The fate of Canada was on the line, but as big as the secession vote in Quebec has been over the past two weeks, the plight and then the flight of the Canadiens was just as big -- in fact, bigger.
"From Oct. 15 to today the major story count on our front news page is Canadiens 10, referendum 4," said Robert Cadieax of the Journal de Montreal, the city's biggest newspaper, after checking the newspaper's archives.
Zcd,1 First there was the team's disarray: its 0-5 start and the distressing performance of goaltender Patrick Roy. Then came the firings of general manager Serge Savard and coach Jacques Demers, followed by the hirings of Rejean Houle as general manager and Mario Tremblay as head coach.
After that, the Canadiens began a winning streak -- six straight victories -- as Tremblay became the only NHL coach to begin his career with six victories.
Tonight's game between Montreal and the Washington Capitals matches two of the hottest teams in the NHL. In their first five games, the Canadiens were outscored, 22-4. In their past six games, they've been the aggressor, 29-13. Since being moved to a line with Mark Recchi and Pierre Turgeon, Brian Savage has eight goals in five games. Turgeon has 12 points in those five games.
"It's the players who turn it around," said Washington coach Jim Schoenfeld, who saw a similar transformation when he took over the Capitals in 1994. "They start believing in themselves and each other. But I think Mario has no doubt infused a lot of enthusiasm, and that goes a long way toward overcoming obstacles."
One of those obstacles could have been the Quebec referendum that was to determine whether Canada would stay together or become two countries.
In Montreal, every utterance by the Canadiens is taken to heart. The team's phone lines were jammed with fans and reporters calling to find out what the Canadiens management and players thought about the vote.
"It became the policy of the organization from the players to the president that no one would comment on that," said team spokesman Donald Beauchamp.
"I'm sure their players were really secret about it," said the Capitals' Sylvain Cote, a native of Quebec City. "It would not have been to their advantage to say anything, especially when it's split like that. And the Quebec people were really trying hard to repatriate everybody. There have been plenty of elections since I left there -- municipal, provincial, federal -- and I never was personally asked to vote.
"But for this election, [fellow Capitals] Martin [Gendron] and Joe [Juneau] and myself all received letters asking us to vote. They really went out of their way to get everyone with French origins to vote."
Juneau, who played for the Canadian Olympic team and considers Canada "a nice, big country," and Cote have not lived in Canada for so long they did not think it would be fair to vote and did not.
"I don't know all the details of why we want to separate and secede, but I think the outcome is sad," said Cote. "Now the province is separated half and half, and that's bad. I'd rather it had been 70-30, one way or the other. At least then you have a majority that stands out and can take control. Now there is nobody. It's a fraction's difference."
Washington center and captain Dale Hunter was playing in Quebec in 1980, the last time the province voted on separation.
"I think it's good to keep the country together, though it looks like eventually it will separate," said Hunter. "But if you're playing for Montreal, the best thing you can do is keep your thoughts to yourself. It's 50-50 there, and the best thing you can do is try to forget about the politicking and concentrate on hockey."
Opponent: Montreal Canadiens
Site: USAir Arena, Landover
TV/Radio: HTS/WWLG (1360 AM), WTEM (570 AM).
Outlook: The Washington Capitals (7-3) will put their three-game winning streak on the line with G Jim Carey (6-1, 2.39 GAA) tonight against Montreal. G Patrick Roy (6-5) has been in the net for every Canadiens game. Capitals RW Pat Peake (fractured thyroid cartilage of the throat) is out, and C Kevin Kaminski (ribs) is day-to-day. Montreal reports no injuries.