Henri Richard welcomed a visitor to his tavern here and recommended for lunch one of his Specialities Quebecois: Toutiere, a meat pie with beans and meatballs. "It's homemade," he said. "Delicious. Good French Canadian cooking."
Richard, now 45, played on 11 Stanley Cup championships, more than anyone in history. Reminders of his illustrious career with the Montreal Canadiens are all around the Brasserie Henri Richard, a lively pub with a big hockey clientele, especially on Saturday nights when the Canadiens are playing in the Forum a couple of miles away.
A black and white mural of the proprietor adorns one wall. A display case contains skates, stick and Richard's old home and away sweaters, No. 16, in Montreal's fabled bleu, blanc et rouge. Everywhere are photographs, plagues, trophies, keepsakes of the days when the Canadiens were almost perennial world champions, the pride and passion of Quebec Province. In legend, fact and nickname, Les Glorieux.
Richard, silver-haried, trim and fit, draws himself a mug of Molson lager. Molson Breweries now owns the Canadiens, as the Molson family did when Henri was playing. How influential a fugure was he? One time when Coach Al MacNeil benched him, precipitating a brief feud, French Canadians were so indignant that sales of Molson's plummeted throughout Quebec.
Richard smiles when reminded of this affair.
"That was 1971. Over there is a picture of me scoring the winning goal against Chicago to win the Stanley cup that year," he said, pointing to the wall near the bar. "Al became coach in the middle of the season. I knew him. We played together. Anyway, he didn't play me in a game in Chicago. I was so mad, I went in the dressing room and didn't want to talk to anybody, but the reporters kept asking me. Finally I said, 'That MacNeil is the worst . . . coach I ever played for.'
"The next day it was all over the radio, TV, the front page of the papers. I didn't really mean it, but I was angry. The seventh game he he played me, and we won, 3-2. I got an assist on the first goal, and scored the tying and winning goals. I was lucky. I could have been a bum, but I was a hero."
Did French Canadians really boycott Molson's to protest his sit-down?
"It's possible," Richard said, eyes atwinkle.
And what happened to MacNeil?
"He lost his job because of that," shrugged Richard. "They fired him and brought in Scotty Bowman. I felt bad, because Al was a nice guy, and not that bad of a coach. But he should have played me."
Such was the stature of a Canadien star in the rarefied days of the six-team National Hockey League. When Richard's older brother, Maurice -- the storied "Rocket," scorer of 50 goals, a full-fledged god in Quebec -- was suspended under emotional circumstances in 1955, the action precipitated a riot.
The Forum was the most exciting place in Quebec in those days; a seat at the shrine was a badge of status. The standing room, known as the millionaires section to its blue-collar inhabitants decked out in the team colors, was just far enough from the ice to seem like heaven; it had a special espirit, the faithful chanting, "Les Canadiens Sont La," an adaptation of an old song that they turned into a kind of local hymn. Every French Canadian lad old enough to tie his skates dreamed of playing for Les Canadiens, who skated like zephyrs and played hockey with inimitable flair.
"Some of the older guys think they were born too soon because they didn't have a chance at the big salaries there are today, but I never regretted that -- "never," said Henri Richard. "Being happy is more important than making money. We had something special that maybe the players today don't have. Everybody knew us and cared for us, so you can only be happy with that. Eleven Stanley Cups for Montreal. What could be better?"
The Canadiens always were extrodinary beyond their 21 Stanley Cups (eight more than any other team, a record surpassed in professional sports only by the 22 World Series triumphs of the New York Yankees). They have been a family: the proudest, most elegant and tightest-knit clan on ice.
That is not to say they were always French. Frank Selke Sr., who was to become a patriarch of the dynasty, was an electrician in Toronto when Conn Smythe recruited him to work for the Maple Leafs in 1929. Hector (Toe) Blake, the high-scoring "old lamplighter" in his playing days, later coach extraordinaire, was of English descent. So were the great defensemen Doug Harvey and many others who played alongside the Richards, Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Jacques Plante and so many other notable Frenchmen. They bonded together, the French and English players on the Canadiens, in a way Canada could have used as a model.
Richard attends game infrequently now. He respects the best modern players but is disturbed by trends he has watched take over hockey. He misses the ardor, the fiery fanaticism of the six-team NHL, when rivalries were intense, the talent thick as maple syrup and the competition just as sweet.
