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Montreal Forum made great first impression

In 1924, Canadiens' new home was a winner right from the start

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist/Historian

MONTREAL -- The day would dawn cloudy, the Montreal Gazette's front page predicted, and wind-swept flurries were expected by evening. 

It was Nov. 29, 1924, and Montreal was electric in anticipation of its splendid new arena, the Forum, whose doors would swing open on this night for the first time. Bordered by Ste. Catherine St. West on the south, St. Luke Street (now de Maisonneuve) on the north, and Closse Street and Atwater Avenue on the east and west, the modern-day wonder had newspaper writers dropping adjectives like the names of so many society-column debutantes.

Erected at a cost of $1.5 million, the Forum rose in just 159 days as a home for the NHL's expansion Montreal Professional Hockey Club (to be known as the Montreal Maroons the following year), its concrete poured on the site of a magnificent open-air roller-skating palace. But it was the Canadiens, without ice at their Mount Royal Arena, who were invited to open the Forum against the Toronto St. Patricks when it was declared ready four days before its prime tenant returned from the road.

And what a formidable lineup wearing the Canadiens sweater this November night: Georges Vézina in goal, with Sprague Cleghorn and Billy Coutu on defense. Howie Morenz centering Aurèle Joliat and Billy Boucher, three linemates who averaged 145 pounds. At substitute: Sylvio Mantha, Odie Cleghorn, John Matz, René Lafleur and René (Bobby) Joliat -- Aurèle's younger brother.

The Forum would be the fourth home rink for the Canadiens, who had played out of the Westmount, Jubilee and Mount Royal arenas.

In 1926 they would leave the Mount Royal for good and move into the Forum, where they would flourish for 70 uninterrupted years until they packed their skates, jerseys and glorious history into the bags they hauled a few blocks southeast to the $230 million Molson (now Bell) Centre.

That was on March 11, 1996, 20 years ago Friday.

"A more up-to-date building for sporting events could hardly be imagined," The Gazette enthused upon the Forum's grand opening. 

"With the absence of promenade seats, the boxes are much more accessible, while their occupants are not subjected to having their view obstructed by those who occupy promenade seats standing when a rush is made down the ice.

"This arrangement also eliminates discomfort to the players, who have been frequently ragged and aggravated until they would lose their tempers, which results in arguments between spectators and players."

The Forum was packed on opening night -- 8,500 were in attendance by some accounts, an overflow 12,000 by others. Extra ticket takers were pressed into emergency service when surging crowds bottlenecked at the turnstiles, and each fan was given a commemorative program for the price of admission: $2.25 for a box seat, $1.50 for the unreserved amphitheatre, $1 for the circle, 50 cents for general admission.

The Canadiens had a unique look -- their familiar "CH" appeared only on their sleeves, a large globe instead sewn on the front of their wool sweaters to symbolize the team's 1923-24 Stanley Cup world championship, its second overall.

Boucher scored the historic first goal, beating St. Pats goalie John Ross Roach 55 seconds into the 30-game season. Boucher would add two more before the game was 22 minutes old, and the Canadiens would cruise to a 7-1 victory.

Joliat scored twice and Morenz and Mantha had the other Montreal goals; Toronto's Jack Adams, the future Detroit Red Wings manager and coach, would spoil Vézina's shutout bid 3:05 into the second period with "a fast ankle-high drive that saved the Irish from the whitewash."

According to Montreal Herald sports editor Elmer Ferguson, the home team's "engine started just where it had left off. When the throttle was thrown open, a mighty machine leaped and pulsated into the humming, strumming throb of unleashed power -- and the Canadiens, model 1924-25, roared off on their way."

The arena's refrigeration equipment proved no match for the heat in the building, and soon the ice resembled a shiny pond in spring. Yet players, columnists and spectators marveled at hockey's new downtown address, its paint barely dry, the exterior still not complete.

Slushy ice mattered little on this magical night in Montreal. The Maroons would win the Stanley Cup twice before folding in 1938, losers to the Canadiens in a protracted battle for a city's support, and from the rafters of the Forum, the Canadiens eventually would hang 24 championship banners, the first won in 1916 in the pre-NHL National Hockey Association.

It was late on Nov. 29, 1924 when Montrealers spilled out of the Forum into the snow-dusted streets, at once thrilled by the play of their boys and excited by the prospects of the campaign ahead. The Canadiens won the NHL title that season, Joliat leading the way with 29 goals and 11 assists in 24 games, but lost the Cup, dropping it to the Pacific Coast Hockey Association's Victoria Cougars.

But with its wonderful new centerpiece, hockey in Montreal was forever changed. The Forum would be a shrine of the sport for more than seven decades, until it slipped quietly into NHL retirement -- 20 years ago Friday. 

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