It seemed long over-due. One calendar year, two seasons, countless jerseys, and a whole lot of expectations. Finally, after all the hoopla and media abuse, the centennial of the Montreal Canadiens was capped off with what could be one of the most chilling, nostalgic and purely magical moments in NHL history.
This may seem like a major overstatement. All of NHL history? That is a long time, and a lot of hockey lore to sort through, to get to that moment when Eddy Palchak dumped a bucket of pucks onto the ice. A simple task, but a fitting opening to what would become a historic few moments of legends come to life. Palchak was the equipment manager for the Habs for 31 years. He witnessed many Stanley Cup victories, dozens of Hall of Famers, and thousands of goals being scored on his ice for his team.
Suddenly the stage was set. Like perfectly crafted bait, the pucks lured the legends. Patrick Roy was first to step out onto the ice to a roaring, seemingly unsuspecting crowd. Everyone knew that the Canadiens would put together a truly magical evening to commemorate their 100 years. The shock wasn’t just the appearance of the likes of Roy, Guy Lafleur, or Steve Shutt, but that they emerged from the shadows in their equipment, sticks in hand and ready for a pre-game warm-up. Each legend skated their rounds, pushing pucks and taking gentle, yet well-aimed shots at the empty nets. Frank Mahovlich, Mats Naslund, and Bob Gainey took their turns: making rounds, waving to adoring, awe-ridden fans who were struggling to take in the collection of history that had amassed on the Bell Centre’s ice.
It was a moment that should be frozen in time. Generations of great Canadiens circling the ice, reliving the magic and soaking in the cheers. “OlÃ© OlÃ© OlÃ©!” became “Guy! Guy! Guy!” Whether those chants were for Lafleur, Lapointe or Carbonneau is uncertain, but the pure love and admiration that rained from the bleachers was as epic as the group of heroes that gathered to take one last skate.
As the siren sang to signal the end of the warm up, both Ken Dryden and Roy took on a few more shots from their former team-mates then skated off back into the shadows where their storied exploits exist today. Pucks from the ice were scooped up and tossed into the crowd, becoming instant treasures, joining the other relics these idols have created over their careers. And just like that, we were back in 2009.
Though the evening featured what seemed like a roll-call of Habs legends, the night truly belonged to Ã‰mile “Butch” Bouchard and Elmer Lach. Their jerseys were deservingly raised to the rafters to live amongst the other greats who define what it is to be a Canadien. In a touching moment reminiscent of Ray Bourque, Ryan O’Byrne shed his number three and gave it to Bouchard.
The ceremony was the final hurrah of what seemed like an eternity of celebrations. Ever since the massive Stanley Cup expectations of the 08-09 season, a parade of bad press, sub-par performances and more sweaters than can be found in Paris Hilton’s closet, the big shebang on Dec. 4 was just as much of a relief as it was a birthday bash. Exhale, it’s done, we can go back to playing hockey now.
With greatness around you, it’s hard not to be inspired. Case in point: a brilliant 5-1 victory over the historical rival Bruins. Hat trick included.
If there is one thing the Habs administration is good at, it is throwing a respectful, touching party. The centennial celebration was no exception. From Viggo Mortensen expressing his fondest admiration for the Habs and his hero Guy Lafleur, to my favourite moment- when Gordie Howe emerged holding the sweater of the fiery Maurice “Rocket” Richard. But the night was not all fireworks and glamour. It was about respect, homage and acknowledgement. The Habs exist along the same lines of baseball’s New York Yankees. A definite cut above the rest. An organization that oozes success and class. A brand that exceeds all the others, and exists beyond the league that houses it.
The Habs are not just a team, and this is what many fail to understand. It is alright to cheer for a team, but true Habs fans are part of a culture that goes beyond wins and losses on the ice. The appreciation of ideals like class, success, respect, and tradition- which were born and honed through the individuals who were honoured this night- sets the Canadiens apart from every other hockey team in the world. A religion? Absolutely. Every true Habs fan has their very own shrine full of towels, flags, hockey cards, and other memorabilia. If you still have any doubt, watch a Habs fan during any overtime. He or she will have the same kind of concentration any nun would have at Sunday mass.
Once the Bell Centre had cleared after the Habs picked up their two points- points they earned with the help of the ghosts of the Rocket, Jacques Plante and Howie Morenz- there was one aching spot that still needs to be addressed. On such a historic night littered with true Habs leaders, where was their current captain? I would have loved to see Saku Koivu posing in pictures with Jean Beliveau, Serge Savard and Larry Robinson, but alas, not all wishes can come true. But if you think about it, when the Habs celebrate their 125th anniversary, it will be Saku Koivu’s jersey being retired.
Most magical moment in NHL history? No doubt. Bravo les glorieux.