MONTREAL -- At first glance, the Montreal Forum appears to be just another hockey barn. But through the decades, the people of Canada have wrapped their arms around the hulking structure and hugged it to their hearts.
Fans have been making daily pilgrimages to the 72-year-old building to say their goodbyes, and Canadiens management has learned just how deep the attachment goes as it makes plans for closing the Forum Monday and opening the new Molson Centre March 16.
At the moment, Drew Melick, 7, is playing a little shinny in the Forum lobby as he and his dad, Ken, wait for a Canadiens autograph session at the 15th Canadiens blood drive.
"We're from Trail, British Columbia," said Ken Melick. "I brought my son here because this is the last chance he'll ever get to see this place. The Forum is the cathedral. I think it's a crying shame they're closing it. They should be preserving it."
As Montreal native and Canadiens left wing Vincent Damphousse said, "The dynasty always has been in this building." Fans don't seem to care much about keeping up with the rest of the NHL, which will have 11 new arenas by the 1997-98 season.
The Forum was the forum before goalies wore masks, before helmets, before there was Plexiglas to protect the paying customers.
The Forum was remodeled two times; its capacity grew from 9,000 to 13,000 to 18,000. The 24 championship banners hanging from its ceiling are a North American record. The original, sand-based, ice-making system is still in place.
In 1937, when the Forum still seated 9,000, Canadiens center Howie Morenz, who had played 12 seasons, took a bad fall, broke his leg and later died of an embolism. His body, lying in state at center ice, was viewed by 24,000 fans, and a standing-room-only crowd of 15,000 turned out for the funeral.
"It was after his death that we first started talking about the ghost," says tour guide Genevieve Paquette. "The Canadiens, the Forum, you get an idea how serious it all is when you consider one of the team's nicknames is "Sainte-Flaneele," the 'Holy Cloth.' "
The new Forum, the Molson Centre, which will open in the heart of downtown, will be convenient and state-of-the-art beautiful. It will have comfortable seats and fine views from every angle.
And it will have new Stanley Cup banners. On Tuesday, the Canadiens are auctioning off the originals that date to 1915-16, because they are too small to be seen from the rafters of the new place.
Sad, but excited
"I can tell you that leaving the old Forum will be sad," said Ron Corey, Montreal Canadiens chairman of the board and president, who has overseen the construction of the new building. "But I haven't encountered anyone who isn't excited about the move. It's not just that we have to generate this kind of revenue to remain competitive on the ice. It's that this building will be worthy of the Canadiens' finest traditions."
One part of the new building will be like the old one. The Canadiens are taking their dressing room -- a dressing room like none other in pro sports -- with them. It is a room lined with the faces of past great Canadiens, and above their ghostly faces are the words from the poem "In Flanders Fields":
"To you from failing hands we throw the torch be yours to hold it high."
Even to those who know little of hockey, it is an eerie display.
"I think the tradition will follow us to the Molson Centre," said Canadiens general manager Rejean Houle. "We will have the banners and the sweaters of our great retired players on the roof. We are taking the pictures from the locker room. We are taking the tradition of Rocket Richard.
"But it is the players who have to carry the torch, by working hard and making sure the torch comes with us."
The Canadiens, past and present, attempt to mask their feelings when asked about the Forum closing.
"It's sad to see every old building go," said Henri Richard, who went to the Forum for the first time when he was about 5 to see his brother, Maurice "The Rockett" Richard, play. "It's a nice, old building and well-kept. And certainly there is love and sadness, but I don't look back. I look to the future."
Henri, 60, has a record 11 Stanley Cup rings. He'll be at the Forum when it closes and at the new one when it opens.
"You've got to look ahead," he said. "I probably will have tears in my eyes when they close it. But there was no room in the Forum, and, nowadays, you've got to grow money."
It almost gives you goose bumps when you hear the Canadiens talk about their favorite Forum memory, because they all seem to have the same one.
"When I put on the jersey for the first time and looked around the room and saw Henri Richard and Jean Beliveau," said four-time Cup winner Yvon Lambert. "I was so proud in 1971. Proud to wear the jersey. Proud to be part of the tradition that Henri Richard was part of for 20 years.
"You know, they talk about the ghost around here. But the ghost is keeping the tradition. Things may not be the same, the rink will change, but the ghost is 25 guys playing all together for each other. That's the ghost."
Said current team captain Pierre Turgeon: "When I put the jersey on for the first time and lined up for the national anthem. You look up at all those banners. You come in the dressing room and see this wall. You have no choice when you come here but to give the best you can."
And it almost makes you cry to hear Richard Mahoney and his friends David Strain and Richard Vincent, who for more than 35 years have been coming to the Forum's small lounge called the Bistro to while away their evenings.
"They found me in the foundation," said Mahoney, his eyes sad.
He and his friends are in their 60s and 70s, and they have lived their lives here. Mahoney opens his wallet and pulls out aging photographs.
"I've seen my friends sitting all around at these tables," he said, showing the photos. "Some have passed away, but we passed many evenings and nights here. See this photo? This was taken right over there in the corner. . . . I think the fact that someone wants to close the Forum is something rotten."
Bigger place needed
Canadiens coach Mario Tremblay, who grew up in the Montreal organization, said management has no choice.
"I cannot help but be sad," he said. "But we have to look to the year 2000 and beyond. We need the bigger building to keep up with the bigger salaries." It is the story of pro sports. The strong, old structures of a sport's youth no longer can keep pace with big business. The Canadiens must move to keep their tradition alive.
"It's going to be tough to leave," said Canadiens right wing Mark Recchi. "But we're going to take our tradition with us and, hopefully, we can start a new tradition in the new place."
Pub Date: 3/08/96