IN THE musicalfinale to the celebration of the 100th season of hockey's most self-reverentialfranchise, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra will leave its Place des Arts hallearly next month, head a mile or so west to the Bell Centre and play a concertto celebrate the Canadiens' grandeur. Because restraint is not in order whenhonoring a franchise that boasts 24 Stanley Cups, the program will includeBeethoven's Ode to Joy, although Saint-Sa√´ns's Carnival of the Animals might bemore appropriate given the current cacophony in Montreal. ¬∂ During theincessant centennial tributes—coins from the Canadian mint, a closet's worth ofthrowback jerseys, Patrick Roy's sweater retirement, All-Star weekend ...everything but greetings from Willard Scott on the Today show—life has beengetting in the way. Think of the Canadiens' centennial as a family holidayparty, lovingly conceived and meticulously planned. Then Uncle Saul dips intothe punch bowl early, Aunt Doris starts picking her teeth with a dessert fork,the cousins bicker and, well, it doesn't mean the event won't be memorable, butit hasn't exactly all been bliss, you know?
After a 3--2 winover San Jose last Saturday, the Canadiens, who had the best record in theEastern Conference last season, were 34-22-7 and six points out of ninth place.The I'm-unhappy-with-my-ice-time grumblings of enforcer Georges Laraque lastweek were practically met with a Gallic shrug after a truly wrenching stretchfor the team. As Montreal closed a recent run in which it won only three of 15games (before rebounding to win four straight), three of its players werepublicly linked to a man charged with drug trafficking and conspiracy; thegeneral manager gave his most gifted forward a two-game sabbatical; a formerCanadiens Cup-winning coach said the partying of three current players wasundermining their performance; and a franchise legend commemorated by one offour statues in the arena's new Centennial Plaza ripped the team.
"Witheverything that was happening," said forward Chris Higgins, one of thesupposedly hard-partying players singled out by Jean Perron, coach of the 1986champs, "it felt like the walls were caving in on us."
At the center ofthe Montreal maelstrom was a pair of young wingers from Belarus, brothersAndrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, and a 38-year-old man with alleged ties toorganized crime. Pasquale Mangiola, arrested on Feb. 12 during Operation Axe, amultiagency investigation into street gangs, was described in Montreal's LaPresse as a resourceful man who could help procure the brothers anything theywanted. (A Montreal police source said that what was written in La Presse wasaccurate.) As the French-language newspaper screamed in a Feb. 20 headline,these things apparently included VODKA, LES FEMMES ET VOITURES DE LUXE,implying that booze, women and tricked-out rides are bad things. The newspaperalso reported that a third Canadien, Roman Hamrlik, was acquainted withMangiola, but the 34-year-old defenseman told TV Nova in his native CzechRepublic that although he had dined with Mangiola last season and provided himwith tickets, he didn't know Mangiola "was doing some bad things."Andrei Kostitsyn, 24, and Sergei, 21, who was sent down to the team's minorleague affiliate in Hamilton just before the Mangiola story broke, have beenordered by the team not to comment, but according to La Presse they had acloser relationship with Mangiola than Hamrlik did. Mangiola, who posted bailof C$45,000 ($35,000 U.S.), has convictions for assaulting a police officer in1997 and for possession of a stolen or forged credit card after a '99 shoppingspree that involved fine cigars and a $3,000 sheepskin coat. The NHL sentsecurity personnel to investigate the alleged links to Mangiola, but a leaguesource said the NHL doesn't expect any players to be implicated in any criminalactivity.
"This isdisturbing for a number of reasons," Montreal G.M. Bob Gainey said in hisoffice last week. "You take young guys [like the Kostitsyns] under yourcare. You attempt to build strength and direction.... These guys, somebodytripped them up. I'm a little upset with the kids, but I'm more pissed off with[Mangiola]. He made a definite point of infiltrating those kids'lives."
