One night in the spring of 1979, some guys from Montreal’s Nôtre Dame de Grace district gathered at a downtown nightclub to mark the upcoming nuptials of a friend by drinking lots of beer. Ranging in age from 20 to 60, all were avid hockey fans. For that reason, the best man took particular heat: the stag night he had chosen coincided with a Canadiens playoff game, and there was no TV in the bar. Despite all the complaints—and guests dashing out to check the score— the best man was unabashed. “You guys will thank me yet,” he kept saying. “Just wait.” Sure enough, about half an hour after the game ended—with a Flabs win—the door opened, and a small, squat man rolled in to gasps of astonishment. It was Scotty Bowman, their legendary coach, and for the next two hours he regaled everyone with anecdotes and remarkably frank assessments of his team.
Many of those present that night still recall what Bowman said—but to repeat his remarks would violate the spirit of the evening, not to mention Bowman’s confidences. He was a friend of the groom—they had grown up together—and Bowman wanted to pay his respects. And while on one level Bowman inspired awe, everyone recognized him as one of their own. “Geez,” said someone at night’s end, “maybe we could ask him around to the tavern.”
That never happened, but in NDG—a neighbourhood of middle-class homes mixed with more downtrodden mean streets—brushes with greatness weren’t uncommon then. NDG has produced a lot of tough, talented players, and one
Hockey’s golden era, Ken Dryden says, was whenever you were 12 years old
of the best then was a son of Doug Harvey. That meant you could see the greatest defenceman of his era watching his teenage boy play at the local rink (later renamed Doug Harvey Arena) and, if you were lucky, hear him tell stories later over a beer. Sometimes, when NDG played teams in the city’s north end, Maurice Richard would show up. He had a grandson playing, and the two immortals would nod to each other, then move to far ends of the rink, divided by familial allegiances.
In NDG, Sam Pollock, the Habs’ legendary general manager, lived in a nice but modest home not far from the rink: some people remembered when he used to organize softball tournaments. John Ferguson, the retired but still terrifying hard-rock winger, was an occasional arena visitor. If anyone wanted a Habs player to attend the annual sports banquet, they got on the phone to the Canadiens’ front office—and vice-president Jean Beliveau would often attend to things personally. On weekends during the summer, Henri Richard played doubles at NDG’s Monkland Tennis Club, and for several years, Ken Dryden and his family lived nearby.
It’s tempting to think of that period in the late 1970s, with four straight Stanley Cups, as hockey’s peak period in Montreal. It was around that time that Jean Drapeau, the longtime mayor, announced after a Stanley Cup win one year that the celebratory parade would be held on “the usual route.” But any descent into nostalgia brings to mind an observation Dryden once made. Asked what he thought was hockey’s golden era, he answered that it was whenever
you were 12 years old: players from that time loom largest in memory.
Still, it’s true that the Canadiens’ achievements then were daunting: in the 1976-1977 season, they lost fewer than 10 games on their way to another Cup. But what stands out even more in retrospect is how approachable the players were. Even in the 1970s, by which time the salary spiral had begun in other sports, a lunch-bucket mentality still prevailed in hockey: the income of players wasn’t that far removed from that of their fans. Players lived in the city year-round, stayed after retirement, and stars like Dryden, Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson made the effort to become fluent in French.
Those days now seem even rosier in reminiscence. It’s a cliché that the great Montreal teams prospered with a fairly equal mix of anglophones and francophones. They were the Habs in English, les Glorieux or the bleu, blanc, rouge in French, and awe-inspiring in any language. That image of linguistic harmony is largely—but not completely—accurate. Real old-timers recall the Montreal Maroons, the Canadiens’ arch-rivals from 1924—when they were founded— until 1938, when they folded. The Maroons were English Montreal’s team, while francophones favoured the Habs. Even in the 1980s, teams representing mostly Anglo NDG in inter-district competition were called the Maroons, in a direct nod to that past. And, as Dryden recounted in his seminal 1983 book, The Game, there was often an undercurrent of linguistic tension in the Canadiens’ dressing room. Fans of both language groups used to debate whether Anglo or francophone players were facing subtle discrimination—though such discussions usually vanished at playoff time.
These days, you don’t find that debate around the Canadiens—or any other emotion, save embarrassment and frustration. The players live in rented condos and apartments around town, and, when the season ends, most leave. In other days, the Habs were part of the fabric of Montreal: they excelled even as the city seemed in decline. Now, Montreal is prospering economically, but the hockey team needs life support. And the worst thing, for those who remember past grandeur? Around Doug Harvey Arena, few people care. E3
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