On December 4th, 1909, J. Ambrose O’Brien and T.C. Hare formed a partnership that would change history in hockey and in Canada. The two businessmen came together to found one of the greatest franchises in sports history – the Montreal Canadiens. The cost to have the team admitted to the brand new National Hockey Association was $6,000. A century later, the team is valued at more than $300 million. The team’s history, however, is priceless to millions of hockey fans who have had the opportunity to watch “Les Habitants” over the years. Names like Morenz, Richard, Plante, Lafleur, and Roy have dazzled hockey fans for 100 years. There has been as much action off the ice as on it in this franchises riveting history. More than 700 players have had the good fortune to wear “le bleu, blanc, et rouge.” Many have become champions. Some have changed the game through innovation. Others have transcended legendary status through their dedication, determination, and sheer power on the ice.
3,000 people witnessed history as the Canadiens played their first game on January 5, 1910. The crowd gathered at the Jubilee Rink had no idea of the history that would follow, when the team from Montreal (wearing blue back then), led by Jack Laviolette, beat the Cobalt Silver Kings 7-6 in a thrilling overtime win. The win was a fitting start for a team that would dominate the game for so long afterwards, but the first season was not a great success. The team was sold after a disappointing first season, in which they only won 2 games out of 12, and their colors were changed to red.
In 1914, a precursor to the greatest rivalry in hockey would have it’s first championship installment, as the Canadiens met the Toronto Blueshirts for the Stanley Cup. In a two-game, total goals series, Montreal won game 1 2-0, before losing 6-0 in game 2 to lose the series. The Blueshirts would later be at the middle of a controversy that would cause the NHA to fold, and the NHL to take over. Toronto would eventually be represented by the Maple Leafs. The Habs and Leafs have since met in the playoffs 15 times, with Montreal winning 8 of those series to Toronto’s 7.
The Canadiens would get another chance at glory in 1916, when they finished in first place in the NHA standings. They would meet the Portland Rosebuds, who finished first in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, for the Stanley Cup. Led by player/coach Newsy Lalonde, who won the NHA’s scoring race that year, the Canadiens defeated the Rosebuds in 5 games. It was the first time that a 5-game Stanley Cup final had gone the distance. Montreal lost game 1 before rebounding to win games 2 and 3. Portland forced a decisive final game by winning game 4. In the final game of the series, the Rosebuds jumped out to an early 1-0 lead, but could not hold on. “Goldie” Prodgers became the first Montreal Canadien to score a Stanley Cup winning goal, beginning one of the greatest winning traditions in sports.
The Canadiens once again won the NHA championship in 1917, but lost the Cup to the Seattle Metropolitans, the first ever American team to win the Cup. After this season, the NHA owners disbanded the league, and set up the NHL. The first NHL game was played on December 19, 1917, in Montreal, but it was not the Canadiens who played. The Montreal Wanderers defeated the Toronto Arenas, 10-9. The Canadiens played later that same day, and beat the Ottawa Senators 7-4, bolstered by 5 goals from “Phantom” Joe Malone, who scored 44 goals in 20 games that year. In goal for the Habs that day was Georges Vezina, the first great NHL goaltender. Vezina tended the net for Montreal for 366 consecutive games, before leaving a game in 1925 with an illness. He would die of tuberculosis months later.
In 1924, a new face would emerge as a superstar for the Canadiens, as they claimed their second Stanley Cup, and first as an NHL franchise. The Habs defeated the Vancouver Millionaires of the PCHA to win the Cup, with Billy Boucher scoring the winners in both games. They would then defend their championship against the Calgary Tigers. A rookie phenomenon named Howie Morenz would lead Montreal in the Calgary series, scoring hat tricks in both games. Morenz would go on to dominate the NHL for his entire career, becoming the first NHL superstar.
Known as “the Babe Ruth of hockey,” the “Stratford Streak,” and “the Canadian Comet,” Morenz was the first player to win the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player to his team, in 1928. He would remain a vital part of the Canadiens’ team forever. On January 28, 1937, Morenz rushed the puck up ice when he was met by Earl Siebert of the Chicago Blackhawks. Morenz was knocked off his feet and he crashed heavily into the boards, breaking his leg. Legend has it that the sound of his leg snapping could be heard throughout the Montreal Forum. On his way to the hospital, Morenz said. “I’m through. This is the finish.” He died of a coronary embolism only weeks later, but those who knew him said he died of a broken heart, due to the end of his hockey career. Morenz’s legend, however lived on, as thousands of fans filed past his casket, which was laid out at centre ice at the Montreal Forum. It has been said that the “Ghost of Howie Morenz” haunted the Forum from that day forward, helping the Canadiens win. In fact, no other team won the Stanley Cup at the Forum until 52 years later, when the Calgary Flames defeated Montreal in game 6 of the finals.
