Hockey's Historic Highlights

The Year the Canadiens Almost Died

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

The Year the Canadiens Almost Died

Posted February 24, 2018

Viewed 2567 times

A cartoon from the Montreal Gazette of January 25, 1940, while the Habs were in the league basement
A cartoon from the Montreal Gazette of January 25, 1940,
while the Habs were in the league basement

   Years ago I saw a World War II movie about a crew in a United States Air Force bomber. During their training they had cause to fly at a very high altitude. It was a clear day and they could see for miles in every direction. As they flew over the Lone Star State, one of the crew remarked, “Texas is a mere speck!”

   One of his fellow flyers happened to be a native of that state, whose mind-set was typical of those born and raised in that part of the country—everything is BIG in Texas. “Texas? A mere speck?”, he roared. To him that was ultimate insult about location of his roots.

   Recently Stu Cowan was featured in the Toronto Sunday Sun. The sports page headline read: “Habs Not Good Enough”.

    Included in his article were these statements: “The Canadiens aren’t a good team. In fact they are a bad team”……”They’re also just not good enough”.

   He posted a number of “proofs” to back his contentions. “The Canadiens rank 27th in the NHL in offence, 24th in defense, 24th in penalty killing and 24th in faceoffs. Captain Max Pacioretty, who leads the Canadiens in scoring with 16-15-31 totals, ranks 98th in the NHL scoring race. Goalie Carey Price has a 14-17-4 record (3.002) and ranks 36th in the NHL in goals-against-average, and 37th in save percentage (.904)”

   To a large cross section of shinny fans that kind of talk ranks as sacrilege. “The Canadiens a BAD team”?  What an insult! Does Cowan not realize that the Habitants, the oldest league franchise (established 1909-10) have won more Stanley Cups than any other team in the league, with 24? They have finished in first place 37 times; set records for most points (132 in ’76-’77); scored most goals in one season (387 in ’76-’77); had the fewest home losses (one in ’76-’77); and had the longest undefeated streak that same season, with 34. Their record of five consecutive Stanley Cup championships—five from 1956 through 1960—will never be equaled. 

  Scribe Cowan is fully aware of all these impressive accolades. But, he is also aware that past laurels cannot change a current situation. The famous Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge is justifiably proud of its matchless heritage. But the 2017-18 campaign is not the first below par season through which the Flying Frenchmen and their fans have suffered.

    Going back to the league’s fledgling years, the Habs missed post-season action three out of the NHL’s first five campaigns. They got off to a jump start during the initial schedule, tying Toronto in the standings, but losing in their sudden –death playoff tilt. They represented the East in the national quest for the Stanley Cup in 1919, but the series against Seattle was abandoned because of the flu epidemic which took the life of their “Bad Joe” Hall.

   But they were on the outside looking in for the next three seasons. One-sided defeats, with losing tallies like 8-2, 6-3, and 11-3 spelled an early off-season for the Montrealers in the spring of 1920. They finished third behind Toronto and Ottawa at the end of the 1920-21 season. The same scenario prevailed in 1921-22, with the most significant highlight in the Mount Royal City being the was the great “Newsy” Lalonde’s final NHL goal against Hamilton on February 11th. His last game with the Habs was the match against Toronto on March 8th

   The next low point on the Habitants’ win/loss graph took place during the 1925-26 campaign. On November 28, their star netminder, Georges Vezina fell ill with a high fever. Not only was he forced to leave that contest, but he never played hockey again. He was replaced by Alphonse “Frenchy” Lacroix, one of the first Americans to play in the circuit. He lasted only five games, having run up a 3.43 goals-against-average, compared to Alec Connells’ 1.20. Herb Rheaume carried on the rest of the season, but couldn’t fill Vezina’s skates either—his average was 2.93. Les Glorieux were short on glory, finishing in last place, with a 11-24-1 record.

   It would be a full 10 seasons, including twice carting off Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice, before they faced another pothole on the otherwise smooth highway of success. The morning after their final challenge of the 1935-36 schedule, the Montreal Gazette’s L.S.B. Shapiro opened with “The Canadiens put away their sticks for the season tonight, completing their most disappointing campaign in a decade of their history.” They had lost a 4-1 decision to the lowly New York Americans, who had battled them for last place most of the season. It was dubbed a “drab game, with only 3.500 in attendance”. Only their goalie, Wilf Cude, seemed to put forth much of an effort. Their “line-score” was 11-26-11. They managed the lowest goal for and the highest goals-against totals of the eight clubs.

