Families of Montreal Canadiens fans can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that even in the club’s centennial year they will not be called upon to purchase different hockey sweaters once a week so that their kids’ and their heroes’ jerseys match. This changing of what the English call a “kit” is the cynical measure European soccer clubs take to fleece their loyal supporters’ wallets on a regular basis, but it is not one of the marketing tricks that the Habs’ American owner, George Gillett Jr., has brought back from the United Kingdom subsequent to his purchase, in 2007, of a 50 per cent stake in Liverpool FC.
Still, as part of its celebrations of its 100th year, the club has reissued four vintage sweaters this season and has plans, next year, for three more—their pedigree proceeding backwards in time through the Habs’ actual anniversary date of Dec. 4, 2009, the earliest jerseys sporting not the familiar CH, but the original CA—for “Club Athlétique.”
The anniversary is a retail bonanza for the Habs’ management, quadrupling the size of its Bell Centre shop to accommodate the sports gear, photographic mementoes, DVDs, books—and even an authorized special edition Montreal Canadiens Monopoly board game. Outside the Bell Centre, the new Centennial Plaza was unveiled last Thursday, a memorial square that includes life-size bronze statues of four Habs greats—Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau and Guy Lafleur—as well as the engraved “messages of encouragement” of an eventual 20,000 fans.
Gillett and his son Foster, owners since 2001, have done a masterful job of restoring a fallen team that Montreal fans, ever the most discerning in hockey, had started to abandon and that even French-Canadian players were reluctant to join because of Quebec’s language quagmire and a low Canadian dollar. The Gilletts have made a virtue out of the Bell Centre, a mediocre building that doesn’t compare to Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, making it welcome to families (in just one of the measures, kids 15 and under can sit in a 500-seat “Family Zone” for $10, tax included), and building on the team’s singular legacy by putting Guy Carbonneau and the great Bob Gainey, a couple of the best Canadiens of the last couple of decades, behind the bench and in the GM’s office.
It is Gainey who has written the introduction to D’Arcy Jenish’s The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory, the dependable front-runner in the swath of centennial books coming fans’ way. This is the club’s history as written by an efficient New Jersey Devil rather than with the colour of say, a Guy Lafleur in his prime. There are few photographs. For visuals, look to Honoured Canadiens—a coffee table book produced by the Hockey Hall of Fame, or the much better souvenir, Mike Leonetti’s Canadiens Legends, with its foreword by Jean Béliveau. A half-dozen French-Canadian titles as well as the NHL’s DVD boxed set, Memorable Games in Canadiens History—including the 1975 Red Army game that, curiously, D’Arcy Jenish does not mention—round out the storytelling cornucopia.
And yet, at present, the Canadiens’ new retail store does not stock the greatest story to ever have venerated the Habs, which is Roch Carrier’s brilliant “The Hockey Sweater,” later made by the NFB into a wonderful animated short. A pity, as the story is so known and loved.
And there’s one other cherished item the Habs won’t be selling, though I happen to know one still exists because of a fortuitous experience I had two years ago, when I took my wife and the kids to Montreal for the weekend.
“There are two kinds of hot dogs and we describe them by the buns,” they had to listen to their tedious dad brag about one of the city’s lesser-known meats. “The best steamés are to be found on Saint Lawrence. But the best toastés we used to get at the Forum.” That evening, at my family’s local on Crescent Street, I was pointed to a fella called Foster Gillett who was drinking at the bar in the back. It was the night Bernie “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion’s sweater had been retired. The player who claimed to have invented the slapshot had died earlier in the day and on my way to being loopily drunk—such was the emotion that not just I was feeling—I lectured the out-of-towner on the moral responsibility of owning the Canadiens and how the franchise ranked with the greats—the Yankees, Barcelona and Liverpool FC, etc. Gillett, however, was unfazed. Subsequently, he had the grace to invite my gang to a game against Boston and a few minutes into the first period he asked the girls if they wanted anything to eat.
“How about a toasté?” asked Nathalie.
“No, no,” I said, embarrassed at my kid’s impudence. “You can’t get them anymore.”
“Oh yes you can,” said Gillett, putting a couple of hot dogs in their buns and slapping them down on a toaster in the corner of his private box. It was the real thing. A few of the machines had been salvaged by the team from the old Forum and he’d nabbed one.
The Habs, I knew then, were in good hands.