There’s always been the theories of the Ghosts of the Montreal Forum haunting the Montreal Canadiens, when they moved to the new Bell Centre in the spring of 1996. But one has to think if those spirits began churning much sooner.
On October 7, 1995 the 71-year-old Forum hosted it’s final home opener for the Canadiens, as they faced the Philadelphia Flyers to start off the new season.
The Canadiens were coming out of the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, having missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years. Gone was captain Kirk Muller, traded before season’s end, as well as many other players from the team’s ‘92-93 Stanley Cup winning team.
To cap it off, Patrick Roy, the man who had guided the Canadiens to two Stanley Cups, was coming off his career-worst season (17-20-6). It would be the only sub-.500 season of his Hall of Fame career.
Maybe the ghosts were reaching out early, to then head coach Jacques Demers, in the fall of 1995. Demers injured his hamstring during a collision with Donald Brashear at a training camp practice, just prior to the start of the season. Was it a warning to Demers of what was to come?
Nonetheless, the Canadiens felt confident they could rebound, led by Roy, new captain Mike Keane, and Quebec native Pierre Turgeon, who had been acquired in the Muller trade.
With the start to any new hockey season, Demers, the team, and the fans remained optimistic for a strong season in Montreal. While the Forum's closing remains one of the highlights of the Canadiens history, it's final ome-opener was a complete opposite.
The game would be preceded by a ceremony that honored one of the Canadiens greats, when Jacques Plante’s No. 1 jersey would be raised to the rafters of The Forum.
On hand were Plante’s son Michel, as well as former Habs netminders Gerry McNeil and Gump Worsley, who preceded and followed Plante between the pipes in Montreal respectively.
The honoring of a past legend, and the legacy of another well documented, seemed fitting in the team’s torch passing tradition. But it reality, it was about to be extinguished for nearly a decade.
With the excitement of the ceremony behind them, the Canadiens, and their fans had no idea of the humiliation they were about to endure.
The Flyers, led by their Legion of Doom line of Eric Lindros, Mikael Renberg and John LeClair, scored four unanswered goals in the first period.
A fifth Flyers goal, at 2:02 of the second period, and chased Roy from between the pipes. Fans were in shock to see "St. Patrick" collapse before there eyes, letting in 5 goals on just 15 shots.
Patrick Labrecque was called on in relief, allowing two goals on another dozen Flyers shots, and would play just one more game in his NHL career with the Canadiens.
Final score Flyers 7 Canadiens 1. LeClair finished with a goal and two assists, against the team that had traded him the previous February, en route to a career-high 51 goal, 97 point season.
The principle the Canadiens acquired for LeClair, Mark Recchi, scored the lone shorthanded goal for Montreal.
The defeat was the worst home opener for the Canadiens in their history. The 1922-23 Habs 7-2 loss, to the Toronto St. Pats, had been the prior benchmark for futility.
The Forum fans lauded the Canadiens as they returned to the dressing room. One reporter said, "The crowd of 17.646 booed until the rafters shook."
One fan reportedly made an offensive gesture towards the players, outside the dressing room door, to which defenseman Patrice Brisebois responded in a two-word format. The blueliner later apologized for the incident.
Had the spirit of Plante, who passed away in 1986, come back to haunt Roy on his jersey retirement night? Keep in mind that when Plante first encountered a young Roy, in 1984, the two did not see eye-to-eye in their approach to goaltending.
From there it didn’t get much better, losing the next three games and never scoring more than one goal in all four losses. Fans were wearing paper bags over their heads and jeering Roy.
On October 17, team president Ronald Corey relieved Demers and assistant Charles Thiffault, who were assigned other positions in the organization. The then fired GM Serge Savard and his two assistant general managers.
Assistant coaches Jacques Laperriere and Steve Shutt, the only staff left from the office cleansing, ran the Habs bench in a 2-0 loss to the Islanders.
Corey then hired Rejean Houle and Mario Tremblay, as GM and head coach respectively, and brought Habs legend Yvan Cournoyer on as an assistant. Many criticized Corey’s decision of firing Savard, and often felt that Corey had always ran the show, even late in the GM’s tenure. The Chris Chelios trade was always one disputed as to who actually pulled the trigger on the deal, Savard, or Corey.
Corey’s mindset at the time of the new hiring appeared to be that bringing the Cup experience of this staff could turn the team around. But at the same time, a nearly inexperienced group of management, who’s peak playing time centered around the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s, proved to be outdated to the mid-nineties game, and the players involved.
While hiring of an inexperienced GM and coach garnered a brief turnaround in Montreal for a short period, thanks mostly to the play of Roy, it would all change within six weeks time.
That of course, is a story on it’s own.