They whisper around the NHL . The Canadiens – they say ; were once known as The Flyin’ Frenchmen.
For decades the Montreal Canadiens earned that moniker because of two things ; native Quebecers who flew like the wind on ice. Sure the team was always punctuated with tough guys. Men who could drop their gloves at a moment’s notice to protect ‘ les etoiles sur glace ‘. Yet even some of the biggest scorers on the team were tough as nails.
Maurice Richard , the icon – the legend , never backed away from hacking his way to victory or pummeling an opponent to blood. Boom Boom Geoffrion , a two-time winner of the Art Ross Trophy, a piece of hardware handed out for leading the league in scoring – dropped his gloves many times as he accumulated six Stanley Cups and a Calder Trophy.
Up until the early nineties – Montreal held the master plan on how to build a successful hockey team. Somewhere, along the way , something changed. Somehow the team swayed from their successful formula and the results are as pretty as Chris Nilan‘s knuckles.
Something Happened Away from the Forum
Rewind to 1993. The year of the team’s final championship season.Take a gander at some of the players who carried the torch. Brian Bellows, Vincent Damphousee and John Leclair come to mind. The former two – very capable goals scorers. The latter ? A man on the brink of netting fifty in a long and productive career in Philadelphia.
These guys, these men, who notched the winning goals and added assists to their mates, were punctuated by tough guys who made space . Skaters who cleared the way for Bellows and Damphousse to do their thing. Names such as Todd Ewen, Mario Roberge, Mathieu Schneider and Lyle Odelein. Kirk Muller and Mike Keane. Tough men who made sure that no one took advantage of their more skillful mates.
Speedsters such as Oleg Petrov, Paul Dipietro and Denis Savard allowed the room to deke their way to freedom. Opponents knew – take a shot a one of the Habs’ little guys, a price was present - it was time to pay.
As the non- Stanley Cup seasons passed , the team strayed from the winning formula. Time and again – the Canadiens built their team for speed. Time and time again – opponents built their team to push the Habs around. In 1997 – Richer and Rucinsky, Turgeon and Koivu , Savage and Bure were asked to do too much. Donald Brashear was the only tough guy to protect them. The only tough guy who had the energy and youth.
Shayne Corson was past his prime. Scott Thornton ? Well past his days of scaring people and Murray Baron was on his final tough-guy legs. Add the thirty, soon-to-be forty year old Dave Manson to the mix and the opposition was correct in offering a seniors discount in the form of passing on a fight. In order for a team to win games and championships – ‘ youth with grit ‘ is the desired recipe for a Stanley Cup supper.
In fifteen years since , the Montreal Canadiens’ name has become synonymous with little blue guys. The Flyin’ Smurfs more fitting than the flying frenchman of days long gone.
Valeri Bure, Saku Koivu, Oleg Petrov, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and most recent – David Desharnais.It is okay to have these little guys skating around. It is fine to have Yvon Cournoyers and Pocket Rockets on your club. As long as you have a John Ferguson and Pierre Bouchard baby-sitting them.
Nilan Back in Town
Chris ‘ Knuckles ‘ Nilan. The last true gladiator of the Montreal Canadiens is back living in Montreal and he is not shy letting people know of his presence – just like when he played.
Nilan is writing in the West End Times and can be heard on radio with TSN 990. He is barking, he is growling and is one hundred percent correct in his opinions. The man, regardless of his pugilistic skills, knows the game of hockey and how it should be played. Knuckles is old school when it comes time to drop the puck and gloves. Place Nilan behind the bench as an assistant coach ? Scott Gomez’ daze of notching two goals in over a year – a nightmare from the past.
Perhaps G.M Gauthier and President Geoff Molson listen to the radio daily . Knuckles Nilan’s message appears to have hit them on their bleu, blanc et rouge helmets. One by one, the Habs’ brain trust is filtering the softness from the club and adding toughness and heart. Gone is the tough-every-ten-games Kostisyn. Ciao to Cammalleri – the one-knee diva with the perfect doo.
Say hello to Ryan White who, for all extensive purposes, should be nicknamed ‘ the Pocket Nilan ‘. Not since Knuckles pitched pucks from the penalty box has there been a guy in Montreal who can rile his team to victory. Pump his pals when things are down and – just like Nilan ; White is a decent hockey player who is young enough to get better.
Suddenly with the addition of Rene Bourque ( the second coming of Shayne Corson), Blake Geoffrion (who has his grandfather Boom Boom’s mean streak) and Brad Staubitz from Minnesota, the Montreal Canadiens are starting to look a lot like their building blocks.
The Pocket Nilan
Pernell Karl Subban, like a certain Chris Chelios before – has the ability to get under an opponents equipment without dropping the gloves. Subban also has Chelios’ skills and energy. Emelin , despite the fact he cannot fight due to a reconstructed orbital bone , is the hardest – hitting Hab since Odelein clocked people by the minute.
Now the skill .Desharnais is a spark plug like Henri Richard .A player who keeps his skates moving , adding points to his totals every game. Let us not forget Carey Price. Playing in almost every game – the young goalie dominates most nights and allows his team an opportunity to win. Sound a bit Roy-ish ? Is there a wink on the horizon ?
As long as these players send messages on the ice. Game ready memos that clearly state ‘ do not mess with our goal scorers ‘ …
The rest of the league will scream ; ‘ They were known as the Flyin’ Smurfs ….’
Call Kid Mercury if you want to be amazed by magic …!