The Montreal Canadiens were back in town Thursday night still minus the aura from the franchise's storied past. Opponents no longer live in awe of the Canadiens. Children outside Quebec no longer worship the Canadiens. The most successful franchise in NHL history has become just another organization, worthy of neither reverence nor disdain.
At least the Toronto Maple Leafs command a shred of sympathy for a championship drought that spans four decades. But no pity is granted the Canadiens, who won too much too often and have yet to lose enough to balance the books.
Twelve years have passed since the Habs last captured a Stanley Cup or, for that matter, reached a conference final. Five times they've missed the playoffs. Four times they've been eliminated in the first round. Distant grows the memory of them pillaging the league with a methodical ease, winning 16 of their 24 Cups during the '50s, '60s and '70s.
So much has changed.
The nucleus of Montreal's dynasties was comprised of French-Canadian sons with names as sweet as honey on the tongue. Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau. Jacques Laperriere and Guy Lafleur. Montreal owned territorial rights to junior players throughout the province until the entry draft was fully instituted in 1969. And it maintained a home-field scouting advantage long after the draft was born, winning six Cups in the '70s with teams overseen by Hall of Fame General Manager Sam Pollock.
"Sam Pollock just made a monkey out of everyone," said Sabres studio analyst Mike Robitaille, who played in the league from 1969-77. "He was way ahead of everyone else."
The downward spiral commenced shortly after Pollock and Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman departed in the late '70s. The Canadiens won the Cup once in the '80s, once more in the '90s. Their drafting edge rapidly expired. The game itself went global, the European influence becoming prevalent. Today only four Canadiens hail from the province, only nine from the country. Carrying the touch passed by Serge Savard, Guy LaPointe and Rejean Houle are names like Aaron Downey, Chris Higgins and Garth Murray.
"The whole complexion of the league changed," said Sabres game analyst Jim Lorentz, who played from 1968-78. "Europeans of course were rare back in the days when I played and now they're all over the National Hockey League, which is fine. It has gone global. I guess there is a certain, maybe sadness, to the fact that the Canadiens aren't maybe the powerhouse they were. But I guess progress has rolled on."
The Canadiens of old were more than a hockey team. They were hockey itself, setting the standard to which everyone aspired. They emanated class, a dignity that transcended the rink, and no one wore the crown better than Beliveau, the captain of five Cup champions before his retirement in 1971.
"First word that comes to my mind is elegant," Robitaille said. "He walked in a room, it meant something. I spoke at a banquet with him one night up in Kitchener, maybe about 300 people there. Everybody was talking, there was a din, you couldn't hear anything. Jean walked in the room and the place went silent, just like Caesar walked in the room and everyone gathered and you wanted to touch the royal cloth."
That's what the Canadiens used to be, hockey royalty, and they presented themselves as such, on and off the ice.
"Just those guys putting on those jerseys with all the history behind it I think had a lot to do with it," Lorentz said.
"When they came into a building it wasn't like a bunch of ragamuffins," Robitaille said. "It was different. It wasn't like the Oakland Seals walking in. The knot in their tie was tight and correct, all that stuff."
The days of Canadien supremacy have passed, unlikely to return. All that remains are the jerseys, still the classiest in the game.