MONTREAL -- They stowed away overnight on Jan. 21, 1966, in the Montreal Forum, making off in the morning with the Detroit Red Wings' entire inventory of game sweaters, red and white.
The caper would lead to a kidnapped bear allegedly wearing Gordie Howe's No. 9, Forum security and Montreal police left red-faced in embarrassment, a roundup of the thieves when they had the gall four nights later to run onto arena ice wearing their stolen sweaters and charges finally being dropped.
Sadly, decades before camera phones would chronicle the minutiae of every-day life, decent photos of the adventure don't seem to exist.
Wearing borrowed lookalike Red Wings sweaters frantically flown in from their junior team in Hamilton, Ontario, Detroit defeated the Montreal Canadiens 3-0 at the Forum on Jan. 22, 1966. The outcome was only part of a wonderful, bizarre tale that, almost needless to say, involved university students, a winter carnival and, more than likely, liquid refreshment.
The story began two nights earlier (and probably some time before that) in the fertile imaginations of students from the University of Montreal's physical-education program.
On Jan. 20, the Red Wings defeated the Canadiens 5-2 at the Olympia in Detroit, then came to Montreal for a rematch Jan. 22. In between at the Forum, old-timers teams representing Quebec and comprised mostly of former Canadiens, took on a Red Wings alumni team that for two periods included the participation of current Detroit star Howe.
A capacity crowd of more than 15,000 packed the Forum to see Canadiens icon Maurice Richard, six years retired, score the tying goal against Detroit goalie Harry Lumley with 2:17 to play and Ken Reardon get the winner with 1:16 remaining for a 6-5 Quebec victory.
Among the fans were some four dozen University of Montreal students, who were on a mission. It was winter carnival week in the city, with a prize to be awarded for the most unique acquisition in an extracurricular scavenger hunt.
Deliciously, the award was offered by Molson's Brewery, long a stakeholder in the Canadiens and their home arena.
With students fanned out around town, a large group attended the old-timers' game, then managed to elude less-than-airtight Forum security to hide in the arena overnight. They went to work under cover of darkness.
Procured were all of the Red Wings' jerseys, but that was just the tip of their iceberg. Also collected were three valuable paintings off Forum walls; elsewhere, students harvested two fully loaded brewery trucks, a city truck, a pilgrim's bus from the famed St. Joseph's Oratory, the seizing of a hearse (empty, happily) and its driver, a six-foot painting of Queen Elizabeth lifted from a Montreal hotel bearing the monarch's name, a radio station's news cruiser and, from a small downtown zoo, a bear which allegedly became an ursine Mr. Hockey for a spell.
The Red Wings noticed their sweaters missing the morning of their Jan. 22 game, so they urgently had junior-team jerseys flown in from Hamilton. Angry, they pulled them on and defeated their hosts 3-0 on the strength of goalie Roger Crozier's seventh shutout of the season, a game-winning goal by Paul Henderson, and second-period goals by Ron Murphy and Howe, the latter still unhappy about having been held off the old-timers' scoresheet the previous night.
It wasn't the first time the Red Wings had to scramble for equipment in Montreal. On Dec. 27, 1952, goalie Glenn Hall, 21, made his NHL debut at the Forum when called up from the farm team in Edmonton to fill in for injured Terry Sawchuk. Unfortunately, Hall's equipment failed to catch his pre-dawn flight to Montreal from Saskatchewan the day before, and he was forced to play his first NHL game wearing skates, pads and gloves borrowed from Red Wings trainer and practice goalie Lefty Wilson. Hall played brilliantly on what he said were "rotten skates, as dull as a butter knife," making 32 saves in a 2-2 tie.
It didn't matter that the Red Wings were wearing junior-team hand-me-downs at the Forum that night in 1966. One sportswriter suggested, "As far as the Canadiens were concerned, it's too bad that thieves didn't take Detroit's skates."
The students might have got away with their prank had they not gone to the Forum for the Canadiens game four nights later, a 4-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. They jumped on the ice at the final siren wearing the sweaters which the victimized team had valued at $20 each.
Still humiliated by the theft, Forum security and Montreal police rounded up the thieves and proudly hauled them off, charging them with theft and telling anyone who would listen that they could face as much as 10 years in jail.
The Canadiens said they fully intended to press charges against the 33 who were nabbed, saying they hoped the Red Wings would do likewise.
The students' names, ages and addresses appeared in a Montreal newspaper on Jan. 27, which probably was a badge of honor, behind a grainy front-page snapshot of two male students with 17-year-old carnival queen Suzanne Dupras, who was photographed modelling Howe's jersey before or after the bear had worn it.
In the end, neither the Canadiens nor Red Wings pursued the matter when the undamaged goods were returned. All 33 pranksters were acquitted 13 months later, no criminal intent proven, though a judge scolded in particular the ringleader, a second-year law student.
"You are all future leaders in physical education," the judge said. "I must ask myself what kind of educators you will turn out to be."
The bear, its No. 9 Red Wings jersey removed, had been returned to its home in the zoo to resume its life as it should have.
As a bruin.