   25 points was all they could muster during the 1939-40 season. It included 33 losses. Some of the losses were rather overwhelming. When Wilf Cude replaced Claude Bourque on February 4th, the Rangers welcomed him with a 9-0 trouncing. When he wrenched his shoulder and had to go to the sidelines, Charlie Sands filled in, allowing five more markers, for a 10-1 embarrassment. Eight years later, Conn Smythe’s early season prediction that “Canadiens would be the team to beat” prompted a few chuckles when the final stats showed 20 wins, 29 losses, and 11 ties, good for a 5th-place finish. Despite that Elmer Lach still won the scoring derby!

   There is little need to review the success of these perennial top dogs over the next 22 seasons. It was during those two decades that they had their incomparable run of five straight World Championships. They copped the Cup five other times; finished first ten times; and qualified for the post-season each year.

  But suddenly, when the apples’ blossoms were blooming in the spring of 1970, the bottom fell out, and they were practicing golf swings rather than slapshots. Still hanging on the third spot in February, they developed the habit of losing in close games at game’s end. Jean Beliveau moaned: “It’s hard to understand why we are playing so poorly late in the game. The third period used to be our best!”

   The March 20 segment of the Hockey News coverage of the Montrealers bore this headline: “(Coach) Ruel Given Vote of Confidence But Habs Continue in Deep Slump!”

   Charlie Halpin’s editorial in late April, even before the season ended, assumed the worst: “Hockey fans saw it for themselves last weekend. The demise of the Montreal Canadiens and the ending of great hockey dynasty!”

   But once again there was a revival in Habitant-ville. Two of the next three years, hockey’s most coveted trophy was placed on their collective mantel. Their second multi-championship siege ran four seasons from 1976 through 1979—and they came within an ace of imitating their original handful—as they ended first in 1979-80.  

    The next decade and a half saw them earn six first-place divisional finishes and two more Stanley Cup triumphs.

Only 1983-84 left a smudge on their respectable image. Shinny scribe extraordinaire, Red Fisher, offered this capsule commentary on that campaign: “Their 2-1 loss in this their final game of the season, their sixth in a row, and their 40th of the season, was the most ever inflicted on a Canadiens team. It was a team in complete disarray, which allowed more goals and scored less than any since 1970. It has been an abysmal showing in every way.”

   Strangely enough, they still sneaked into the playoffs and were into their third round of the post-season before they succumbed to the powerful New York Islanders.

   Then came 1994-95.  As the season’s end drew near, they still had a “mathematical chance” to pull off a last-minute miracle. They needed to win the last three games. But they tied one and lost three—the latter to the Boston Bruins 4-2.

     Gare Joyce wrote in the Globe and Mail: “In Montreal the loss is greeted full status as a disaster, and accorded as a day of mourning”

  La Presse featured the Canadien’s logo on a tombstone. Not surprisingly, Coach Demers got the raspberry treatment, with fans chanting “Na Na Na Na—Hey Hey Goodbye”.

   The Forum fans have never been the patient kind. And, when their favourites started the ’95-’96 schedule with four straight losses, two of them to expansion squads, there was heck to pay! The fans were angry — “zero tolerant” as someone put it. They wanted change at every level. When the New Jersey Devils whipped them on their home turf, spectators wore bags on their heads, and jeered each time a Canadien player touched the puck. The blahs even reached the political arena, with Parti Quebecois leader, Jacques Parizeau, announced: “We witnessed a catastrophe tonight. It is one that has taken place with the Canadiens!”

    The next decade was unsettled for the storied club. Changes took place on an off the ice, with new General Managers and Coaches coming and going—alteration sufficient to bail them out of the post-season drought for three seasons.

   But one of the major changes took place between the pipes, when the fabled Patrick Roy was allowed to be shell-shocked with nine goals against in a match against the Red Wings. He never pulled on the Montreal colours again.