"There are so many teams now, and they don't play each other often enough," he says, echoing a familiar Canadien theme. "The quality of the game went down with expansion, but it has picked up again. The problem is, you don't see the other teams enough to know them. We used to play each team 14 times. You'd play back to back, home and home, Saturday and Sunday. If you had a grudge against somebody, you knew the next night you were after the guy. The fans knew it, too.
"Today, all the players are thinking about is money. They know what the other guy is making, and they want to make more. I think that's what professional hockey has become. When the Czechs and Russians came to Canada, those were the most interesting games I ever saw. But the National League today, it's all individual. As long as they get their goals, their money, that's it. Hockey has to be a team game.
"The same thing with juniors. I went to some junior games two or three years ago, and they just shoot the puck and fight. Even before the game started, they were fighting, which is crazy."
Richard stays in shape playing tennis three times a week, and is in the middle of a boom in Canadian old-timer (over 35) hockey. He plays for a team that is 75 percent former Canadiens, and loves it. Last year he played 45 games with his former teammates. Brother Maurice, 59, goes along as feferee. A traveling reunion on skates.
"It's a lot of fun, without any pressure. No body cheats, no slap shots, so we're trying to pass the puck around the way the game should be played," Henri says. "It's interesting hockey. Everywhere we go, people know us. They cheer for the old Canadiens. It's quite something, the old-timers."
To appreciate what the Canadiens have meant to Quebec, it is necessary to realize that the province was 80 percent French-speaking before recent laws made French the official language. There are five pages each of Desjardins and Bouchards in the Montreal phone book, 10 pages of Tremblays, twice as many Gagnons as Smiths and Joneses combined.
"For many years, going all the way back to the Plains of Abraham, when the English came up here and whacked the hell out of the French in that battle, French people were second-class citizens in this province," says Red Fisher, who covered the Canadiens for 25 years for the Montreal Star until that paper folded, and is now sports editor of the Montreal Gazette.
"They were the 80 percent majority, but the other 20 percent ran the joint. The English were No. 1 and the French No. 2 in all facets of life, except for the Montreal Canadiens -- the 'Flying Frenchmen,' as they were called. They were the best hockey team, and since they had so many French stars (before the current draft system was implemented in 1967, the Canadiens automatically had the rights to the best two French Canadian junior players every year), the team always had a French identity. Its excellence, and the great individuals, lifted the French people. As long as Rocket Richard and the Canadiens were the best, the French people had more self-esteem."
That explains why French Canadians were so incensed when Richard, who was in good position to win the league scoring championship for the first time, was suspended for the last three games of the 1955 regular season and the entire Stanley Cup playoffs by NHL President Clarence Campbell for fighting opponents and scuffling with a referee and linesman. "The French people considered him a victim of the hated WASP, Campbell," says Fisher. "Another example of the English stomping the French."
Thus, the crowd at the Forum was in an ugly mood when the Canadiens, sans Richard, played the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night, March 17, 1955. Campbell made the mistake of attending the game. When he entered, well into the first period, he was roughed up and pelted with rotten fruit, tomatoes and other debris. The crowd got out of control, and a tear gas bomb was unleashed. Police ordered the game abandoned and the arena evacuated.
The departing crowd joined an unruly mob of 12,000 which had been milling outside, and the famous "St. Patrick's Night Riot" ensued, with windows smashed and stores looted along Ste. Catherine Street. Fortunately, no one was hurt. "I've seen the Rocket fill a lot of arenas before," said Dick Irvin Sr., coach of the Canadiens at the time, "but that's the first time I've ever seen him empty one."
The undercurrent of French-English rivalry was never deeper than when the Canadiens played the Toronto Maple Leafs. Until NHL expansion, Canada was divided into two parts: Canadien fans and Leaf fans. They are still the only team with a national following.
"No matter whether it was in the French team against the WASP team, even though Montreal has stars such as Havey and Elmer Lach, who were English, and Toronto had players that were French. Symbolically, it was still the hated French against the hated English, and there was a lot of heat.Buy you never saw any hint of that within the Montreal team itself," said Fisher.
