-- Much has changed in Montreal since Peter Mahovlich
was a member of the famed Canadiens teams of the 1970s. New players, including many Europeans, now compete in the Bell Centre instead of the fabled Forum, under a different coach than Scotty Bowman and a different general manager than Sam Pollack.
Still, as much as things change, they remain the same in Montreal, where the Canadiens are the centerpiece of a frenzied fandom's devotion and knowledge. The interest in the Canadiens boarders on the obsessive.
And Mahovlich wouldn't have it any other way.
"There's no better city to play in," said Mahovlich, who spent the better part of 10 years playing in Montreal, first for the AHL's Voyageurs, then for the NHL's Canadiens. "There's passion, and the city itself, the people there have a great capacity for life; they get engrossed with the hockey, and it's part of their heritage its who they are. You have pockets of it in different sports, with the Yankees in New York perhaps, but it doesn't compare to Montreal and hockey."
The passion has helped make the Canadiens the NHL's winningest franchise Mahovlich believes. The fans play a role because they live and die with the team, and as he says, there is no more knowledgeable fan base in sports.
"I don't think (there is)," he said. "They're knowledgeable, plus the fact that it's pretty intense, and when you’ve had so much success and expectations are so high, it breeds more success."
Mahovlich was in Montreal for All-Star Weekend and got him thinking about his experiences as an NHL All-Star. He was selected for the NHL All-Star Game in both 1971 and 1976, in Boston and Philadelphia, respectively, after emerging as a special player on a team full of special players.
But don't press Mahovlich to admit it he was special. He'll tell you, instead, that he was "lucky" to make those two All-Star teams. This, from a 6-foot-5, 210-pound left winger who scored 288 goals and 916 points in only 884 games and won four Stanley Cups along the way.
"The game in Boston I remember, my brother ("The Big M", Frank Mahovlich) and I were on the same team and the score was 2-1, and it was a pretty competitive game," "The Little M" remembered.
The experience of playing with one's brother in an NHL All-Star game is pretty difficult to top, but Peter may just have done just that in 1976.
"During the 1976 game in Philadelphia, I happened to win the MVP," he said.
It was a game that held a certain significance for Mahovlich and the rest of the Canadiens, since the Flyers were defending Cup champs. Mahovlich and the rest of the Canadiens weren't about to let any opportunity slip by, no matter how small, to remind the Flyers they would have competition for that title come springtime.
"Philly had won the Cup twice, and the building and the fans had a reputation," Mahovlich said. "A lot of the Philadelphia players were on one side and we wanted to try, we wanted to win. It was (Guy Lafleur
), (Guy Lapointe
), (Larry Robinson
), (Steve Shutt) and myself from Montreal, and on the other side were the Flyers. I thought it was a pretty competitive game. And I think the score ended up 7-5 and I had a goal and three assists."
On that Campbell Conference team, the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Philadelphia Flyers
sent a total of six players: forward Bill Barber
, Reggie Leach, Rick MacLeish, defenders Andre Dupont
and Jimmy Watson, and netminder Wayne Stephenson.
Six players from the defending Stanley Cup Champions, and five from Montreal, yes, bragging rights were on the line, after all, these teams would go on to meet in the Stanley Cup Final that season. Montreal would go on to end the Flyers' reign of terror and begin their own: a run of four consecutive Stanley Cups, the Canadiens' third, fourth, fifth, and sixth of the 1970s.
Having spent time on such a powerhouse team, one could forgive Mahovlich for believing that none of the current players could've skated with the legendary Canadiens. But Mahovlich has kept his pulse on the NHL since his retirement. As a matter of fact, he remains in the game to this day as a professional scout with the Atlanta Thrashers
"I work with the Atlanta Thrashers
, their pro scouting which encompasses most of the teams in the northeast as well as their pro teams in the AHL; 12 teams in the NHL, and another 12, 14 teams in the AHL. I've coached a couple years, but the scouting end of it, it keeps me involved, I really enjoy it, it gives me an opportunity to see old friends from time to time."
Does he watch much hockey then?
"Only at nights," he laughs.
It also allows him to maintain his connection to the game and to its players. So does what he sees on a nightly basis stack up with the legends of old?
"No question about it," he said. "First of all, right off the bat, Ilya Kovalchuk
can score at any time. Guys like (Alex) Ovechkin, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Sidney) Crosby; they all would've been a good player anywhere. You can go on, take guys like (Rick) Nash, Dany Heatley
; they're all good players. Jarome Iginla
, and Mats Sundin
has been a great player for years, but never had the opportunity to play on a great team. And (Niklas) Lidstrom, he could skate backwards back then just as well as now."
One of the main similarities Mahovlich sees in both today's players and his peers is the love of the game, playing for the sheer fun of it.
"You can tell," Mahovlich said. "Last year, how much passion did (Kovalchuk) have representing Russia (at the World Championships) and beating Canada in the final? These are guys that really, truly love to play the game. When they score a goal, they're excited, and they want to do it again. That's why they come to the rink."
Just like Mahovlich did during his heyday with the Canadiens.