On a Tuesday night in Montreal, people flock to a movie theatre on the corner of Ste Catherine and Atwater streets to see films at half the regular price. The deal attracts a lot of teens and young adults, many of whom are too young to remember when the building was the most famous in the city, aside from perhaps Notre-Dame Basilica.
Even before you walk through the doors there are reminders of its most famous occupants. For 72 years, the Montreal Forum was home to the Canadiens (and for a time their rivals the Montreal Maroons), winners of 24 Stanley Cups, commemorated by plaques engraved in the sidewalk. Entering the building, the team’s old centre ice logo is embedded in the polished floors and old seats line the corridors where movie-goers can relax before their film starts. An entire section of the stands is preserved along with a statue of a fan eternally excited by the action in front of him.
I saw my first game at the Forum in 1979 and my last in 1995, a relatively short period in the history of the franchise but one that framed the end of one great era and the beginning of a long period that marked their decline. Four games stand out as reminders of the significance of hockey in this city and the venue that bore witness to some of its finest moments.
November 22, 1979, Canadiens vs. Winnipeg Jets
The Canadiens entered the 1979-80 season with four consecutive Stanley Cup victories, looking to match the record of five held by the great Habs teams of the 1950’s. In the few months since their last parade, much had changed. Ken Dryden, Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire and coach Scotty Bowman were gone, while the NHL absorbed four teams from the defunct WHA – the Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and the Winnipeg Jets. The Nordiques became the Canadiens greatest rivals, while the Oilers brought with them future superstar, Wayne Gretzky.
On this night, the Jets rolled into town with another legend, 40-year-old Bobby Hull, whom Habs fans last saw in an NHL game in 1971. No longer the dangerous “Golden Jet”, a smiling Hull still delighted the fans in the warmup, taking many of his famous slapshots, and signing autographs.
The Canadiens won easily 7-0, and Hull was largely ineffective. In some respects, the game represented a passing of the torch. By the end of the season, Gretzky surpassed Guy Lafleur as the most exciting player in hockey and its most electrifying offensive threat, and Hull retired. By April their Stanley Cup winning streak was also broken as the Habs lost in the NHL quarterfinals to the Minnesota North Stars, four games to three. They would reach the Stanley Cup finals only twice in the next decade.
December 31, 1982, vs. Soviet Red Army
Three years later the Soviet Red Army faced the Canadiens in an exhibition game, a decade after the famous Summit Series of 1972. Many of their legendary stars had moved on, but Vladislav Tretiak, the goaltender who stunned both NHL players and the hockey world with his acrobatic play and cat-like reflexes, was still at his peak.
The Canadiens were now less of an imposing force in the NHL, taking a back seat to the Oilers and New York Islanders, who would match their streak of four consecutive cup victories that season. Lafleur was still their best scorer, but a shadow of his former self, and centre Doug Wickenheisier failed to live up to expectations after being selected by the Habs as the first overall pick of the 1980 draft. The team of legends Jacques Plante and Ken Dryden also lacked a star goaltender; Rick Wamsley and Richard Sevigny shared the duties and were often ineffective and unspectacular.
That night belonged to Tretiak who received a standing ovation as the Canadiens were shutout 5-0 — a further reminder of their inadequacies in goal. The stellar performances of Igor Larionov, Viacheslav Fetisov, and Vladimir Krutov also showcased the dominance of Russian players who would later bring their skills to the NHL.
December 31, 1983, vs. Quebec Nordiques
Current Habs fans love to discuss rivalries with the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, and to a lesser extent, the Ottawa Senators. While there have been many recent epic battles, especially with the Bruins in the playoffs, the period between 1979 and 1995, when they faced their provincial rivals the Quebec Nordiques, featured some of the most exciting games played at the old Forum. Led by Dale Hunter, Michel Goulet and Peter Stastny, the Nordiques were perennial playoff contenders and met the Canadiens five times in the postseason.
Trailing the Nordiques in the standings, the Canadiens overcame a 2-1 deficit to score three goals, including two by Ryan Walter, to win the game 4-2. The spirited match — both on the ice and in the stands — was a prelude to the famous “Good Friday Massacre”, when the Nordiques were eliminated by the Habs in a brawl-filled finale to the second round of the playoffs in April.
May 3, 1995, vs. Boston Bruins
I witnessed many exciting moments the following decade, but the last game of the 1994-95 lockout-shortened season was memorable as the first game I attended where a Canadiens team had already been eliminated from the playoffs. They had last failed to qualify for postseason action in 1970, so a quiet and subdued crowd watched them lose to the Boston Bruins 4-2.
In February, general manager Serge Savard dealt Eric Desjardins, Gilbert Dionne, and John LeClair to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Mark Recchi, a one-sided trade that foreshadowed the disastrous moves that would virtually ruin the franchise under his successor, Rejean Houle. The team stumbled, losing six straight games and falling out of playoff contention by March.
It was also the last season goaltender Patrick Roy would finish with the club, as he would be traded to the Colorado Avalanche the following season after a public dispute with coach Mario Tremblay and team president Ronald Corey.
The match turned out to be the last game I saw at the Forum, as my father’s health declined the following year and I focused on matters other than hockey. I remembered his anecdotes about standing in line for hours outside the original arena in 1937 to pay his final respects to the legendary Howie Morenz, who died suddenly that year. Six decades later I followed suit when Maurice “Rocket” Richard passed away and was honoured at the Molson (later the Bell) Centre in May 2000.
The Canadiens played their last game in their old arena against the Dallas Stars on March 11, 1996. The interior was demolished in 1998, making a commemorative service for Richard in his old hockey home impossible. It seemed fitting at the time as, like the Rocket, memories of the Montreal Forum belonged to another century.