"A lot of reporters and fans over the years tried to stir something up, but the players, to a man, regarded themselves as athletes and not politicans. They were hockey players. All they cared about was winning the Stanley Cup, and that didn't have a nationality attached to it.
"In 1976, when Canada, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Finland, and the United States played for the Canada Cup, a politician in Quebec lobbied very hard to have both a Team Canada and a Team Quebec, made up solely of French-speaking players. But within a day or two, the French players on the Canadiens called a press conference and made it very clear that they weren't interested. If they were going to play, they said, it would be on Team Canada, made up of French and English players.
"I think that's the first and last press conference the players themselves ever called, but they felt it was important to shoot this thing down immediately, and it was, because there was a lot of very heated, emotional separatist talk in those days."
In 1976, another political event had a dramatic impact on Quebec, and indirectly on the Canadiens. That was the year that the Parti Quebecois, with its secession-minded leader, Dr. Camille Laurin ("the French Canadians' cultural ayatollah," as he has been called), scored a stunning election upset and took office in the provincial capital of Quebec City. Although the PQ failed in its controversial referendum last year to have Quebec secede from the Dominion of Canada and establish itself as a separate nation, it has passed many so-called "Francophile laws," including the one making French the official tongue of the province. Suddenly it was the English-speaking minority that felt severely put upon.
"There has been a great change in the status of the French people in this province, in their own minds and in the courts," says Fisher. "They still revere the Canadiens, but it is not as important for them to be on top because the Parti Quebecois has put the French people on top.
"The St. Louis Blues were playing the Canadiens as the Forum the night of that election. The PQ went in as an underdog, but as the results started coming in from various parts of the province, you could see this tremendous upset developing. Every time there was a new report it was flashed on the electric scoreboard, and a roar would go up from the crowd.
"Up until that time, the Canadiens had been kind of a political surrogate for the downtrodden French. When the PQ came in, the team's attraction slipped a little bit. The Canadiens still mean a great deal to the people here, but not as much as they once did."
In fact, the team of the diehard French Canadians and the Parti Quebecois may well now be the Quebec Nordiques, who are more purely French -- and coincidentally, are owned by Carling-O'Keefe Breweries, a rival of Molson's.
Public address announcements are made and the national anthem sung only in French at Le Colisee in Quebec City. Laurin has strongly urged the same policy at the Forum, but the management has remained staunchly bilingual. Since 25 percent of the customers are English-speaking, announcements are made in French and English, and 'O Canada' is sung demi-francais, demi-anglais. The Canadiens are now too establishment for the separatists' liking.
Another quasipolitical event that had a profound effect on Canadian attitudes toward the national game was the eight-game Challenge Series in September, 1972, between an NHL all-star team representing Canada and the Soviet national team.
"Before the first game in Montreal, Canadians were very condescending," recalls novelist and Montreal native Mordecai Richler ("The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz;" "Joshua," "Then and Now"). "Everyone thought Canadians had a monopoly on the best hockey players, and that the NHL was taking cruel advantage of these poor, wretched Russians, who came to practice in tattered uniforms, their bags over their shoulders, carrying their own sticks and gear.
"Hockey was the one thing we were confident we could do better than anybody else in the world. When the Russians won that first game, 7-3, it was a national disgrace, a tragedy. I was at the Forum last night and remember some very emotional scenes: Phil Esposito screaming at the fans, 'Why are you booing us?', grown men and women with tears streaming down their faces. I went into a bar and men were humiliated.
Canada won the next game in Toronto, tied in Winnipeg, and lost in Vancouver to trail, 1-2-1, as the series shifted to the Soviet Union.
"At that point the entire country was depressed and very, very angry," remembers Fisher, who covered the series. "Canadians didn't understand how the No. 1 team from the No. 1 leaugue could do this to them. They felt betrayed. And it got a whole lot worse after the first game in Moscow, when Canada lost, 5-4, after leading, 4-1, with 10 minutes to play.
"But then when Canada came back and won the last three games to eke out the series, Canadians were prouder and happier than they had been since the end of World War II. There was an outpouring of joy from coast to coast. People celebrated in the streets. The country went crazy. The hockey team had saved our national pride.
