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NHL Centennial

Hockey now just memory at Montreal Forum

Iconic arena hosted final game 21 years ago Saturday

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- The end for NHL hockey in the historic Montreal Forum came March 11, 1996, with a 4-1 victory for the Montreal Canadiens against the Dallas Stars.

It was the 2,329th regular-season game played in the building at the corner of Ste. Catherine Street West and Atwater Avenue, with 307 more in the Stanley Cup Playoffs during the arena's seven-plus decades of hockey life. The Canadiens won 12 of their NHL-record 24 Stanley Cup championships at the magnificent ice palace built in 159 days at a cost of $1.5 million.

The Forum opened with great pomp and ceremony on Nov. 29, 1924, and for 72 years it was home to myriad events of sports, entertainment and politics. But it remained most famous for the Canadiens, which explains the tears of fans, arena staff and players past and present that began to flow almost at the sound of the final siren 21 years ago.

A sellout crowd of 17,959 cheered itself hoarse and wept its eyes a puffy red during an emotional closing ceremony that featured, on a long red carpet laid on the rink, many of the greatest Canadiens to ever lace up skates, among them 21 members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Jean Beliveau, Elmer Lach, Butch Bouchard, Henri Richard and Guy Lafleur were among those for whom the fans raised the roof. But it was for the iconic Maurice Richard, introduced last, that they saved their best.

Video: Memories: Montreal Forum closes its legendary doors

The crescendo was ear-splitting for Richard, considered the furnace in the belly of Canadiens teams of the 1940s and 1950s and arguably the most exciting player of his generation. Richard waved in salute to the fans as the relentless roar grew louder, raising both arms almost bashfully, as if to say, "That's enough," and yet the volume still grew.

Finally, long minutes after the ovation began, Richard pawed at eyes that couldn't contain their tears, a superstar overwhelmed by the love he was being shown by the fans, many of them sobbing, many too young to have seen him play.

The Canadiens weren't the Forum's original NHL tenant. That distinction was held by the 1924-25 Montreal Maroons. But without a good skating surface at their nearby, natural-ice Mount Royal Arena, and two years before they moved full-time into what would be their fourth home, the Canadiens were invited to open the Forum against the Toronto St. Patricks when the building was declared ready four days before the Maroons returned from a road trip.

During the Great Depression the Canadiens nearly folded and the arena almost was abandoned, with plans to transform it into a streetcar garage. But the team and the building survived to enjoy unparalleled success; the Forum was home to Canadiens dynasties in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

On March 11, 1937, 59 years to the day before the final Forum game, a funeral was held on the board-covered rink for Howie Morenz, the Canadiens' first superstar, who died several weeks after his left leg was broken during a Canadiens game at the Forum. It was the funeral of Morenz, with thousands in the arena and tens of thousands more lining the route to the cemetery, that gave birth to the notion of Forum ghosts, the unexplainable force that somehow turned the tide in favor of the home team during numerous games.

The arena was renovated and enlarged in 1949 and again in 1968. It welcomed royalty, the greatest names in politics and the finest musicians, boxers, tennis players, cyclists, professional wrestlers and circus and show-business acts. The world's best symphony orchestras filled the giant hall with their timeless music, as did the likes of the legendary Big Band leaders and performers such as Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Luciano Pavarotti, as well as any arena rock act worth its decibels.

The Beatles opened their 1964 North American indoor tour with a Sept. 8 date at the Forum. A year later, and again a year after that, the Rolling Stones appeared for concerts that dissolved into mayhem when the uncontrollable crowd stormed and practically ransacked the stage.

The Forum was the setting for the Canadiens' 3-3 tie against the Soviet Red Army on New Year's Eve 1975, three years after Canada lost 7-3 there to the Soviets to begin the landmark eight-game 1972 Summit Series. It also showcased 1976 Montreal Olympic gymnastics legend Nadia Comaneci and boxer Sugar Ray Leonard.

Seventy-two years less several months after beating the St. Patricks 7-1 in the curtain-raiser, the Canadiens defeated the Stars in the building's finale.

The Forum was stripped down after the Canadiens moved down the road to the ultramodern Molson (now Bell) Centre.

The old arena first was fashioned into a boxing arena by film director Brian De Palma for his 1998 thriller "Snake Eyes," starring Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise and Carla Gugino. It then was refurbished into an urban entertainment center, a sprawling facility that today houses retail and office space and part of a community college.

Though hockey has not been played at the Forum since 1996, the building remains rich with the history of the game, and much more.

Fans still visit the Forum to remember the Canadiens' greatest days, viewing the museum-worthy photo displays on an upper level, and a ground floor that is painted to resemble center ice when the building was a hockey shrine.

There remains a section of Forum stands made up of the arena's seats, a statue of Richard at its base. If you sit in those seats and close your eyes you can almost hear the chants of "Mau-rice! Mau-rice!" that rang through these walls 21 years ago Saturday, when hockey said goodbye to one of its grandest rinks.

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