Gainey had justfinished dealing with another vexing Canadiens issue, the enigmatic AlexKovalev. If the Artist, as he is called, is guilty of anything this season,it's stealing money; the slumping $4.5 million per year right wing had 13 goalswhen Gainey requested that he skip back-to-back games at Washington andPittsburgh. "I didn't paint it as a humiliation," Gainey says, "andhe didn't see it as humiliation." At least once the initial shock woreoff.
Kovalev, a35-goal scorer in 2007--08, accepted the unscheduled hiatus and then, afterbeing raucously cheered during warmups at his Feb. 21 return against theSenators, responded with an unassisted goal, two assists and some inspired workon the penalty kill in a 5--3 win. It was his first game with more than twopoints since Nov. 1; the goal was just his second since Montreal fansballot-stuffed him and three teammates into the Jan. 25 All-Star Game at theBell Centre. "I wasn't proving anything," said Kovalev, who after hisOttawa performance added a goal and three assists in his next three games."I hate that word. I don't try to prove to people that they'rewrong."
Speaking of wrong... Canadiens icon Guy Lafleur was off the mark when he told the MontrealGazette days before Kovalev's return that Gainey's handling of the winger wasmisguided. Lafleur also assailed coach Guy Carbonneau for his line juggling andadded, "I don't think this club has a team spirit." Lafleur's commentswere surprising only because he is a paid team ambassador.
Perron hasn'tbeen on the payroll since being fired more than two decades ago, but he's aregular panelist on the delectably named 110%, a nightly sports show on theFrench-language network TQS. On Feb. 16, well before the Mangiola news broke,Perron declared that Sergei Kostitsyn, Higgins and goalie Carey Price (box,above) had been partying to excess, damaging their play. A week later the21-year-old Price, who has lost the starting job, told reporters, "I'm ayoung kid. It sucks when you try ... [to] have a good time, and things come upand bite you." When asked what he had learned from the experience, he said,"In the end my dad always said your sins will sort you out ... andevidently they did." This somewhat cryptic line might turn out be the quoteof the centennial season.
ABOVE THEportraits of Montreal's 44 Hall of Fame players in the Canadiens' dressing roomis an excerpt from John McCrae's World War I poem, In Flanders Fields: "Toyou from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high."Nothing is mentioned about Price using the torch to light his smokes.
Photographs arenow floating around the Internet—and seen by everyone in Montreal who has ane-mail address—dubbed HABS EN F√äTE! Undated and without context, they showCanadiens at frat-boy play. (In one photo Price has a lit cigarette between hislips. He says the picture was taken last summer. He adds that he does notsmoke.) There has been some lamenting from boys-will-be-boys apologists thatthe players have been Phelps-like victims of cellphone cameras, but to blamethe medium is to miss the point. As former NHL player Tom Chorske recalls ofhis Montreal days in the early 1990s, "I don't know if it had come from afan, a bar owner or a taxi driver, but you'd show up at practice the next dayand [then Canadiens coach] Pat Burns would say, 'I know where you were lastnight.' And he did." The Montreal night has 1,000 eyes. Says Gainey,"People call me up and give me information."
There is a maximthat hockey players get into trouble on the ice, not off it, which, of course,fails to give them enough credit for their incomes and ids. The Canadiens arelike players anywhere, except they work in a city, and for a team, that bearsthe weight of hockey history. The chasm is not between the Montreal players'partying and the acceptable standard of behavior for men with excesses ofmoney, fame and testosterone, but between the Canadiens' brand and incidentsthat rub the shine off the classy image.