"I've always regarded myself as a pretty touch nut. Hockey games aren't that important. But sitting in that rink in Moscow, seeing Paul Henderson get the winning goal with 34 seconds after it looked as if we would surely lose (the Soviets led, 5-3, going into the final period), I just literally shook. And I wasn't alone, believe me. The whole country was involved. Hockey has always brought out the greatest emotion in Canadians, and I don't think there ever was or ever will be a series like that one."
Certainly the ensuing NHL regular season was a dreadful anticlimax, flatter than the plains of Manitoba.
"That series was so intense, so gripping, that everything that came after it looked rather pallid and meaningless," Richler said recently, reminiscing over drinks in the stylish Maritime Bar of Montreal's Ritz-Carton. "People saw that the NHL was not the only place to play hockey. A lot of steam went out of it then, and I don't think it has ever really recovered.
"The way the Russians skated and passed the puck and set up plays reminded people of the way the NHL used to be, before expansion diluted it and the goons took over and muscle became more important than finesse. We used to go to hockey games and came away drained, exhausted, so thrilling was the action. The quality is not what it was, and if you love hockey, that's sad.
"I think the corruption really started with the curved sticks and the slap shot, which is really a mindless kind of thing. Somebody shoots the puck a million miles an hour, and everybody gasps, but it usually hits the glass instead of the net. Goalies had to put on masks because everybody shot harder, and less accurately. Instead of wrist shots and elegant passes and tic-tac-toe, move the puck around and set up a play, everybody just started dumping the puck in the zone and firing away randomly and fighting, trying to win with muscle and intimidation rather than strategy. It's a very choppy and mundane game now, by comparison.
"Expansion was rushed, too. The NHL went from six to 21 teams in such a short time, in such a greedy way, that the product really suffered terribly. You see maybe 10 or 12 minutes of good hockey a game now, and the rest of it is slipshod: second- and third-rate players, and what Toronto people used to call 'Syracuse passes,' because one more like that and Punch Imlach would farm you out to Syracuse.
"I really think hockey would have been better off if it had expanded internationally, if the NHL had started playing European teams for the Stanley Cup in 1967 instead of adding teams in six American television markets, looking for the U.S. network contract that it's never going to get. It should have gone to Sweden and Finland, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, instead of Los Angeles. Hockey is a northern game."
Richler, an aficionado, looked into his glass, which was getting empty, and remembered when he was younger, and the Canadiens were truly Les Glorieux.
"Years ago, when there was a game at the Forum on Saturday night, people would dress up and go to Chez Pauze for seafood first, and it was an occasion," he said. "It's still like that when Boston or Philadelphia or the Islanders come to town, but then you don't see them for 10 weeks and lose interest. Noboby cares about Winnipeg or Edmonton or Colorado. When those teams come in, the season-ticket holders give their tickets to their poor cousins.
"You talk to the players, and their attitude is totally different. They're used to playing in Canada, where hockey players are the biggest celebrities there are. Even in the juniors, they are recognized in the streets.And now they go to the States, to Washington and St. Louis and Los Angeles, and nobody knows who they are. They can go through an airport together and remain anonymous. It's a big blow to their egos, and they come to feel like mercenaries in a passionless war."
Red Fisher shares some of Richler's ennui, although to a lesser extent.
"In a sense, the NHL has not recovered, because the fans know that there is somebody else out there. It hasn't affected attendance, but it may have diminished the emotional attachment Canadians have to the NHL. Expansion has diminished it, too.
"I still feel we see a lot of good and great individual hockey players in the NHL. Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, all the big stars in the league today, in my view, would have been big stars in the six-team NHL. Out of those six teams, there were usually two bad ones. The percentage of bad teams and bad hockey players is probably about the same.
"What you miss today are the rivalries and the guys who busted a gut every game for $10,000 or $12,000 a year, because if they didn't, they got a one-way ticket to the minors. Now the average salary is $104,00, and if a guy has been in the league three years, you need his permission to send him down.
"So there is still some great hockey played in the NHL. But generally speaking, I don't think it's the obsession it was up until a decade ago. The Montreal Expos have cut rather deeply into the monopoly that the NHL had in Canada, particularly when they made such a good run at the pennant the last two years. Everybody here was talking baseball in October, whereas in other years their prime concern would have been how the Canadiens and Maple Leafs were going to do in the new season.