A new hero would emerge for the Canadiens’ faithful in 1944. Having failed to win the Cup since 1931, the Habs were due for some heroics, and it came in the form of a local boy named Maurice Richard. Fighting blatant discrimination from the English aristocracy of hockey his entire career, “The Rocket” made himself a star by scoring a hat trick in game 2 of the 1944 finals, and 5 goals overall in the series, helping Montreal regain the Stanley Cup. Over the next 15 years, Richard would become the greatest player in Canadiens’ history, scoring a total of 544 goals and 965 points, while amassing 1285 penalty minutes. He was the first player to score 50 goals in a season, scoring number 50 in the 50th and final game of the 1945 season. He was also the first player to score 500 career goals. Always playing with style and skill, The Rocket retired after scoring the 1960 Stanley Cup winning goal, sealing his 8th Cup victory. The intensity displayed by The Rocket every night was contagious, affecting both his teammates and the fans. He was at the centre of the most infamous incident in Montreal Canadiens, and possibly, hockey history. On March 13, 1955, Richard got into a fight with Hal Laycoe of the Boston Bruins. A brawl erupted, and in the melee, Richard dropped linesman, Cliff Thompson with a powerful fist to the face. NHL commissioner, Clarence Campbell suspended Richard for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs. At the next Canadiens’ game, Campbell was pelted with eggs until a tear gas bomb was thrown in his direction. The game was cancelled, and the Detroit Red Wings won via forfeit. As fans spilled onto St. Catharine’s Street, they showed their displeasure by looting and vandalizing shops to the tune of $500,000. The Richard Riot was a showing by the people of Montreal that they would stand by their hero, who had done so much for them. 41 years later, upon the closing of the Montreal Forum, The Rocket received a rousing 16-minute standing ovation, moving the man with the devil in his eyes to tears.
The last of 5 straight Cups came the same year that Jacques Plante changed the face of hockey forever. After being hit in the face by a Andy Bathgate slapshot against the New York Rangers, Plante returned to the ice with a broken nose, and a flimsy leather mask. Canadiens coach Toe Blake was against the idea, thinking the mask obstructed Plante’s view, but as the Habs continued winning games, he wavered. Plante would win his 5th straight Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie.
The 1960 Stanley Cup was the last of 5 straight. It was the end of the Richard era, which made the Canadiens the most dominant franchise in the game. They were not done there, however. Their next Cup would come in 1965, with Lorne “Gump” Worsley backstopping the team to 2 shutouts in the finals. The first ever Conn Smythe Trophy, for playoff MVP, was awarded to Jean Beliveau, who would win a total of 10 Cups with Montreal. Beliveau is second on the all-time list to Maurice Richard’s younger brother, Henri, “the Pocket Rocket,” who won 11 NHL championships, all with the Canadiens.
The 1970s began with a new coach and a new goalie, but the winning ways continued. In 1971, Al MacNeil, the new coach, started a rookie goalie named Ken Dryden in the playoffs. Dryden had only played 6 games in the NHL, but MacNeil had faith in the kid. That faith paid off, as Dryden led the Canadiens to their 17th Stanley Cup championship, winning the Conn Smythe award.
The following season was the beginning of another new era, with the addition of Scotty Bowman as head coach, and the emergence of Guy Lafleur as a superstar and fan favorite. Winning 5 more Cups in the ’70s with Bowman at the helm and Lafleur’s golden hair flying down the wing, the Habs dominated the expansion era of the NHL, the same way they had dominated during pre-expansion.
New dynasties emerged in the 1980s in the form of the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers, but the Montreal Canadiens would also have their say. After four straight Stanley Cups by the Islanders opened the decade, the Oilers won two in a row. Then, in 1986, Montreal made it back to the top, defeating the Calgary Flames in 5 games. The Habs were led, once again, by a rookie goaltender. Patrick Roy, who would become one of the greatest goalies in hockey history, became the youngest player to win the Conn Smythe award, at only 20 years old.
The 24th Stanley Cup in team history came in 1993, as Roy once again captured the Conn Smythe, and the Canadiens defeated Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in 5 games. The Habs won a record 10 overtime games during the playoffs that year, and the finals were immortalized by Marty Mcsorley’s illegal stick penalty late in game 2, which Montreal tied on the power play and won in OT. It also marked the 9th consecutive decade in which the team had won the Cup.
As the Montreal Canadiens take to the ice tonight, in the 100th Anniversary game, and every other night, history is not only being celebrated, but it is being made. Each goal, each win adds to the legend of this team, which has grown from an agreement between two businessmen to the most storied franchise in this or any sport.