As Michael Farber has said, "The only two Western institutions that really get ceremony are the House of Windsor and the Montreal Canadiens." Today is the culmination of a year-long series of celebrations of the greatest hockey team that has ever existed, the bleu, blanc, et rouge, Les Glorieux, the 24-time Stanley Cup Champions, the Montreal Canadiens. They are Canada's team, loved from coast to coast to coast and around the world, a symbol of professional sports excellence, dignity, grace, and class. There is no prouder organization, and the players that have worn La Sainte-Flanelle have represented that level of pride with equal vigour.
I have been a fan of the Canadiens since as far back as I can remember. Saturday nights with my dad were all about the Canadiens on Hockey Night in Canada. I grew up with Patrick Roy as a hero; I was devastated when he was traded following his public humiliation at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings and Mario Tremblay. I cheered with joy when the won the Stanley Cup in 1993 and I remember the tears when they lost in 1989. For as long as anything has been in my life, there has always been the Canadiens. I was there during the dark times of the 1990s, rooting the team on in the hopes that somehow the likes of Valeri Bure, Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Rucinsky, and Pierre Turgeon could achieve the same successes of all the greats that preceded them. During those years, the bar for a "good season" was lowered drastically. Making the playoffs was, and remains, the benchmark and the objective. It's a long way from the days where planning a Cup parade "along the usual route" was seemingly a given.
Throughout all those turbulent times, there was only one consistent ray of light: Saku Koivu. If not for Roy, he would easily be ranked #1 as the greatest Canadien of my lifetime. It seems like such an injustice that this amazing player and even better human being never got to hoist the Cup in Montreal. He never had the dazzling 50-goal seasons and he never inspired fear in opposing goaltenders, but in my lifetime there has not been a player that wore the CH with more pride and class than Saku Koivu. He always worked hard, he always gave his all, and he always led by example. No player since the incomparable Jean Beliveau exemplified what it means to be a captain of the Canadiens, and it truly goes to show how big Saku's shoes are to fill that 30 games into the post-Koivu era there is no current captain of the Canadiens.
The Montreal Canadiens are and will remain the most storied franchise in all of professional hockey, and forever in the top 3 in all of professional sports. From Joliat to Hainsworth to Morenz to Lalonde to Vezina to The Rocket to Beliveau to The Pocket Rocket to Cournoyer to Lafleur to Dryden.... you get the idea! The greatest players in the history of the game plied their trade in Montreal's hallowed Forum, dazzling fans and earning the respect of all of their peers in pro sports. Only the New York Yankees have been more successful at winning championships, and no other hockey team will threaten the Canadiens' mark for decades to come.
Some will say Gretzky was the greatest of all time; others will say Howe or Orr or Lemieux. All are true greats of them, but none transcended the sport into the very fabric of Canadiana and into Quebec lore like Maurice Richard. You need to only recall the closing ceremonies from the last game at the Montreal Forum to realize just how loved, admired, and respected this man was. For 9 uninterrupted minutes they cheered his name as he stood at centre ice, overwhelmed, almost embarrassed at the admiration bestowed upon him. His funeral was broadcast live across Canada, and over 100,000 people paid their respects as his body lay in state. His on-ice exploits--the 50 goals in 50 games, the Stanley Cups, 82 playoff goals--are almost overshadowed by the larger-than-life entity that is "The Rocket."
There are so many things about the Canadiens I can discuss. "100 Years of Glory" has been the constant motif throughout this year-long celebration. The organization, the players, the accomplishments, the records--there is so much to celebrate. Today let us all bask in that glory. Think not of the current team's record or struggles. Forget for one day the things that we find lacking. Enjoy the legacy of excellence, honour the traditions, celebrate the legends, and remember the good times. Go Habs Go!