Party Interrupted For Canadiens

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Kevin Sachs of Time Inc has e-mailed me this latest piece from Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated dealing with the Canadiens recent troubles. Says Sachs: "In this week’s Sports Illustrated, SI senior writer Michael Farber writes on the centennial season of the legendary Montreal Canadiens and how it has been plagued by mishaps on-and-off the ice. The article, Party Interrupted, is copied below."

The photos of Maurice Richard accompanying this piece are from the HHOF site. The photos of Carey Price and Sergei Kostitsyn comes from another source.

The yearlong celebration of the Canadiens' centennial has hit rough ice. Bumbling stars, griping legends and an alleged felon have all played a part.

In the musical finale to the celebration of the 100th season of hockey's most self-reverential franchise, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra will leave its Place des Arts hall early next month, head a mile or so west to the Bell Centre and play a concert to celebrate the Canadiens' grandeur. Because restraint is not in order when honoring a franchise that boasts 24 Stanley Cups, the program will include Beethoven's Ode to Joy, although Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals might be more appropriate given the current cacophony in Montreal.

During the incessant centennial tributes—coins from the Canadian mint, a closet's worth of throwback jerseys, Patrick Roy's sweater retirement, All-Star weekend . . . everything but greetings from Willard Scott on the Today show—life has been getting in the way. Think of the Canadiens' centennial as a family holiday party, lovingly conceived and meticulously planned. Then Uncle Saul dips into the punch bowl early, Aunt Doris starts picking her teeth with a dessert fork, the cousins bicker and, well, it doesn't mean the event won't be memorable, but it hasn't exactly all been bliss, you know?

After a 3–2 win over San Jose last Saturday, the Canadiens,who had the best record in the Eastern Conference last season, were 34-22-7 and six points out of ninth place. The I'm-unhappy-with-my-ice-time grumblings of enforcer Georges Laraque last week were practically met with a Gallic shrug after a truly wrenching stretch for the team. As Montreal closed a recent run in which it won only three of 15 games (before rebounding to win four straight), three of its players were publicly linked to a man charged with drug trafficking and conspiracy; the general manager gave his most gifted forward a two-game sabbatical; a former Canadiens Cup-winning coach said the partying of three current players was undermining their performance; and a franchise legend commemorated by one of four statues in the arena's new Centennial Plaza ripped the team.

"With everything that was happening," said forward Chris Higgins, one of the supposedly hard-partying players singled out by Jean Perron, coach of the 1986 champs, "it felt like the walls were caving in on us."

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At the center of the Montreal maelstrom was a pair of young wingers from Belarus, brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, and a 38-year-old man with alleged ties to organized crime. Pasquale Mangiola, arrested on Feb. 12 during Operation Axe, a multiagency investigation into street gangs, was described in Montreal's La Presse as a resourceful man who could help procure the brothers anything they wanted. (A Montreal police source said that what was written in La Presse was accurate.) As the French-language newspaper screamed in a Feb. 20 headline, these things apparently included vodka, les femmes et voitures de luxe, implying that booze, women and tricked-out rides are bad things. The newspaper also reported that a third Canadien, Roman Hamrlik, was acquainted with Mangiola, but the 34-year-old defenseman told TV Nova in his native Czech Republic that although he had dined with Mangiola last season and provided him with tickets, he didn't know Mangiola "was doing some bad things." Andrei Kostitsyn, 24, and Sergei, 21, who was sent down to the team's minor league affiliate in Hamilton just before the Mangiola story broke, have been ordered by the team not to comment, but according to La Presse they had a closer relationship with Mangiola than Hamrlik did. Mangiola, who posted bail of C$45,000 ($35,000 U.S.), has convictions for assaulting a police officer in 1997 and for possession of a stolen or forged credit card after a '99 shopping spree that involved fine cigars and a $3,000 sheepskin coat. The NHL sent security personnel to investigate the alleged links to Mangiola, but a league source said the NHL doesn't expect any players to be implicated in any criminal activity.

"This is disturbing for a number of reasons," Montreal G.M. Bob Gainey said in his office last week. "You take young guys [like the Kostitsyns] under your care. You attempt to build strength and direction. . . . These guys, somebody tripped them up. I'm a little upset with the kids, but I'm more pissed off with [Mangiola]. He made a definite point of infiltrating those kids' lives."

Gainey had just finished dealing with another vexing Canadiens issue, the enigmatic Alex Kovalev. If the Artist, as he is called, is guilty of anything this season, it's stealing money; the slumping $4.5 million per year right wing had 13 goals when Gainey requested that he skip back-to-back games at Washington and Pittsburgh. "I didn't paint it as a humiliation," Gainey says, "and he didn't see it as humiliation." At least once the initial shock wore off.

