Commentary

Past Canadiens magic a haunting reminder

Updated: October 15, 2008, 7:43 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

MONTREAL -- This is where the ghosts and the flesh and blood collide.

With the air around the Bell Centre thick with the history of a glorious past, the Montreal Canadiens prepared to kick off their 100th season with their first home game of the season Wednesday night.

No matter where players on the current roster turn, whether it's to look at the two dozen Stanley Cup banners dangling from the Bell Centre rafters or the ring of honor or even in the stands, where former players such as Steve Shutt were on hand to watch their morning skate, the current roster is reminded of the significant burden of the past in this hockey-crazed province.

These players had better get used to it.

"It's always tough when you have that much emotion in the ceremonies to be 100 percent ready," coach Guy Carbonneau said Wednesday morning. "But we had a chance to play three games on the road. I think we know a little bit about ceremonies; we've had a few here over the years. It's not like we have 10 rookies in the lineup. Most of those guys have been here last year, so they're kind of used to it.

"It's going to be something special. I think it's something that we want to be part of it. We're going to try and enjoy it as much as we can without taking the focus away from the game," said Carbonneau, who played 13 seasons in Montreal, twice winning the Stanley Cup.

The home opener against the Boston Bruins is but the first building block in what promises to be a season of memories for the storied franchise.

Along with the ever-present reminders of the team's centennial, Patrick Roy's jersey will be retired next month.

There is the All-Star Game in late January. The entry draft will be held at the Bell Centre in June. The Habs' distinctive logo will be featured on stamps and Canadian currency to mark the centennial. There's even going to be a special Habs edition of Monopoly.

But it's what might happen this spring in the playoffs that has an already emotional fan base practically crackling with excitement and anticipation.

"If we do the work, it could be a very special year," forward Chris Higgins acknowledged.

Higgins is still nursing a groin injury and wasn't expected to play Wednesday, but the native of Smithtown, N.Y., said he understands the expectations that are part and parcel of this historic season.

"It's a huge celebration, not just for the organization but for the city and the whole country as well," Higgins said.

"Everyone knows that and feels that," Higgins said of the expectations.

"It's something special to be part of it."

If ever there was a franchise that believed in myths, omens and magic, it is the Montreal Canadiens. When you are the most successful pro franchise of all time, with 24 Stanley Cup wins, it is natural that the team's history is shot through with legends, from Howie Morenz and Aurel Joliat to Toe Blake and Maurice Richard to Ken Dryden and Guy Lafleur on through Roy.

As Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle are to New York Yankees lore, so are these figures to the Canadiens and their fans.

And so it is that the 100th anniversary has fans wondering -- no, believing -- that this team is destined for something special, that the hockey gods (most of whom are Habs, by the way) will make it so.

But what of the players who must shoulder this burden of expectation?

To play for the Habs is to play with expectation, anniversary or no. That much is a given. But this year is different.

"I think it's going to challenge everyone in the room," said defenseman Patrice Brisebois, who grew up in Montreal and will play in his 1,000th regular-season game later this season.

"For sure it's going to be a really exciting season," he said.

Georges Laraque has been to two Stanley Cup finals since the lockout, losing to Carolina in 2006 while playing for Edmonton and to Detroit this past spring while playing for Pittsburgh. He returned to his home this offseason and was expected to be in the lineup Wednesday night for the first time this season. He hears the talk of magic and chuckles.

"There's no magic in winning hockey games," said Laraque, generally considered the best fighter in the NHL right now.

"It's not like players go, 'Oh, tonight the magic's going to kick in and we don't have to play,'" Laraque said.

If it's true Montreal fans are demanding, they are also among the most knowledgeable in the game. They do not expect a Stanley Cup every year. There was a time when that was a perfectly acceptable way to approach every season, but those days passed with the end of the 1970s.

In some ways, the city and province take on the rhythm of the team, they rise and fall with the Habs' fortunes or misfortunes.

This year, though, the team has been built in such a fashion that hopes that something special could indeed happen aren't out of line. The Canadiens are deep and talented up front and play a fast-paced offensive style. Defensively, they feature a blend of talented puck movers and physical, in-your-face players. Netminder Carey Price already has enjoyed a solid start to his sophomore season after a disappointing turn in the playoffs a year ago.

"For sure the expectations are really high," Brisebois said. "We know we have a pretty good team. We have a lot of confidence right now. But we know it's going to be a long season."

Just how long has yet to be seen. Many observers believe the Habs will advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since the magical spring of 1993 when Roy won a record 10 straight overtime games.

Higgins was 10 years old at the time.

"That was one of the craziest things I've ever seen in hockey," said Higgins, who grew up a Habs fan.

"They were like gods to you," he recalled.

Brisebois was on that team.

"I know what it's like to win here," he said. "That was the best summer ever in my life."

Could another special summer be in the offing? If the ghosts have their way, it will be. Now it's up to the players to make it so.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.