When the debate about whether Patrick Roy should have his number retired arises, as it has once again since his son Jonathan's attack of another player, I get a picture in my head. It's of a 20-year-old, skinny, sweaty kid...still beardless...holding the Stanley Cup over his head, his cap of floppy hair and his red sweater soaked through as he screams his triumph. The look on his face is almost savage, but his eyes are filled with stars. Shortly after that picture was taken, he accepted the 1986 Conn Smythe trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player.
There are other pictures, but that one is the most dominant, and, as far as I'm concerned, it's the one that decides the debate.
Of course, the idea of one player winning a Stanley Cup by himself is a myth. Hockey is a team game and a team wins or loses together. But it is certainly a fact that a single player can elevate his game with such passion that he carries the rest of his team to a higher level with him. Roy was that player. When he said he wouldn't allow another goal, everyone from the stick boy to the opposing coach knew it was true. It was because of his passion and confidence that the Canadiens elevated their game to a high enough level to win two Cups in 1986 and 1993.
Those two wins gave new generations of Canadiens' fans a kind of link with the team's great past. Through the tinted looking glass of victory, they could glimpse what their fathers and grandfathers meant when they talked about the glory days and the greatness of the team. Through the play of Patrick Roy, they got a feeling for what it must have been like to cheer for the great French Canadian players of the past, and the ones who became legends even while they played. Those wins kept the team from becoming ordinary in the eyes of young fans...a sad fate for the greatest franchise in hockey history.
To get a clear answer of what Patrick Roy meant to the franchise, one must simply picture the team without him. Maybe Doug Soetaert would have held the fort in overtime of game three against the Rangers in 1986 and the Canadiens would have won that Cup anyway. But if they hadn't, and if Roy hadn't been there for those ten consecutive overtime wins in 1993, the once-proud Canadiens would now be facing their centennial celebrations without a championship in thirty years.
The team owes Patrick Roy for carrying the torch in the darkest of times for the franchise. It owes him for being the French Canadian hero so many fans needed, and which so many local players are still unwilling to be. It owes him for bringing flair and drama to a team that needs flair and drama to lift itself above the ordinary. The team must pay the debt it owes by retiring his number.
To deny him the honour because of the way he left the team is both revisionist and unfair. So is the claim that he "quit on the team." You can say Patrick Roy was controversial. That he was passionate. That he was pigheaded. Even thoughtless and impatient. But one thing you can't say with validity is that he was a quitter.
The night of December 2, 1995 was a long time brewing. Coach Mario Tremblay and Roy didn't see eye to eye. They didn't from the first time Roy was called up to the big team in the winter of 1985 and then-player Tremblay told him to go back to junior with the other animals where he belonged. After Tremblay retired and went into talk radio, he often used the forum to publicly criticize Roy. And when he became coach of the Canadiens, the relationship between the two became a battle of wills. So, when Roy allowed nine goals against the Detroit Red Wings, the battle finally came to a head. For Roy, recognized as the greatest goalie in the game, to have to stand there while shot after shot passed him, was the ultimate humiliation. Tremblay knew that. That's why he kept Roy in there. He wanted to show him up and deflate the mighty ego a bit. Roy's mercurial reaction was more than Tremblay bargained for, however. When the goaltender effectively handed in his resignation to the team president, it was a brash act by a brash, headstrong competitor.
When tempers cooled, Roy came out and apologized two days later. The door was open for the team to smooth thing over and keep their franchise goalie. The fact that management chose to back Tremblay over Roy says that Roy was long meant to be part of Ronald Corey's general "housecleaning." So if history records Roy having quit on the team, the story must be corrected to show the team actually quit on him.
Other criticisms of his off-ice behaviour; of his temper, his hotheadedness, his sometime rudeness, as reasons for why he shouldn't be honoured with a number retirement shouldn't even be considered. The biggest hurdle facing Roy is his proximity to us in historical examination. His warts and blemishes are still as visible as his heroics. But who among the names in the rafters is perfect (with the possible exception of Jean Beliveau?) Should Doug Harvey have been denied the honour because he drank? Or Jacques Plante because he often refused to play games due to hypochondrial illness? Or Guy Lafleur because he sulked into retirement and slammed the team in print afterwards? Of course not. The honour is reserved for those who performed on the ice and who played a special role in creating the legend of the franchise or keeping it alive. Roy fits those criteria. It's unfortunate that enough time hasn't passed to allow his flaws to be softened and blurred by his legend.
But, make no mistake, a legend he is. The numbers are there. The records and the anecdotes are there. The burning determination that lifted an average team to the Stanley Cup twice is certainly there. It's time to welcome the prodigal legend back into the fold, and exorcise the bitterness of the past in the process.
The team's centennial year is a perfect time to both celebrate the past and put it to rest. The Canadiens are known and respected for their class. If they mean to eventually retire Roy's number, there's no better time than during a year of celebrating the last hundred. Roy played a big part in preserving the pride and tradition of the team in the latter twenty of those years. It would be wrong to make him wait until his family can't be there to see the honour, or until he dies on the day the number is finally retired.
No one has worn the number 33 since 1995. No one should wear it again. The team needs to make that official, and it needs to do it before the lack of action becomes an insult against one of the greatest to ever play the game. The Canadiens are bigger and better than that.