Montreal finally honors Roy's great career in his emotional return
For 13 years, the people in this city and province waited for those six words. In English, it's only four: "Tonight, I come home."
And with those magical words, Patrick Roy capped a stirring address before his No. 33 jersey went up to the rafters at the Bell Centre on Saturday night and made it pointedly clear to the passionate fans of the Montreal Canadiens that he regretted the way in which he left town in December 1995.
"I feel bad that I rushed out of here without having a chance to properly say goodbye," the legendary netminder told the crowd in French.
Standing at center ice and delivering a speech in both English and French, Roy put on a masterful performance just like he had so many times while wearing the uniform.
"All my life, I will have in me the pride of the red, white and blue," he said in French.
The talk all week long was about healing old wounds, moving on, opening the door for the NHL's all-time wins leader to come back into the Habs family. Who knew the Canadiens would take that to a literal level? Roy, wearing a No. 33 Canadiens jersey, began the pregame ceremony by entering the Bell Centre from street level, walking through the doors, and making his way through the hallways before finding the right entry point in the bowl area.
That's when the sold-out crowd of 21,273 got up on its feet and gave Roy a hero's welcome. It was as if Dec. 2, 1995, had never happened. All that mattered at this moment was 1986 and 1993.
"It was the return from exile of a warrior," his father, Michel Roy, said afterward.
Anyone who believed for a second that there would be some boos because of his dramatic exit 13 years ago was sorely mistaken. The fans gave him the kind of embrace reserved for the likes of Montreal greats Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur.
Down the steps came Roy, high-fiving fans along the way. He walked past the Canadiens bench -- this time, a pleasant stroll past the bench -- and finally to the red carpet that awaited him on the ice.
The speeches were to start, but not yet. The fans had other plans. Three times Roy tried to sit to let the proceedings continue, only to be forced back up by an unrelenting ovation. Roy was able to avoid the water works, but at this precise moment, he almost lost it.
"It was close," Roy told the media after the ceremony. "The fans kept making me get up from my seat. That was so touching. I said to myself at that point, 'Uh oh, I might be in trouble.' But I was able to keep my emotions in check."
Don't be fooled by the lack of tears.
"He was so nervous and so emotional," said his father, who helped his son with his speech. "But, like great goaltenders in big games, he controlled his emotions. But I can tell you he was very emotional."
We probably shouldn't be surprised by the crowd's reaction Saturday night. The Canadiens always do these events better than any other team in the NHL. And Habs fans played their role to a tee.
"That was magical," said Roy's son, Jonathan, who, along with the rest of Roy's family, took part in the ceremony. "The crowd was unbelievable. That was undescribable."
But there was perhaps another dynamic at play here on this night. The 15th number retired by the Canadiens also happens to be the most modern connection to the past for a generation of young Habs fans desperate for a tangible link to glory. Roy wasn't some long-ago figure their mom and dad had to tell them about. They remember him in the flesh, raising the team's last Cup over his head in the old Montreal Forum in 1993.
"It's fun to see his sweater up there because he's a guy from our generation," said former teammate and current Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau. "He's a guy you can relate to."
That goes for the current players, as well. As much as the other jersey ceremonies from the past few years have been fun to be part of, they felt a connection to Saturday's honored guest.
"Tonight, I think with Patrick Roy, he was more of a modern-era type player that more of us can relate to," said 24-year-old defenseman Josh Gorges, who grew up in Kelowna, British Columbia. "I never got to see Larry Robinson and Bob Gainey play a whole lot, but we watched Patrick Roy growing up. He was it. You ask any kid in Canada at that time who your favorite goalie was, and it was Patrick Roy. No question.
"He was the best. He was a guy that, when you played street hockey and you were in goal, you were always No. 33."
To underline Roy's impact on not one, but perhaps two generations, the Canadiens added a special touch near the end of the 45-minute ceremony as kids in goalie gear skated onto the ice wearing the uniforms of other Quebec-born goalies who followed in his footsteps. Mini-me versions of Felix Potvin, Martin Brodeur, Jocelyn Thibault, Roberto Luongo, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Patrick Lalime, Mathieu Garon and Martin Biron skated toward center ice.
Roy made sure to give credit to the goalie coach that changed his career, and many others -- Francois Allaire. He introduced the butterfly technique to Roy and a legion of netminders after him.
"He had a huge part in all of this," Roy said of Allaire, who was in attendance.
Just another moment from a perfect night, when a great career was finally recognized. Emotional loose ends were tied up. And Patrick got to say goodbye to his fans.
"I don't think there could [be] a much better way to talk to them," Roy said in French. "At least they know I didn't want to leave that way. Now they know I would have loved to play my entire career in Montreal."
Amen, St. Patrick.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.