December 2, 2015 marked the 20th anniversary of Patrick Roy’s final game with the Montreal Canadiens. It was culmination of a horrible year for the Canadiens, the fallout of which would be felt for nearly two decades.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m a Canadiens fan. Been one since 1971, when Ken Dryden backstopped them to upsets over Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins and Bobby Hull and the Chicago Blackhawks to win the Stanley Cup.
In the first 30 years of my life (1963 to 1993), the Canadiens won 12 Stanley Cups. I watched them win eight of them on television. Like most Canadiens fans of that era, I was not only used to the Habs winning championships, I expected them to.
They were so dominant for so long, making the playoffs simply wasn’t good enough for me. Hell, making the Stanley Cup Final wasn’t acceptable. If they didn’t win a championship, it was a wasted season. When it came to the Canadiens, I was a smug, demanding fan.
1995, however, changed everything. For the Canadiens and fan like me, it was a true annus horribilis.
That year began with Kirk Muller as the Habs new captain, as Guy Carbonneau was traded away to the St. Louis Blues the previous summer. The basis for that move was Carbonneau flipping off a newspaper photographer during a golf game. However, that trade removed a stabilizing influence from the Canadiens dressing room. If Carbonneau hadn’t been dealt, perhaps some of the subsequent events could have been avoided.
1995 also dawned in the midst of the first NHL lockout, where it appeared the entire season would be lost to a labor dispute. Fortunately, the two sides hammered out a collective bargaining agreement, but it meant a shortened season.
The Canadiens struggled through that lockout-shortened campaign. They were a horrible road team, winning only three of 24 games away from the Montreal Forum.
Lack of offense was a key problem that season, prompting two significant trades. The first, on Feb. 9, 1995, saw the Habs acquire forward Mark Recchi from the Philadelphia Flyers.
Unfortunately, they gave up not just solid defenseman Eric Desjardins but also big winger John LeClair, who went on to realize his true potential as a power forward alongside Flyers superstar Eric Lindros. Recchi had several solid seasons with the Canadiens, but his performance paled in comparison to LeClair’s scoring feats in Philadelphia.
The second significant deal occurred on April 5, 1995. Muller and defenseman Mathieu Schneider were shipped to the New York Islanders for forward Pierre Turgeon and defenseman Vladimir Malakhov.
Both moves, however, failed to improve the Habs offense. They finished 22nd out of 26 teams in scoring.
As a result, the Canadiens missed the playoffs for the first time since 1970. For Habs fans like myself, so accustomed to success, this was a stunning outcome.
Rather than question management’s moves or the coaching, we blamed the lockout. After all, our mighty Habs were only two years removed from winning the Cup. They still had the greatest goaltender in the league in Roy, as well as a solid defense corps. Turgeon and Recchi were expected to become scoring machines once they adjusted to playing in Montreal.
Then came the start of the 1995-96 season. The Canadiens lost their first five games. Team president Ronald Corey overreacted, firing GM Serge Savard and head coach Jacques Demers. Instead of bringing in experienced replacements. Corey inexplicably hired two novices in Rejean Houle as GM and Mario Tremblay as head coach.
The Canadiens did improve after those moves, but trouble was brewing behind the scenes between Roy and his old teammate Tremblay. That set the stage for December 2, 1995, Roy’s humiliation against the Detroit Red Wings, his angry words to Corey behind the bench and the ill-fated trade days later with the Colorado Avalanche.
The Roy trade was surreal. It just didn’t seem possible that it was happening. Later, like many Habs fans, I tried to justify it. I told myself Roy shouldn’t have been such a hothead. I fooled myself into believing the return of Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Rucinsky and Andrei Kovalenko was worth Roy and forward Mike Keane. I’d become so used to decades of successful moves by the Canadiens that I simply couldn’t admit to myself this was a big mistake. Thibault, Rucinsky and Kovalenko did their best, but they certainly weren’t worth a superstar like Roy.
For the Avs, that trade turned them into a two-time Stanley Cup champion and made them a powerhouse for nearly a decade. For the Canadiens, it was the final dagger into the heart of the tottering franchise.
Years of management mistakes, from Savard and Houle, as well as future GMs Andre Savard, Bob Gainey and Pierre Gauthier, turned the once-dominant Habs into a marginal playoff contender for nearly twenty years. Since 1995, an entire generation of Canadiens fans have grown up never knowing what it was like when the Habs were the class of the NHL.
Thanks to current GM Marc Bergevin, the Canadiens are now finally looking like a potential Stanley Cup contender. To be fair, a number of the Canadiens’ current core players (Carey Price, P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, Andrei Markov, Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Plekanec) were draft picks of Houle, Savard, Gainey and Gauthier. However, it was Bergevin who built a solid supporting cast around those stars.
From the absence of Carbonneau, through the lockout, the LeClair and Turgeon deals, missing the playoffs, the panic-driven management and coaching changes and the Roy trade, 1995 was the worst year in Canadiens history.