In a season that has seen the New Jersey Devils humble the Montreal Canadiens and the demolition of the famed Toe Blake's Tavern, Hab fans will accept any solace they can get, which of late has been precious little. Les Glorieux carried a far from glorious record of 25 wins, 24 losses and three
ties into last week’s all-star break. Still worse, in symbolic terms, the team that the rest of Canada once called the Flying Frenchmen produced only one player—Swedish import Mats Naslund—for last Tuesday’s all-star extravaganza. Such players as Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and Steve Shutt, who were at one time automatic all-star selections, stayed home, uninvited. That, coupled with the fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs had only one allstar, their captain, Rick Vaive, last week offered telling reminders of how far the National Hockey League’s most famous franchises have plummeted.
The fall has been hard and sudden in Montreal, where residents withstood the flight of business for years with the maxim that Toronto “would trade 10 head offices for just one of our Stanley Cups.” As recently as the 1978-1979 season, when the Canadiens won their fourth consecutive Cup, there seemed every reason to believe that the still-young team would remain strong for years. But a series of front-office changes, ill-ad-
vised trades and the almost overnight burnout of Lafleur have diminished the team’s performance to the point that last month the team hired a boxing trainer to improve pugilistic skills.
Beleaguered head coach Bob Berry, who confessed that he does not “blame the fans for booing,” was roundly heckled himself earlier this month by 12,000 children attending a Canadiens practice. Some patrons at the Montreal Forum, despite their reputation as connoisseurs of hockey, have become graceless in defeat after defeat. The team, mired in 10th place in the overall standings and fourth in its division, is not even
first in the hearts of Quebec’s first couple: Premier René Lévesque recently confessed that he and his wife, Corinne, prefer the Nordiques of Quebec City.
It is now considered a truism in Montreal that the Canadiens’ troubles began on Sept. 6,1978, when General Manager Sam Pollock resigned and did not designate coach Scotty Bowman as his successor. Pollock’s choice, Irving
Grundman, made a series of poor draft choices and a disastrous trade with the Washington Capitals last season. The deal sent Canadiens defencemen Brian Engblom and Rod Langway and forwards Craig Laughlin and Doug Jarvis to the Capitals in exchange for centre Ryan Walter and defenceman Rick Green. Langway went on to be chosen the league’s best defenceman, while Walter has been a disappointment, and the injury-prone Green has not played a game yet this season.
Perhaps the Canadiens’ worst sin in the eyes of their fans, however, is that the team is not merely ordinary but
downright boring as well. They are 11th in the league in goal scoring, and the team’s leading scorer, Bobby Smith, acquired in a trade this season from the Minnesota North Stars, was tied for 35th place overall at the all-star break with 24 goals and 31 assists. At the break Lafleur had 20 goals and 24 assists. And although he has given up his hedonistic lifestyle and cut back on his
pack-a-day cigarette habit, Lafleur, 32, has slowed noticeably. Edmonton Oiler Wayne Gretzky had 61 goals and 94 assists.
In Toronto, as has been the case in too many recent years, most of the excitement surrounding the Leafs takes place off the ice. Owner Harold Ballard banned all Globe and Mail sportswriters from Maple Leaf Gardens’ pressbox after one writer had a row with coach Mike Nykoluk, and then, amid expectations that Ballard would fire Nykoluk because of his team’s 18th-place standing, he announced “there’s no damn way” he would do so. But the Leafs, with the NHL’s worst goals-against average, remained as strong as ever at the cash register. After a record-setting profit of nearly $3 million for the fiscal year 1983, Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. reported six-month earnings for the period ended Nov. 30 of $1,671,316. But even the chance to gloat at the misfortunes of the Leafs was not enough to appease Montreal sports fans, who have already had to tolerate the Argonauts’ winning the
Grey Cup this year. Despite a recent modest winning streak, many fans feel let down personally by the Canadiens. A 3-to-l loss at home in December to the Devils, the league’s worst team, brought frustration to a boil. Said one fan, John Howlett, 27: “When all else failed, we had the Canadiens. Now we don’t seem to have anything to brag about anymore.” The loss to the Devils came only weeks after the closure of Toe Blake’s Tavern, the beer hall that the former Canadiens coach owned and that once was called hockey’s “unofficial head office.” The building gave way to a shopping centre, severing another link with a glorious past. &t;£>
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