the guys know the significance of the Alumni Game. They know it is an important game for the NHL and they are aware that it is unlike any other. It is a on a much grander scale.”
Though some of the Canadiens alumni hung up their skates a long time ago, the many duels they’ve had against the Bruins over the years are still fresh in their memory. The rhythm and speed might be different during this friendly match, but the desire to prevail against their eternal rivals – especially in front of the Bruins faithful - will always remain the same.
"There's always something special at the Canadiens-Bruins games. The rivalry is so great because of its rich history and the two teams have faced off so many times in the playoffs, "says Houle, who won five Stanley Cups during his time in Montreal. "For the former players, the most important thing for them is not being humiliated. We hope it will be a close game. There might be nothing on the line but pride, but we hope to win!"
Hugo Fontaine is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Jared Ostroff.
Alumni rosters - 2016 NHL Winter Classic