A month ago, in the midst of their first six-game losing streak in 40 years, the Montreal Canadiens stopped in Winnipeg, where Coach Tom McVie of the Jets, about 1,000 fans and even the Zamboni driver appeared for the game wearing tuxedoes.
The idea was to make the Stanley Cup champions' first visit a formal occasion, but after the scorned Jets had outshot Montreal, 48-19, while posting a 6-2 victory, many observers accorded it the significance of a funeral.
A few days into the new year, the Canadiens were tied for second place in the Norris Division with Pittsburgh, while Los Angeles enjoyed the rarefied area of No. 1. More verbiage was expended on the decline of the Canadiens than on the fall of Joe Clark's government.
Suddenly, there has been a noticeable change in attitude. The Canadians not only lead the Norris Division as customary, but they are in fourth place overall and only Philadelphia appears to be out of reach for the regular-season title. The Canadians certainly have to be considered a factor in the Stanley Cup playoffs, when they go after a record-matching fifth straight title.
There are many reasons for the rocky course the Canadiens have traversed this season, but probably the most important has been shared with last year's other Stanley Cup finalist, the New York Rangers, and the team that finished first during the regular season, the New York Islanders.
Given the length of the schedule, 80 games, and the small percentage of playoff nonqualifiers, only five teams among 21, it is impossible, even in critical Montreal, for players on persennial winners to motivate themselves for a 100 percent effort each night. As a corollary, opponents such as Winnipeg psych themselves up for meetings with the champions.
"I think the caliber of teams is up through the whole league and I think that's why it's more difficult to shake a slump if you get in one," said Steve Shutt, Montreal's high-scoring left wing. "Before, when you were in a sag, there were a few teams you could look to as certain slump-enders. But there are fewer clubs now that you're certain of beating.
To imply that the Canadiens' perverse fortunes are totally a psychological matter would be ridiculous, however. There have been a number of incidents that have contributed to Montreal's decline as a superpower.
The foremost occurred 17 months ago, when General Manager Sam Pollock was replaced by Irving Grundman, a man attuned to making money but largely naive in the ways of the hockey wars.
Nine months ago, the Canadiens were shut out in their season finale at Detroit, while concentrating on Guy Lafleur's vain bid for the scoring title, and thereby lost overall regular-season honors to the New York Islanders.
Then, in May, it took an incredible extra-man penalty against Boston in the closing minutes of the seventh game of the semifinals for the Canadiens to regroup and capture a fourth straight Cup.
In August, Coach Scotty Bowman, miffed because he had not been promoted to general manager, departed for Buffalo with the comment, "I respect Irving Grundman, but not for his hockey ability." At the same time, Al MacNeil, the personnel director, left for Atlanta.
Ken Dryden, unappreciated by Montreal fans, hung up his goalie pads and returned to his law books. Center Jacques Lemaire, weary of ducking high sticks while referees counted knits and purls, opted for the less strenuous hockey practices in Switzerland.
In a surprise move, Bernie Geoffrion was hired as Bowman's replacement. Where Bowman had elicited maximum effort through threats of exile to the hinterlands, Geoffrion tried to be a nice guy. It was an approach doomed to failure. The players walked all over him and even Claude Buel the assistant held over from the Bowman era, sounded off to the Boomer. b
Lafleur, the perennial MVP, accused Ruel of interfering with Geoffrion's conduct of affairs. It became a cause celebre in an area where hockey transcends even the separatist movement.
"If he (Ruel) wants to coach, let him go behind the bench," Lafleur said. "If not, then let Bernard do what he wants. Bernard is getting advise from here and there and he doesn't know where to turn."
Geoffrion, 15 pounds lighter, eventually resigned and conceded that "I couldn't motivate them anymore. Those guys probably were treated like dirt by Scotty (Bowman). Maybe they loved being treated like dirt, but I couldn't do it."
Geoffrion was especially critical of Serge Savard, the team's new captain and the winner of the 1979 Masterton Trophy for "perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey." Geoffrion questioned Savard's dedication by saying, "I thought Savard would have helped me, but he's more interested in his horses."
A Montreal columnist was even more derogatory. He said Savard was skating as if he was carrying one of his trotters on his back. The fact that Savard was 20 minutes later for a practice session was cited as a symptom for the breakdown in team discipline.
Savard retaliated after a home-ice tie with Hartford by commenting on 51-year-old Gordie Howe, "He didn't show me anything new. All the guys on our club had been playing like 51-year-old grandfathers."
Ruel took over behind the bench and for a while the Canadiens continued to slide. It was an exhibition game that finally ended the sniping and brought the Canadiens back together.
On New Year's Eve, the Central Red Army club came to Montreal for the game that had been expected to settle bragging rights for the world championship. Now with the Canadiens slipping, nobody knew what to expect, Montreal dominated the Soviets and won, 4-2. At last the players understood what was happening.
"Because we were playing the Russians, it shouldn't be the only time we block the middle, pick up checks and skate hard," Doug Risenbrough said afterward.
Bob Gainey, the outstanding player against the Soviets, noted that "at one time our intensity was down to no minutes per game. It has kind of turned into a snowball for us and it was going downhill. Now at least we are on the other side of it and we have stopped it. Our team was at the point where the players were close to jumping up with the excuse, 'Well, I guess this isn't our year.'"
Lafleur, the hardest worker in hockey, observed that "the talent was there, but maybe the desire was not. A few guys were not in shape. The Black Aces, as we call them (the fringe players), used to skate half an hour after the practice. This year, I don't think anybody really worked hard after practice. It was a matter of discipline. It wasn't as tough as it used to be.
"Claude has tried to get us back on the right track. He has been helping everybody. I don't think there is animosity between Claudie and myself. I didn't say what I did about him to give Claude hell. I thought I was right."
Whatever, Ruel is behind the bench and the Canadiens are winning again. Next time in Winnipeg the natives won't be wearing tuxedoes. And they probably won't be celebrating a victory over the Canadiens, either.