Steve Shutt did a lot of good things for Habs fans in his day. The latest was yesterday, when he made a fan who's never come to terms with the worst trade in Habs history understand that something good actually came out of it after all.
On this date 14 years ago, my Habs-fan heart was broken. My hero, the player who made me love the Canadiens and all the history, passion and triumph they stood for, was forced to stand before the world in abject humiliation until he finally exploded in anger. When Patrick Roy and Mario Tremblay had their ultimate showdown in that 11-1 loss to Detroit, a chasm opened between the Habs of the past and what would become the team of the future.
After the total disbelief of The Trade wore off, the bitterness of watching him succeed in someone else's uniform set in. It was all made so much worse by the failure of the players who arrived in exchange for him to be him. The Canadiens and I had a very rocky relationship throughout the late nineties.
Even recently, when the debate about whether his sweater should be retired arose, The Trade and all the emotion around it coloured the views of many fans. But when the team made the decision to do it last year, and the ceremony happened so beautifully, things started to feel a little better. Some of the regret slipped away when I watched him out there, smiling, back home again.
Yesterday, I had a conversation that really puts it to rest for me at last. I was talking with Steve Shutt about the upcoming Centennial game on Friday night (more about that here on Friday.) I remembered he'd been the assistant coach on that wretched night fourteen years ago, so I asked him about his memories of it.
As he recalls it, there were many factors involved in the decision to keep Roy in the net. Tremblay's irritation with his star goalie's personality might have played a small part, but when it came down to it, leaving Roy in the game was simply a bad decision.
"The first period, I think we were down about three nothing, and Mario came back and said should we pull Patrick," says Shutt. "I said no, he's probably the only guy playing well for us at that point in time. I said, go in there and give those guys hell, wake'em up and let's get going here. I said we'll go and get a goal and scratch our way back into the game. So we went out in the second period and we got about four penalties in a row and it was bang, bang, bang. It was five-nothing, six-nothing. And then it was a matter of when do we pull Patrick? Was there mistakes made? Of course, there was mistakes made. They should have pulled him aside and asked him what he wanted to do. And that's kind of what happened."
That game, believes Shutt, was a catalyst for events that had been building long before December 2.
"My understanding is that Serge(Savard), before he was let go at the start of the year, was looking to move him. Don't forget, Patrick at that point in time...we'd not made the playoffs one year and went to the first round in the next year with him," Shutt recalls.
But the former all-star and coach believes the move was necessary one...for Roy.
"I think it's tough being an icon in Montreal, and that's what he was at that point in time," says Shutt. "It wasn't just hockey, it was everything. I think the best thing for his career was to move to Denver and just go back to being a hockey player. And it revived his career and he played great."
I honestly had never thought about The Trade in that context. Shutt thinks a player of Roy's stature could only withstand the pressure cooker for so many years before burning out, and the coaches suspected that point had arrived for him in Montreal. He says without that move, there's no telling how much longer Roy could have stayed on top of his game. But things weren't looking good for him at the time.
It makes sense to me, especially taking into consideration the fact that Roy was the longest-serving goalie in Montreal since Jacques Plante. In light of that theory, I think I've finally put The Trade away in its little box with all the other heartbreaks the Habs have dished out over the years. Shutt thinks Roy deserved to be traded; not because he was bad, but because he was good.
"Patrick's a special type of person. He's a battler and a fighter and that's what made him so great," he says. "With these guys it's always tough because they're on a different level than anyone else. You got him, you got Lafleur, you got Rocket. Those type of guys. They played with a lot of fire. And you gotta handle them a little bit different than everyone else."
Patrick Roy seems happy with the way his career worked out after Montreal. His number has taken its rightful place in the rafters in the Bell Centre. So maybe it's time to let it go at last. The final, lingering anger I have about it now is the poor return the Canadiens got for their heart and soul. According to Michel Roy's book, Savard was working on a trade for a young Owen Nolan and Stephane Fiset before he got fired. Rejean Houle ended up trading Roy for Jocelyn Thibault, Andrei Kovalenko and Martin Rucinsky. Either way, getting Nolan's 279 goals since the 1996, or the combined 311 of Rucinsky and Kovalenko, it wasn't enough.
The Trade crippled the Canadiens for more than a decade because the Habs didn't get enough talent to compensate for the loss of Roy. But I can see now it didn't cripple Roy or his career. That's something to be grateful for, on an anniversary most of us would rather forget. So, thanks, Shutty, for that.