First published in the Westmount Examiner on January 24, 2008.
I suppose it was only appropriate that the first goal I ever saw tallied at the old and venerable Montreal Forum was by the Rocket himself. Rapidly approaching the end of his illustrious hockey career, Maurice Richard initiated the scoring cycle that terminated the evening in a 5-3 Montreal victory over the luckless (as I remember them) Boston Bruins. It was Saturday, February 6, 1960 and I was all of twelve years old. “Programmes, get your lucky number programmes,” the youthful vendors called out lustily as you entered the acclaimed building. Little did I know that my love affair with hockey and “The Forum” (as it was more simply known) had just begun.
Without doubt, each and every person in this city over the age of twenty remembers Montreal’s most famous of all arenas. Constructed in only five months in 1924, the stadium provided, for the first time, local professional hockey teams with the luxury of artificial ice. Prior to that, games frequently had to be cancelled due to mild weather and poor skating conditions. In fact, in 1923, the Canadiens’ opening home game had to be moved to Hamilton due to unseasonably mild conditions in Montreal.
The first event ever held at the newly-completed city edifice was, appropriately enough, a game between the Canadiens’ and the Leafs. It was November 29, 1924 and the Habs inaugurated the structure with a 7 – 1 victory over their Toronto counterparts, who proved to be no match (at least on that occasion) for the Flying Frenchmen. A remarkable history of achievement in sport was thus launched. Happily, that tradition of accomplishment endured well into my time.
I waited another two hockey seasons before returning to that memorable amphitheatre, the home of the famous “S” line of the Montreal Maroons, as an equally-smitten uncle once proudly told me. The interval was worth it, however, for every Saturday night of the 1961-62 NHL calendar, at the tender age of fourteen, my sidekicks and I found ourselves within the walls of this Montreal sports temple. In those pre-subway days, no fewer than three municipal busses were involved before we ultimately found ourselves shivering in the cold before the outdoor wicket on Atwater Street just below St. Luke. That minuscule yet beautiful ticket window dispensed last minute admission fares to kids and other dyed-in-the-wool Hab supporters. With limited resources, we always chose the least expensive option – standing-room tickets located high in the terraces of that historic building. Cost: $1.25
After the game, we would inevitably gather outside the Forum’s popular celebrity exit on St. Luke street, the opening through which our athletic heroes would eventually appear before us in the winter weather. With pens and hockey programmes in hand, we would enthusiastically call out for autographs, and all would succumb to our unconditional loyalty and wide-eye innocence.
As time went by, however, I came ever more to realize that earlier (and ostensibly good) hockey players had performed in a Forum of erstwhile times. That same beguiled uncle regularly recounted to me the exploits of Howie Morenz, Aurel Joliat, and even Georges Vezina from the 1920’s. Of course, I listened to him attentively and observed the enthusiasm with which he spoke about those players, but never for a momemt did I even contemplate the possibility that these earlier Canadiens’ could have been of the same mould as the Beliveau’s, the Geoffrion’s, the Harvey’s and the Plante’s who composed MY Montreal hockey team. Had they not, “après tout”, just recently emerged from a sequence of five consecutive Stanley Cups ?
My experiences at the Montreal Forum were, understandably, not just limited to hockey. Even before my first NHL game, I had been shepherded there on more than one occasion to see events such as the Ice Capades or the Big Top, surely a young child’s longing. Even so, in good time, as I grew older (and seemingly more mature), other interests presented themselves, which caused me to return regularly to my all-time favourite arena. With my twenties and the 1970’s essentially overlapping, I travelled again and again to that ageing landmark of the city’s skyline to savour the melodic renditions of Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, Elton John, the Bee Gees, as well as the totally unforgettable gymnastic performance of Romania’s Nadia Comaneci in the Olympic Games of 1976. All left their footprints in the remarkable chronicle of the Montreal Forum.
But, for all of the above, it was hockey and its conquering tradition, almost unique to this city, that helped consummate Montrealer’s love affair with the arena. From the infamous Maurice Richard Riot of 1955 to the capturing of the Canadiens’ last Stanley Cup before adoring fans on June 9, 1993, “le Forum de Montréal” was, for the longest time, one of the centrepieces of sports stories and achievement in North America.
These days, whenever I walk by the re-incarnated yet seemingly solitary structure, I inevitably muse on those cold winter evenings and wistfully look in vain for that tiny outdoor wicket in front of which my friends and I stood quivering all those years ago. Even so, in deep deliberation, we all the same enter the bustling building amidst the shrill cries of the sports magazine hawkers: “Programmes, get your lucky number programme!”