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Kovalev, a 35-goal scorer in 2007–08, accepted the unscheduled hiatus and then, after being raucously cheered during warmups at his Feb. 21 return against the Senators, responded with an unassisted goal, two assists and some inspired work on the penalty kill in a 5–3 win. It was his first game with more than two points since Nov. 1; the goal was just his second since Montreal fans ballot-stuffed him and three teammates into the Jan. 25 All-Star Game at the Bell Centre. "I wasn't proving anything," said Kovalev, who after his Ottawa performance added a goal and three assists in his next three games. "I hate that word. I don't try to prove to people that they're wrong."

Speaking of wrong . . . Canadiens icon Guy Lafleur was off the mark when he told the Montreal Gazette days before Kovalev's return that Gainey's handling of the winger was misguided. Lafleur also assailed coach Guy Carbonneau for his line juggling and added, "I don't think this club has a team spirit." Lafleur's comments were surprising only because he is a paid team ambassador. 

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Perron hasn't been on the payroll since being fired more than two decades ago, but he's a regular panelist on the delectably named 110%, a nightly sports show on the French-language network TQS. On Feb. 16, well before the Mangiola news broke, Perron declared that Sergei Kostitsyn, Higgins and goalie Carey Price (box, above) had been partying to excess, damaging their play. A week later the 21-year-old Price, who has lost the starting job, told reporters, "I'm a young kid. It sucks when you try . . . [to] have a good time, and things come up and bite you." When asked what he had learned from the experience, he said, "In the end my dad always said your sins will sort you out . . . and evidently they did." This somewhat cryptic line might turn out be the quote of the centennial season.

Above the portraits of Montreal's 44 Hall of Fame players in the Canadiens' dressing room is an excerpt from John McCrae's World War I poem, In Flanders Fields: "To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high." Nothing is mentioned about Price using the torch to light his smokes.

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Photographs are now floating around the Internet—and seen by everyone in Montreal who has an e-mail address—dubbed habs en fête! Undated and without context, they show Canadiens at frat-boy play. (In one photo Price has a lit cigarette between his lips. He says the picture was taken last summer. He adds that he does not smoke.) There has been some lamenting from boys-will-be-boys apologists that the players have been Phelps-like victims of cellphone cameras, but to blame the medium is to miss the point. As former NHL player Tom Chorske recalls of his Montreal days in the early 1990s, "I don't know if it had come from a fan, a bar owner or a taxi driver, but you'd show up at practice the next day and [then Canadiens coach] Pat Burns would say, 'I know where you were last night.' And he did." The Montreal night has 1,000 eyes. Says Gainey, "People call me up and give me information."

There is a maxim that hockey players get into trouble on the ice, not off it, which, of course, fails to give them enough credit for their incomes and ids. The Canadiens are like players anywhere, except they work in a city, and for a team, that bears the weight of hockey history. The chasm is not between the Montreal players' partying and the acceptable standard of behavior for men with excesses of money, fame and testosterone, but between the Canadiens' brand and incidents that rub the shine off the classy image. 

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Messing with the brand can be perilous. While Gainey and former Montreal G.M. Serge Savard both aver that they never made a trade strictly for off-ice reasons, players who have been viewed as nuisances have been curiously exiled, including bon-vivant star defenseman Chris Chelios, sent to Chicago 19 years ago; 2002 Hart Trophy winner José Théodore, dealt to Colorado in '06, three seasons after a photograph of him with Hell's Angels emerged; and boulevardier Mike Ribeiro, the center whom Gainey off-loaded to Dallas, also in '06. Says a member of the Montreal police familiar with investigations involving Canadiens players since the 1980s, "You can't do something that will harm the reputation of the Montreal Canadiens. They will not tolerate it, no matter how important you are to the team as a player." Carbonneau, the coach, was traded to St. Louis in the summer of '94 after a newspaper published a picture of him giving a middle finger to its photographer, who was shooting Carbonneau on a golf course.

"We live by a different standard, a different set of rules," says defenseman Mike Komisarek. "We represent ourselves, but we also represent more than a million people in Quebec and 100 years of history. This is not a place where they pick up the paper the next day to see if the team won or lost. We are role models. And we owe something to all those players, teams and Stanley Cups that came before us."

A 25th Stanley Cup in June is no longer widely anticipated, given the tortured nature of the season, but missing the playoffs in this, of all springs, would ruin the careful work done by a franchise that has always understood the importance of ceremony. To placate a passionate but increasingly restless fan base, Montreal must win at least one or two rounds to add another coat of lacquer to this shiny veneer of importance. If the Canadiens don't, they'll face the music. 

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