Maurice Richard. Guy Lafleur. Bob Gainey. Serge Savard. Ken Dryden. Patrick Roy.
If you look up some of the greatest names in the history of the game, chances are that a huge percentage of them donned the red, blue and white of the most storied franchise in professional hockey: the Montreal Canadiens.
They are names that will live forever. Both upon the rooftops of the Bell Centre in Montreal, and in the minds of millions of fans throughout Canada and the United States. They helped shape the landscape of the NHL from the 1920's through the early 1990's.
But eventually, they became a victim of their own success, or in other people's minds: arrogance.
In 1993, the Canadiens won their 24th Stanley Cup, beating the Los Angeles Kings in a battle of counterculture. The Habs represented the old school, while the Kings were the team from the Sunbelt that was an example of what hockey would become in the next 15 years, where the NHL would expand to markets like Dallas, Atlanta, Miami and Carolina.
In the end, the Canadiens perservered, and beat the Kings in six games, led by the young talent of Eric Desjardins, John LeClair, Matt Schneider and goaltender Patrick Roy. Montreal was the last of the old school.
Then, in the years following, Montreal fell to earth.
In the first few games of 1995-96 season, coach Jacques Demers was fired and replaced with relative coaching novice Mario Tremblay. Dubbed "The Bionic Blueberry", Tremblay was a serviceable forward during his playing days with the Canadiens. After a number of years as a color commentator for the Habs' french-language television broadcasts, Tremblay took the coaching job; however with no previous coaching experience whatsoever, it seemed liked he had bit off way more than he could chew.
In the ensuing weeks after becoming coach, Tremblay developed a heated grudge with his starting goaltender Patrick Roy, even firing pucks at Roy's throat during practice. It had all the makings of a pro wrestling cage match.
The proverbial straw that broke the camel's back came in a game at the old Montreal Forum against Detroit in late 1995. Roy was getting scored on like crazy by Detroit's ferocious "Russian Red Line", and to the surprise of many, Tremblay left Roy in the game.
After getting his lunch handed to him by the Red Wings, Roy stormed back to the bench angrily, and told Canadiens president Ronald Corey he would never play for Montreal again. A few days later, general manager Rejean Houle traded his star goalie to the newly-minted Colorado Avalanche (having moved from Quebec City during the off-season), along with Mike Keane.
However, the trade completely blew up in the Canadiens' face. Even though Montreal made the playoffs, the Avalanche, backstopped by the great goaltending of Roy, won the Stanley Cup, sweeping the Florida Panthers.
Mario Tremblay's tenure with the Canadiens lasted two years.
Ever since that time, the Canadiens have gone from the Yankees of the NHL to fielding a club with rather mediocre results. In fact, since 1992, the Canadiens have only won their division one time, while other Canadian rivals Ottawa and Toronto have won it numerous times.
Now you might say, why have the Canadiens fallen so fast? Well, it's not that they are necessarily a bad hockey club, they make the playoffs with good frequency. They are just average. Compared to the glory days of the 60's and 70's, they went from being Superman to just Clark Kent. Nothing special.
One of the reasons why Montreal has been lackluster is the management they employ. They tend to hire French-Canadians within their front office and coaching system. It's just the way it is. Bob Gainey was probably their best hope to become a respectable team again, yet he was not French-Canadian, and when he lost his job, they hired a francophone as their general manager, Pierre Gauthier. It should not be a requirement that you have to speak French. That is just ridiculous. A little more of an open mind would help. Maybe a mix of French-Canadian, English-Canadian, American or European management might help. Get a melting pot of minds.
If Montreal is to ever be a Cup contender again, their fans should not be so vicious and implement extreme pressure on their players. Take the situation of Carey Price, their young goaltender. He made some mistakes in the first couple of his seasons, yet the fans have been like a bulldog on steak when it comes to his development and growth. It probably would have served him well to be a backup for a couple of years to a veteran goalie and then might have had the knowledge to handle the rabid fanbase a little better.
However, it seems like Price has been wigged out beyond belief, and now he might be considered "damaged goods". It would serve him well to go somewhere else like the Islanders or even be a backup in New Jersey and learn from Martin Brodeur. He got thrown to the lions too early by the Canadiens, and he obviously doesn't have the thick skin to handle it.
This also ties into why players don't like the extremely bright limelight of Montreal and opt to play in a market like Minnesota, San Jose, or Los Angeles. Some place where hockey is known, but you know you won't get crucified if you make a mistake.
It would also help if the NHL decides to go back to Quebec City. The Canadiens pretty much own the entire fanbase of Quebec, and it didn't used to be that way. Let's face it: competition is good for everybody, and the rivalry between the Canadiens and Quebec Nordiques was probably the best in hockey for 15 years.
With the ever growing possibility that major league hockey will come back to Quebec City, this might light a fire under the Habs to do better, and try to keep a huge percentage of their fanbase that could be lost to the new Nordiques.
Also, maybe a new influx of fresh coaches would help. Jacques Martin is an outstanding head coach, and did wonders with a young Ottawa team back in the late 1990's by helping them reach the playoffs numerous times, but unfortunately he is a re-tread. It would help if the Canadiens went after a guy like the AHL's Chicago Wolves coach Don Lever or even a young coach like Peter DeBoer of the Florida Panthers. It's more of a league of players' coaches now rather than disciplinarians like Mike Keenan.
Ultimately, it will be up to the ownership, management, and players of the Montreal Canadiens to decide which direction they want to steer the ship in the next twenty years. Will they become the Supermen of old, or become just a bunch of Clark Kents playing for the art of mediocrity. Time will tell.