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Canadiens alumni team stays busy on charity tour

Dandenault, Carbonneau among players helping to spread goodwill, raise money

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

POINTE-CLAIRE, Quebec -- For two hours on Friday, they were the Harlem Globetrotters on skates, complete with a scripted fake injury, a bucket of water poured over the heads of the home team and a shaving-cream pie in the face of an opponent who had the gall to actually score a goal.

Mathieu Dandenault, a three-time Stanley Cup champion, was the Meadowlark Lemon of the 11-man Montreal Canadiens alumni team, dipsy-doodling around the rink and playing to the packed stands, the scene missing just "Sweet Georgia Brown" as the soundtrack.

The Canadiens alumni team jammed suburban Montreal's Bob Birnie Arena in Pointe-Claire with 1,600 fans, unofficially the largest crowd in the building since it opened in 1965. Their opponent -- the Globetrotters' punching-bag Washington Generals -- was a team of beer-leaguers representing Nova West Island, a non-profit health-services organization that would enjoy a windfall of more than $35,000, including a silent auction and raffle that netted $6,000.

On one bench were 13 Stanley Cup titles, eight won in Canadiens jerseys, plus Dandenault's three with Detroit in 1997, 1998 and 2002, Guy Carbonneau's win with the Dallas Stars in 1999 and Stephane Richer's title with the New Jersey Devils in 1995.

That was 13 more championships than sat on the other bench, a valiant team that found itself up 2-0 early in the second period only after Carbonneau begged for a penalty, the punishment seeing the Canadiens stripped of their seven first-period goals. The final score was 12-6 for the alumni (19-6 with the seven goals restored), who are riding a winning streak roughly that of the Globetrotters.

On this night, the winning team included goalie Richard Sevigny, defensemen Marc-Andre Bergeron, Patrice Brisebois and Gaston Gingras, and forwards Pierre Dagenais, Sergio Momesso and Oleg Petrov, the team padded by three locals labelled "Thrill of A Lifetime" players. Coach Chris Nilan and assistant Rick Green pretty much just heckled their roster from behind the bench.

"It's not only hockey, you have to entertain as well," said Dandenault, who will play 30 to 40 alumni games a year as the team barnstorms across Canada. "People are paying to come see us and that money goes to charity. They want to see the skill but also the show, have a good laugh, and we're able to give them that."

Dandenault grew up in Sherbrooke, Quebec, about 100 miles southeast of Montreal, watching the Canadiens on "Hockey Night In Canada." But it was the Red Wings who would bring him into the NHL in the second round of the 1994 NHL Draft (No. 49).

"I accomplished so many goals at the same time," he said of being drafted by Detroit, winning three Stanley Cup titles under coach Scotty Bowman. "You finally get to the NHL, which is a dream come true for any player. Mix that with being a part of three championship teams, that's even more remarkable. You get to learn from so many great players. After, that's when you reflect on it. I was on a team with all these guys -- our 2002 team has 10 Hall of Famers. I go back to Detroit every year and do the fantasy camp there; it's always going back home in a way."

An unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2005, Dandenault probably took a so-called hometown discount to sign with the Canadiens, never before having had the chance to play in front of family and friends.

"To get to wear the jersey, play at the Bell Centre, was just awesome," he said. "To me, it's the best place to win, for sure. The loudness you can get in Montreal. And the craziness too, when you're not winning. It pushed me to stay motivated. Everybody knows their hockey. You can't take a shift off and that helped me. That can deter some players, you see some free agents who don't want to deal with all that stuff. But I truly enjoyed it. I just wish we could have won a Stanley Cup in Montreal."

Past a decade into retirement, Dandenault still enjoys the camaraderie of fellow players, those bonds unbreakable, new friendships forged as younger players join in. He is deeply involved in alumni activities, playing games and working Bell Center corporate suites during the season and making many off-ice appearances during the summer.

"You miss the game when you retire, but you really miss the dressing room," he said. "We still have fans who come out to cheer us. We put on a show, but you'll get some younger guys on the other team who can play and we still have to turn it on.

"We're obviously all way heavier than we used to be," he joked, which isn't true when you look at Carbonneau, Brisebois and especially Petrov. "But it's still about the smarts of the game, getting open, being with the guys, sharing the stories from different generations. That's the most fun."

Now an hour before warmup, Dandenault headed off to suit up. He scored two goals "and I don't know how many assists," he said later, no scoresheet kept, and an hour after the game, he and fellow Alumni were meeting fans while wolfing down pizza and subs and a brew to replenish burned calories. Their second game in two nights was scheduled for Saturday in Granby, 60 miles away, and not surprisingly, they won that one too.

"All over the country, alumni guys hear people, all different age groups, say, 'I watched you play. My mother was your fan. My grandmother liked you,' " he said with a laugh. "We're keeping the Canadiens brand strong. Not just the players, but everything around the organization. 

"Last weekend we were out in British Columbia playing to a packed house. In February and March, we'll be travelling out to Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Canadiens were a fan favorite when I played but to experience that now, it's really cool. And we raise a lot of money for charity, so it's a win-win for everyone."

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