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A great Forum of entertainment

Canadiens bid farewell to historic home 20 years ago Friday

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / NHL.com Columnist/Historian

Montreal Forum closes

Montreal Forum closes; Maurice Richard's epic ovation

Mar 11, 1996: HOFers aplenty graced the ceremonies; beloved Canadien Maurice Richard received a 16-minute, goosebump-inducing standing ovation

  • 01:32 •

MONTREAL - The fans were on their feet as one, as emotionally drained as the legends standing proud if a little shivery-legged on Montreal Forum ice.

Twenty years ago Friday night, a sellout crowd of 17,959 cheered itself hoarse as the NHL curtain fell on a 72-year-old hockey arena, a building of much more than mere bricks and mortar.

Every one of the Montreal Canadiens icons, standing on red carpet that spanned the rink and stretched nearly its length, had been boisterously celebrated.

But now the noise soared to a crescendo for Maurice "Rocket" Richard, considered the furnace in the belly of Canadiens teams of the 1940s and '50s.

Richard would wave in salute to the fans as the relentless roar grew louder. He raised both arms almost bashfully, as if to say, "That's enough." And yet the volume still grew.

Finally, long minutes after the ovation began, the Rocket couldn't hold back his tears. He pawed at his eyes, by now overwhelmed by the love he was being shown by these fans, some of them also in tears, many too young to have ever seen him play.

Richard forever said he was "only a hockey player," unwilling to be placed on a pedestal that suggested he was something greater than that, a man without the taste for being a role model or a standard-bearer in a politically charged time.

But the Rocket was so much more to Montreal and to the province of Quebec; he was very much a part of the fabric of a society and its people. The incredible salute to Richard, and to 21 other Hall of Famers - Jean Béliveau, Elmer Lach, Butch Bouchard, Henri Richard and Guy Lafleur were among the all-time greats - was the dramatic end of the Forum's hockey life, the building playing host to its final NHL game on March 11, 1996.

The Canadiens defeated the visiting Dallas Stars 4-1, an anticlimax if a perfect bookend to the home team's 7-1 victory over the Toronto St. Patricks on Nov. 29, 1924, the first game skated on Forum ice.

There were 2,329 regular-season NHL games played in the arena, another 307 in the playoffs.

The Canadiens won 12 of their NHL-record 24 Stanley Cup championships on Forum ice, 22 of them earned while calling this Ste. Catherine Street address their home.

In 1937, a funeral was held on the board-covered rink for Howie Morenz, the team's first superstar, who died six weeks after having suffered a broken leg during a Forum game. It was the funeral of Morenz, thousands in the arena and tens of thousands lining the route to the cemetery, that gave birth to the notion of Forum ghosts that somehow usually turned the tide of a game the Canadiens' way.

 To paraphrase former Boston Bruins general manager Harry Sinden about the arena, Bruins teams beaten by Montreal in 18 consecutive playoff series between 1946-87: "Death, taxes and the Canadiens given the first power-play."

During the Great Depression, the Canadiens franchise nearly folded and the Forum almost was abandoned to become a streetcar garage. But both soldiered on to enjoy unparalleled success, the Canadiens flourishing with dynasties in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, their arena renovated and enlarged in 1949 and again in 1968 while 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 Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Pavarotti.

It was in the Forum that the NHL's longest game took place, a six-overtime playoff match on March 24-25, 1936 between the Maroons and Detroit Red Wings that ended at 2:25 a.m. on the winner by Detroit's Mud Bruneteau.

The hardy souls who stayed to the end sat or reclined in the stands reading "bulldog" edition morning newspapers that featured reports of the game they were still watching.

The Forum, inside and out, witnessed the historic 1955 Richard Riot, fans trashing much of downtown Montreal in reaction to the suspension of the Rocket that deprived the Canadiens and their supporters of their hero following his violent outburst in Boston a few nights earlier.

The Beatles would open their 1964 North American indoor tour with a Sept. 8, 1964 date at the Forum. A year later, and 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 arena would showcase 1976 Olympic icons Nadia Comaneci and Sugar Ray Leonard; it was home ice for the Canadiens' remarkable 3-3 tie against the Soviet Red Army on New Year's Eve 1975, three years after Team Canada was clobbered 7-3 by the Soviets to stunningly begin the landmark eight-game 1972 Summit Series.

 "It is a building that has been shaken with applause," iconic Montreal sportswriter Red Fisher wrote 20 years ago on Friday, the Forum's closing just hours away.

Incredibly, Fisher's first game of the 55 years he would be on the Canadiens beat was March 17, 1955 - the Richard Riot.

"The thunder of stamping feet has sent tremors through its walls," he wrote. "Careers have been born, lived and died here. Reputations have been made and destroyed."

Built in just 159 days in 1924 for $1.5 million, the Forum was erected on the grounds of a once huge, open-air facility of the same name, the world's largest at the time. It would become one of hockey's greatest buildings, the game's most famous if you consider the success of its prime tenant.

On Friday, fans, tourists and the merely curious will wander into the Forum, as they do in a steady stream, many unaware of the 20-year anniversary of the last NHL game there.

The building was stripped down after the Canadiens pulled up stakes and in the mid-1990s was designed by director Brian De Palma into a boxing arena for his 1998 thriller Snake Eyes, starring Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinese and Carla Gugino.

It then was refurbished into an urban entertainment centre, a 500,000-plus square foot facility that today houses a cineplex, a sports bar and bowling alley, retail space, a health club and part of a community college.

Again, the Forum is undergoing a transformation with major aesthetic changes and new retailers incoming. The floor of the complex is painted to resemble center ice when the building was a hockey arena, complete with a section of stands made up of Forum seats and a nearby statue of Rocket Richard.

With the Canadiens having last summer closed their museum at the Bell Centre, the Forum and its nod to the building's rich, Canadiens-centric lore remains the best place in Montreal to remember the team's glory days and the many remarkable events that took place on this city block.

Alas, it seems the Forum's influential ghosts chose not to make the March 1996 move with the Canadiens to their current home, the team this spring marking 23 long years since their last Stanley Cup victory.

Instead, the spirits might have retired to the rafters of the Forum, their good work done. If that's so, they might now be restfully recalling all the incredible history here, capped by the unforgettable night of both joy and melancholy under this roof 20 years ago.

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