Well, the Canadiens are starting off the hundredth anniversary season of the classiest franchise in sports with a gesture befitting the dignity and stature of the club. President Pierre Boivin has confirmed Patrick Roy's number thirty-three will be retired by the team this winter. The tribute has been the subject of fierce debate between Habs' fans who think the retirement of Roy's number is a no brainer and those who think it's a disgrace.
Now though, the official announcement of the honour must provide the last word in the argument. Even though Roy left the team in the haste of anger and embarrassment, this event proves the Canadiens are above all that. The team is taking the high road by paying tribute to one of the greatest players to ever wear the sweater. The event proves the Habs appreciate their history, bumps and all. And it helps heal the wounds of fans who felt their hearts torn out when Roy left the team.
Those of you who read here know I have always been a fan of Patrick Roy, the player. Patrick Roy, the man, I don't know beyond a single childhood encounter...but I give him the benefit of the doubt there as well for that very reason. For me, the retirement of his sweater is the proper ending to a story that began in fairy tale fashion. This ending is the hockey version of marrying the prince and riding off into the sunset.
Now that the debate about whether to retire thirty-three is effectively over, we can put aside our arguments and appreciate the good times, remembering the player we all cheered. In my mind, the best time...the magical time...was the 1986 Cup run. I recall the 1985-86 season as one of a great many ups and downs, culminating in a nail-biting playoff drive and a hard-won berth in the post-season. At the time, I didn't know enough to worry the Habs were too young, too inexperienced and too fractured internally to compete for the Cup. All I knew was they had a spot in the playoffs and anything could happen. I believed they had every chance to win in a way I've never quite believed since.
I wasn't allowed to watch the games during the week. There was school and no one else in the family liked hockey. So I listened to them. In French. On a fading radio signal that would drop out at the most inopportune times. So my memory of the 1986 Cup is now a series of snapshot moments; frozen forever in tones of sepia.
-Roy crouching in the crease before the opening game against Boston in his plain white helmet and plain brown pads, smacking the posts, stretching his neck, twitching and bouncing. In short, looking like anything but a playoff-ready, confident goalie. Then stoning the Bs on several good chances and allowing only one goal to win his first playoff game.
-Game seven against Hartford, going to OT. Hearing the crowd roar and the announcer shout that there'd been a goal scored...then the radio signal fading so I couldn't tell which team had scored. Then realizing the game was played in Montreal and the crowd cheering must have meant the Habs scored, and jumping up and down silently so I wouldn't wake the house. On the highlights the next day, Claude Lemieux's goal led the shows, but the talk was all about the rookie goalie who was stealing the show.
-Game three against the Rangers in the conference finals. Habs up two games to none, and the Rangers looking to make it a series with a win in the third one. Overtime again (something that would become a theme in Roy's playoff career) and the Rangers knowing they had to pour it on if they had any hope of making it a series. Roy standing on his head, saving everything they threw at him, until it seemed he was completely unbeatable. You could almost see the legend take root in that one OT.
-Game two against the Flames in the finals. Flames up a game, and the second one in OT. Skrudland ending it with a goal nine seconds into the extra frame, but Roy getting them there in the first place.
-Game five of the finals. Just under a minute to go, and the Habs up 4-3. The Flames throwing everything at the Montreal net in desperation, and Roy diving, splitting and stopping a shot, gaining a faceoff and halting the Flames' momentum in its tracks. Thirty seconds later, he was jumping up and down, leaping into his teammates' arms in celebration.
-Roy looking skinny as a rail, long hair dripping sweat, accepting the Conn Smythe from John Ziegler, eyes sparkling with his grin
-Roy skating the Cup, smiling and yelling...then drenched in champagne, still smiling in the dressing room after.
-Roy, shirtless, in the Cup parade, standing in the car with the Conn Smythe held high over his head, soaking up the adulation of the thousands who lined the streets.
It was a magical run that spring. And Patrick Roy was a major reason why that was so. It was a time for making memories; a time untainted by any politics or emotion that would come later. As we celebrate the retirement of number thirty-three, it's a time to go back to that happy time and be thankful he was a Hab that year. We can all agree on that.
For those who don't remember it, and those who want a shot of nostalgia, here's a nice piece of news tape from the parade: