The year was 1993; riding high on a 24th Stanley cup, the city of Montreal, and Habs fans all over could not help feeling that 'Les Glorieux' had returned. With a strong team, backstopped by arguably the greatest goaltender ever, Habs fans had every reason to think that this was the case. While many may have felt this marked the return of the dominant franchise of old, they would unfortunately be in for a number of rough years to come.
The following regular season did little to quell the optimism. A solid 41-29-14 record brought the team back into the playoffs, where the hope was that Saint Patrick could again lead Les Glorieux to the championship. Leading Boston three games to two in the playoffs, it would have seemed that they were on their way to exactly that. But the rival Bruins would prevail for the fourth time in five years, and so began the drought.
When it comes to Habs history, it is easy to gloss over this period and opt to focus on the many happy times when the team was great and the lineup was made up of legends. However, as the current team has now proven itself to be contenders, it is more important than ever to remember what had to be overcome on the way there.
1994-2000: "The dark age"
While the definition of this time period as the 'dark age' is perhaps ostensible to some, it serves to illustrate the degree of expectations that surround the Montreal Canadiens. Missing the playoffs just once is by some fans considered to be a drought, something they did four times throughout this period, five if you count the 2000-01 season. In contrast with the rest of club history, this time frame is rather desolate, and frankly depressing to lifelong fans; hence the 'dark age' moniker.
By the time the Canadiens made the move to the Molson (Now Bell) Centre in 1996, but a shell of the 93 cup squad remained. It started with the departure of captain Guy Carbonneau, who was dealt away mere months after the Bruins eliminated the Habs from the playoffs. This move, many still believe had more to do with him flipping off a Journal de Montreal photographer on a golf course than it did with hockey. In any case, he was far from the only big name to leave the team in the years following the 93 victory.
The environment within which the team existed was certainly not ideal, nor did the team do itself any favours. Quebec had just attempted and failed to secede from Canada for the second time, and in 1994-95, the NHL was cutting seasons in half before it was cool. While it would be a stretch to suggest that the socio-economic problems of Quebec and the NHL at the time were the reasons for the teams shortcomings, that season was the first time in 25 years that the Canadiens would miss the playoffs, and it was an ominous sign of bad things to come.
Mario Tremblay took over for Jacques Demers early on in the 1995-96 season, taking things from bad to much, much worse. Tremblay to this day is largely faulted for running Patrick Roy out of town, and management was unable to get a fair return for the best goaltender in the league. While Jocelyn Thibault fought valiantly in his wake, it was a tall order to replace number 33, and the Canadiens would falter against the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs.
The Canadiens would limp into the playoffs with a losing record of 31-36-15 the next year, barely holding off the Hartford Whalers for the eighth seed. This was the same year in which the club foolishly dealt Pierre Turgeon to St. Louis. Although they did obtain the services of Shayne Corson in return, most fans would agree that keeping Turgeon, who led the team in scoring the previous year with nearly 100 points, would have been a better decision. Without Turgeon, the likes of Mark Recchi, Vincent Damphousse, and a young Saku Koivu were not nearly enough, and the Canadiens fell to the Devils in a quick five game playoff series.
Alain Vigneault took over the Canadiens bench the next year, but the damage done by management and exiting coach Mario Tremblay was tough to overcome. Under Vigneault, they did manage to get through the season into the playoffs, and did so without executing any overly terrible trades in the process. Recchi, Damphousse and Koivu again led the team offensively with good production, but it just wasn't enough. They took out the favourite Penguins in the first round, but suffered a sweep at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres in the second round, ending any Cinderella run that fans may have had in mind.
The Canadiens would go on to miss the playoffs for the following three seasons, an absolute catastrophe in Montreal hockey. Alain Vigneault would eventually be replaced by Michel Therrien in 2000, Vincent Damphousse by Saku Koivu in 1999, and Mark Recchi (the team's top scorer at the time) was shipped to Philly for Dainus Zubrus, also in '99. While this wasn't the first time the Canadiens had missed the playoffs three times in a row, the last such occurrence was 1919-20 through 1921-22. Clearly, this was the feather in the cap for the worst period in franchise history, bar none.
The 2000's: A new hope
The Molson Family for decades had held the controlling interest in the Canadiens hockey club, which was sold to George Gillett Jr. in 2001. A change in ownership didn't yield immediate results, but they did get back to at least making the playoffs more often than not. Arguably the number one issue was coaching, as after Alain Vigneault, still no coach has held the Habs bench job for more than two full seasons to this day.
Jose Theodore teased Habs fans with an other worldly performance in the 2001-02 season, as the Habs made the playoffs and stunned the Bruins in the opening round only to fall to the Hurricanes in the second. A Hart and Vezina win for Theodore was cold comfort for a fan base that demands championships and had just overcome a three year playoff drought.
Saku Koivu inspired a generation of Habs fans with his battle against stomach cancer, and became one of the most beloved figures in team history. Few will ever forget the day he returned from cancer on a night where the Canadiens beat the Senators and clinched a playoff berth. With players like Koivu and Theodore taking the reigns and leading the way, the early 2000's seemed to be a turning point for a franchise that had fallen far from it's winning days.
But while the team had returned to competitiveness in terms of challenging for a playoff spot, this did not translate to the type of success that fans will always expect of them. It was certainly an improvement on the latter half of the previous decade, but it was not enough. By 2010, Jose Theodore was long gone, and even the beloved Saku Koivu had moved on to California, although he was always welcomed back in Montreal to raucous, well-deserved applause.
... And now?
When Geoff Molson brought the Canadiens controlling interest back into the family in 2009, he spoke of returning the team to it's winning ways. Of giving the fans what they want, what they deserve, what many of them desperately need; the Stanley Cup. Failing that, fans will never be satisfied.
A Cinderella run to the conference finals backstopped by Jaroslav Halak in 2010 was yet another tease as the team faltered against the Flyers. But, fans were introduced to a young blueliner by the name of Pernell Karl Subban, and it seemed that a real contending team was somewhere to be found in that lineup, even if it wasn't quite there yet. It gave fans of the team hope; that something could be done to put them over the top, and give them a chance to really compete for it all.
Today, there is much for Habs fans to be thankful for. A superstar goaltender, an almost-forty-goal scorer, one of the most dynamic defenders in the game, and a bevy of mostly young talent surrounding these players. Management appears to have taken a drastic turn for the better, and the team is not a calendar year removed from an impressive run, halted only by the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Putting aside personal opinions about coaching styles, it appears that the club has finally found some stability in that regard, even though Michel Therrien does appear as part of the tail end of the dark age.
While the past few seasons have been cause for hope, the last 20 years would certainly lead most fans to cautious optimism; not necessarily the expectations of glory that once ran rampant. That being said, it is an exciting time to be a Montreal Canadiens fan, as the team has come a very long way from the late 90's. It may seem that much of the progress has happened only in the last few years, but it has been over twenty years in the making, and it has not been the smoothest of rides along the way.
Be thankful, my fellow Habs fans. This is likely the best team we've seen in twenty years.