Messing with thebrand can be perilous. While Gainey and former Montreal G.M. Serge Savard bothaver that they never made a trade strictly for off-ice reasons, players whohave been viewed as nuisances have been curiously exiled, including bon-vivantstar defenseman Chris Chelios, sent to Chicago 19 years ago; 2002 Hart Trophywinner José Théodore, dealt to Colorado in '06, three seasons after aphotograph of him with Hell's Angels emerged; and boulevardier Mike Ribeiro,the center whom Gainey off-loaded to Dallas, also in '06. Says a member of theMontreal police familiar with investigations involving Canadiens players sincethe 1980s, "You can't do something that will harm the reputation of theMontreal Canadiens. They will not tolerate it, no matter how important you areto the team as a player." Carbonneau, the coach, was traded to St. Louis inthe summer of '94 after a newspaper published a picture of him giving a middlefinger to its photographer, who was shooting Carbonneau on a golf course.
"We live by adifferent standard, a different set of rules," says defenseman MikeKomisarek. "We represent ourselves, but we also represent more than amillion people in Quebec and 100 years of history. This is not a place wherethey pick up the paper the next day to see if the team won or lost. We are rolemodels. And we owe something to all those players, teams and Stanley Cups thatcame before us."
A 25th StanleyCup in June is no longer widely anticipated, given the tortured nature of theseason, but missing the playoffs in this, of all springs, would ruin thecareful work done by a franchise that has always understood the importance ofceremony. To placate a passionate but increasingly restless fan base, Montrealmust win at least one or two rounds to add another coat of lacquer to thisshiny veneer of importance. If the Canadiens don't, they'll face the music.
Franchise icon Lafleur assailed Carbonneau for hisline juggling and added, "I DON'T THINK THIS CLUB HAS A TEAMSPIRIT."
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A savior last season when he led Montreal into theplayoffs, young goaltender Carey Price has lost his grip on the startingjob
CAREY PRICE is on his fifth set of Vaughn pads thisseason, having gone from his familiar white to flashy red around the time ofthe All-Star Game and now back to a different set of whites—interspersed with acouple of pairs of taupes that matched the vintage jerseys the Canadiens haveoccasionally worn. Color him blue.
The second-year goalie has slipped from being theEastern Conference's All-Star starter—albeit a distinction achieved courtesy ofheavy voting from Montreal fans still abuzz from Price's stirring rookie run—tobeing the second best on his team behind the previously unproven JaroslavHalak. From All-Star weekend through Sunday, Price had gone 2-7-1, with a 3.93goals-against average and an egregious .863 save percentage, bottoming out froma high that began last season when he seized the No. 1 job, allowing G.M. BobGainey to trade veteran Cristobal Huet at the deadline. "Probably a lack offocus," says the laconic Price, who missed eight games in January becauseof a knee injury. "I'm not angry [about being relegated to backup duty].I'm more motivated than anything."
This seems to be a classic case of too much, too soon.Although he's 6'3", Price has lately looked small, out of position and notsquare to the shot. He has been working so hard to find his misplaced game thatduring practices on a recent Western swing, he was diving around his creasetrying to stop every three-on-one or two-on-none—until goalie coach RollieMelanson ordered him to stop.
"He looks a little dejected, like he's carryingthe world along with him," Gainey says. "Twenty-one-year-olds who areasked to be grown-up performers don't always have the emotional andintellectual tools ready. The Canadiens don't want his self-confidence to slip.Says Gainey, "[With Price], it's 'Hey, kid, if you touch the guardrail,that's O.K. But we don't want you running through the guardrail.'"
Photograph by Scott Cunningham/NHLI/Getty Images
SMOTHERED BROTHER Andrei Kostitsyn (in white) and sibling Sergei have been forbidden to discuss their connection with a man allegedly linked to organized crime.
[See caption above]
ED WOLFSTEIN/ICON SMI (PRICE)
OFF-KILTER Price's poor positioning has contributed to his slump.
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (KOVALEV ARMS RAISED)
NICE RETURN After frustrating Carbonneau (opposite, left) and being told to skip a road trip, Kovalev had seven points in four games.
GRAHAM HUGHES/THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP (CARBONNEAU, KOVALAEV BENCH)
[See caption above]