   But 1998-99 was another broken rung in the ladder which was to see the normally high-flying Habs head for the golf links early for three years running. They finished last for the first time in 59 years. 

   When this pattern was repeated for two more campaigns, the feathers hit the fan. Fandom already had their shirttails in a knot. But when 2000-01 started badly, with one win in their first 10 contests, it all came to a head on November 18th. Booing began almost as quickly as the action in the Hockey Night in Canada tilt against their old rivals, the Maple Leafs. D’arcy Jenish in his One Hundred Years of Glory quoted Jack Todd with: “With 19 seconds left the big cheerless barn they call the Molson Centre was two-thirds empty. The Canadiens fans had gone home. From ice level to rafters, all you could see was blue and white: Leaf jerseys, Leaf flags, Leaf banners. When the final horn had sounded, there were raucous cheers, mot boos—for the Leafs—there was not one to boo the Habs.”

   Black crepe was hung on the doors of Canadien’s supporters following the 2002-03 and 2006-07 regular seasons as well. But the on again, off again roller coast pattern, according to some, climaxed in 2011-2012. The Sports Encyclopedia opined that the season was “possibly the worst in team history—an embarrassment to the fans on Montreal on and off the ice!”

     He went on to observe that they had a rather quiet off-season as they failed to address the team’s weaknesses. They had their worst start in 71 years. With the playoffs out of reach they began dealing away players and stocking up on prospects and draft choices. Only the Columbus Blue Jackets and Edmonton Oilers had fewer points; and they were second last in wins with 31.

    While the “worst team in their history” was hung on the above sextet, too many years had passed for current fans or journalists to remember the debacle which really WAS the contingent’s slough of despond—the 1939-40 outfit. That was the year the Canadiens almost died. Statistically, the numbers were disparaging: 10 wins, 33 losses, 5 ties—which added up to 25 points in a 48-game schedule, 9 less than the struggling New York Americans.

   They started reasonably well, with four wins and two ties. But they later went 20 games with only a single win. On January 15 it was reported they had lost two in a row, and 13 out of their last 15 starts. By that time attendance was dwindling badly. At one point only 3000 paid admission to see a “home” match, while a few nights earlier 10,000 crowded in the watch the “Senior” League Royals in a playoff contest.

It was started to pinch where it really hurt. The club had lost $60,000., no mean sum in those days.

    It all seemed to come to a head at the end of January. A bold headline greeted readers on the Montreal Gazette sports page on the 31st: “Canadiens Plunged Deeper Into the Cellar With a 4-1 Defeat by the Americans.    


   Columnist Mac McNeil roasted Canadien’s management with this blast: “A decade ago Montreal was the hotbed of hockey, supporting two teams in grand fashion (the Maroons were the other one). Today it is not supporting one—and there is no reason to. Good players have left and have not been replaced. It is difficult to understand the men who control hockey here; they appear to have killed the ‘goose that laid the golden egg’”

   Cohort Howard McNamara was no kinder: “What a sad state of affairs that the oldest team in the NHL, and one of the most colourful, should peacefully be reposing in the basement, and should be kicked around by such clubs as Chicago—to the tune of 8-1” (shortly after the Rangers thumped them 9-0, Chicago’s encore was 10-1, and the Leafs socked it to them 8-4) 

    Al Parsely of the Herald added insult to injury with this: “I have heard rumblings and rumours by those very close to the higher ups of the “American” (division) clubs that they could get by with a six-team league next years and leave the Canadiens out of the picture!”

  So desperate was the state of affairs that the standing joke on the street was: “New Haven (their AHL farm team) was going to farm out a few players to the Canadiens.”

   The Habs powers-that-be even considered suspending operations for a year, or even until the war was over.

 Instead a life preserver was thrown their way from a most unlikely source—the arch-rival Toronto Maple Leaf’s chief cook and bottle washer, Conn Smythe. He encouraged his own coach, Dick Irvin Sr. to take the reins of the sinking ship. It was not a quick-fix situation. It took some doing—but within four short seasons the NHL’s silver chalice was in the team’s possession again.

   It would be hard to imagine what it would be like to have this colourful contingent missing from the world’s premier league. But in 1939-40 the hockey world nearly found out.

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