Canadiens: Distant Memories as the Forum Closed, 25 Years Ago Today

MONTREAL, QU - CIRCA 1980: Larry Robinson #19 of the Montreal Canadiens skates during an NHL Hockey game circa 1980 at the Montreal Forum in Montreal, Quebec. Robinson's playing career went from 1973-92. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
MONTREAL, QU - CIRCA 1980: Larry Robinson #19 of the Montreal Canadiens skates during an NHL Hockey game circa 1980 at the Montreal Forum in Montreal, Quebec. Robinson's playing career went from 1973-92. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

To you, from failing hands, we throw the torch, be yours to hold it high. Embedded on the walls of the Montreal Canadiens dressing room for decades, the famous line from John McCrae’s classic poem In Flanders Fields, remained a symbol of the long and fabled history, of the Canadiens organization.

The Joe Malone’s, Howie Morenz’s, George Vezina’s and Newsy Lalonde’s that laid the foundation for what has long been known as one of the most storied franchises in all of professional sports. As a kid, the Canadiens teams that we’ve come to know in recent years were but a passing attraction to me, as I fixated myself on the fables and legends that made up the true definition of the Flying Frenchmen.

Danny Gallivan, high atop in the booth, seeing Guy Lafleur “Coming out rather gingerly on the right side”, getting the puck back to Jacques Lemaire before firing a shot past Boston Bruins goaltender Gilles Gilbert, arms raised over his head, as the Canadiens would go on to win their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup. All of that, came to a head, as I found myself outside the Montreal Forum, on a warm and sunny Wednesday afternoon.

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It’s not known by that name anymore, referred to as the Pepsi Forum nowadays, shrouded in a black exterior alongside a normally busy St. Catherine Street West. An A&W sign glows clearly out front, as the rest of the building seems to fade into the many rows of offices, condos, and apartments on either side. In spite of its history, it gives off an aura of a bygone era, characterized by annual Stanley Cup parades, and a team that few in the NHL wanted to mess with, and 25 years ago to this day, that same era, came to a close.

The Canadiens weren’t exactly having the best season in 1995-96, having been embroiled in numerous controversies surrounding the team’s front office and star players. Longtime GM Serge Savard had been fired, replaced by former player Réjean Houle, Jacques Demers, who had coached the team to their last Stanley Cup in 1993, had been replaced by similar former player Mario Tremblay, and most famously of all, franchise goaltender Patrick Roy had been traded to the Colorado Avalanche, along with Captain Mike Keane, in exchange for an array of prospects.

As Montreal found themselves facing the Dallas Stars on March 11th, 1996, however, all of that suddenly didn’t matter, as the hockey world looked to reflect on the closing of one of the most famous arenas in all of pro sports. In an event marked with numerous special moments, past Canadiens captains passed the torch from one to another, beginning with Emile Bouchard and ending with at the time Captain, Pierre Turgeon, whom held it high as described in McCrae’s famous work. Long-time star player and symbol for the pride and struggles of French Canadians, Maurice Richard, received a 16-minute standing ovation, brought to tears as his contributions to not only the Canadiens, but the province of Quebec, were recognized.

It was a moment indicative of the respect and tradition of this Canadiens franchise, something I sadly found myself losing sight of, as I stood at what remains of center ice, on that Wednesday afternoon. Ever since its closure, the city of Montreal has never really been sure what to do with what remains of the Forum, as is evidenced by what can only be described as a ghost town, the run-down remnants of a failed shopping center, and the scraps that remain from over 100 years of history. As I entered the building through the glass doors at the front, I found myself losing sight of what had once been the home of one the most successful franchises in pro sports. Grey cement floors, boarded up windows, closed off escalators, and a lack of any real prosperity or business. The Covid-19 Pandemic has already had an adverse affect on businesses both in Montreal and across the Province, and sadly the remnants of the Forum have met a similar fate.

The memorabilia shop that became a favorite spot for collectors looking to reminisce on the building’s history, is closed down, and the only part that has truly remained open is the building’s Cineplex Movie theatre, as two employees make friendly banter with customers as they enter into its carpeted interior. It’s the only place that has any hint of prosperity, and the rest is quite frankly depressing, disheartening, and lacking in the fables and legends I grew up with, fantasizing about being in those seats, high above center ice as the NHL’s best went toe to toe with one another.

As it marks 25 years since the last game played at the Fabled Montreal Forum, the memories that characterized the Canadiens, continually linger on.

In spite of the honor and tradition that made up both the opening and closing ceremonies of that March 1996 matchup, the game itself was nothing to write home about. The Canadiens faced a Stars team who were 11 games below .500, as their core that turned them into an NHL powerhouse was still building. Montreal had found themselves as a playoff team at this point, with a 32-27-7 record, and sure looked like one in a 4-1 win. Jocelyn Thibault, an acquisition in the Roy trade, made 21 saves as Stars goalie Andy Moog struggled at the other end, and top players Pierre Turgeon and Mark Recchi put up two points each. Leading the way, however, was another addition in the Roy trade, Andrei Kovalenko, who put up three points including the final goal scored on Forum ice.

An obscure piece of Canadiens trivia to say the least, Kovalenko played just one season for the team before being shipped to the Edmonton Oilers in an ill-fated deal for enforcer Scott Thornton. With the playoffs in sight, the Canadiens exited the Forum one final time as winners once more, leaving behind a history as rich and as deep as the NHL itself, with long-time play by play announcer Dick Irvin Jr. closing out the ceremonies with a final speech.

As I stood at what remains of center ice, glancing around the dilapidated remains of a place I hesitate to call a Centre, let alone a Forum, I could almost hear the cheers and echoes of times long gone, fans screaming “Guy! Guy! Guy!” As the true Flying Frenchmen took to the ice time and time again. The Maurice Richard and Canadiens fans statues that characterized the entrance to the Pepsi Forum, have been moved to a closed off booth up top. With the escalators allowing access being closed off, an overall aura of foreclosure and disparity rungs through the building’s empty remains.

As the Canadiens begin play at what would become known as the Bell Centre (originally the Molson Centre) on March 13th, 1996, they left behind stories, characters, and players whose jerseys continue to mark the rafters of the Canadiens home today, and 25 years later, those same exact stories seem like nothing more than distant memories in their former home away from home. Perhaps it would’ve been best if the Forum was just demolished, it remains scattering into the Montreal skyline to disperse amongst this continually burgeoning city, but whatever the case may be, its but a shell of its former self now.

As the Canadiens left their home 25 years ago today on March 11th, 1996, so too did every fan, journalist and resident that similarly saw it as an escape from the hustle and bustle of day to day life, and as I exited what remains on March 11th, 2021, it seemed as though it’s long and storied history, remains but a distant memory, in the remains of the Montreal Forum.

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To you, from failing hands, we throw the torch, be yours to hold it high, indeed.