MONTREAL - To see the skates worn by goaltending legend Georges Vezina nearly 100 years ago or a game-worn Howie Morenz jersey from the 1930s used to require a trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
But at the Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame, which opens to the public on Saturday, those same items and hundreds of other pieces of memorabilia from the NHL's oldest and most successful club can now been seen through a side entrance of the team's own rink, the Bell Centre.
Team president Pierre Boivin said the goal in having their own museum was not to compete with the Hockey Hall of Fame, but to help fans "connect" with the team. In fact, the Hall in Toronto collaborated with the team on the project and provided some of the artifacts on display.
Boivin called it the "icing on the cake" of the team's 100th anniversary celebrations.
"We wanted to make sure there was a legacy for years to come," he said. "We've had this project in our hearts for a long time."
Boivin and vice-president Ray Lalonde, accompanied by former players Serge Savard, Yvan Cournoyer and Rejean Houle, led the media on a tour of the Hall, which was completed just before the team's 100th birthday on Dec. 4, but didn't have staff and other details in place in time to open to the public.
Visitors enter into a space with a floor painted to look like centre ice at the old Montreal Forum, with a dome overhead covered in pictures of the 54 players and builders the team has sent to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Down some stairs is a wall done up like the old Forum's Atwater Street facade, but in front are life-size mannequins of current Canadiens players celebrating a goal. The net in the display is the one used for the final game at the Forum in 1996.
There is also a replica of the Canadiens dressing room from its dynasty days in the 1970s, with players jerseys from Savard and Cournoyer to goalie Ken Dryden and superstar Guy Lafleur hung up at their seats.
There is a rail car from earlier days showing how players travelled in the days before charter flights became commonplace.
But mostly, there are glassed in displays with all-manner of nostalgic items.
There is a battered set of pads with the chest protector used by goalie Bill Durnan in the 1940s, the leather cap 1920s star Aurel Joliat wore during games, the crutches Morenz used just before he died tragically in hospital after breaking his leg in 1937, and a faded woolen game-worn jersey from 1912 - five years before the NHL was formed.
Full sets of gear are displayed from greats like Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Jean Beliveau and Dickie Moore to more modern players.
There is even the puck Yvon Lambert scored the game-winning goal with in Montreal's come-from-behind victory over coach Don Cherry's Boston Bruins in Game 7 of 1979 semifinals.
Many of the rare artifacts came from Montreal collector Allan Rubin, including hundreds of hockey cards in pristine condition, some going back to the Canadiens first season in 1909-10. Former players donated other pieces.
It is not all Canadiens memorabilia. There are some of Wayne Gretzky's sticks, pucks and jerseys, and artifacts from rivals like the Bruins, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Philadelphia Flyers.
Another large display came as the result of the club's appeal to fans for Canadiens-related souvenirs, from plastic discs with player pictures, to old table hockey games, game programs and a Cornflakes box featuring the team's 1993 Stanley Cup triumph.
A theme throughout the Hall is to have all eras are covered in each display, so there is plenty of recent stuff as well to appeal to young fans who don't remember the club's glory years.
And there are interactive displays, including one in which Beliveau, shown on a screen, can answer questions from visitors.
"We felt that over the course of 100 years there have been so many accomplishments and some of the legendary moments in hockey belong to the Montreal Canadiens, so it was fitting for us as we complete the centennial to have a place in the building where fans can experience that history," said Lalonde.
Tickets cost $10 for adult and $7 for children and seniors. Fans with a ticket for that night's game get in for $5.
The Canadiens have feted their centennial by wearing vintage-style jerseys in games and retiring the numbers of a handful of their past greats. They also had the street in front of their arena named after them, where they had a plaza built with statues of legendary players.