Richard Labbé recently reported in La Presse that the Montreal Canadiens plan to retire Patrick Roy’s #33 this upcoming season and suggests that the ceremony will likely take place during the month of November, though the club refuses to confirm or deny any details about the report until a formal announcement is made regarding the organization’s plans for their centennial season celebrations on the 24th of September. In the article, Labbé puts forth the expected retirement as a means of both honouring a great player’s legacy on the ice and of burying the hatchet and mending the fraught relationship between the most storied franchise in hockey history and arguably its greatest goaltender of all time. These two correlated ends may, however, combine for a third and more consequential effect—that of breaking the Curse of St-Patrick.
Having earned the nickname of St-Patrick, Patron Saint of Stopping Pucks, early in his illustrious career, Roy’s tenure with the Montreal Canadiens came to an infamously abrupt end in December of 1995. During a game that is burned into the memories of many Habs fans, Patrick Roy was left in goal by rookie head coach, Mario Tremblay, for 9 of the Detroit Red Wings’ 11 goals. Finally relieved from his net, Roy left the ice surface, stormed past Tremblay and told team President, Ronald Corey, who was seated behind the bench, that he would not play another game for the Montreal Canadiens. True to his word, Roy never again donned the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge of les Canadiens, and 4 days later, on the 6th of December, was traded to the Colorado Avalanche.
In a deal dubbed “Le Trade” in reference to hockey’s most monumental trade (that which sent Wayne Gretzky to the L.A. Kings, known simply as “The Trade”), Roy was packaged alongside team Captain, Mike Keane, to the Avs in exchange for Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Rucinsky and Andrei Kovalenko. That season, Roy led Colorado to their first ever Stanley Cup victory. Roy won a second Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2001, along with his third career Conn Smythe as playoff M.V.P before calling it a career following the 2002-03 season. The Montreal Canadiens, meanwhile, have not had so much as a sniff at Lord Stanley’s Cup since Roy’s departure.
Is Montreal’s longest Stanley Cup drought in franchise history somehow inextricably linked to the fateful events of December of ’95? Sports writers Jack Todd and Michael Farber, along with a contingent of Habs faithful, have aptly suggested the presence of a curse—The Curse of St-Patrick—in response to the correlation. Remember that Roy’s Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 1996 came in their first season in Colorado after being relocated from Quebec City. The comparison is bound to be drawn then to another legendary sports curse—The Curse of the Bambino. Like the trade that saw the Red Sox send Babe Ruth to the rival Yankees, the trade that saw the Habs send Roy to the rival Nordiques, via Colorado, has resulted in years of relative futility for the offending team.
Talk of a curse is more tongue-in-cheek than true belief, though there is some compelling evidence in support of its authenticity. In 12 seasons since “Le Trade”, Montreal has missed the post-season 5 times, including 3 years in a row from 1998-99 to 2000-01 to match their longest non-playoff streak in franchise history. In those 12 years, the Canadiens disposed of no less than 7 starting goaltenders, none of which held the job for a duration of 5 years. By comparison, Roy played 7 seasons as Colorado’s starter, appeared in 5 All-Star games, won 7 division titles, reached the Western Conference Finals 6 times and won 2 Stanley Cup Championships.
In his time with Colorado, Roy became the All-Time leader among NHL goaltenders with 551 wins, and although that record stands to be topped by Martin Brodeur at some point this season, Roy’s true impact is seen in his post-season success, where his record of 151 wins (56 better than Brodeur) will very likely never be paralleled. Minus the game’s greatest playoff goalie, Montreal has won just 4 playoff series in 12 years, none of which were past the 1st round, while Roy won 16 series in just 7 years.
The effects of the curse run much deeper than playoff success, however, as seen in the carry-over of that fateful 1995-96 season. Take, for example, two recognizable players who made their first appearances with the Habs that year—Saku Koivu and José Theodore. Koivu played his rookie season with le Tricolore in 1995-96, participating in a full 82 games. The following year, Koivu went down with a serious knee injury after leading the league in scoring through the first part of the season, and has not played a full 82 game season since. The adversity he has faced in his career has been well-documented, and a closer look at its timing highlights some unnerving coincidences. Roy hoisted his 4th and final Stanley Cup in the 2000-01 season, missed almost in its entirety by Koivu after being diagnosed with cancer, while the freak and career-threatening eye injury suffered by Koivu in the playoffs of 2006 occurred just prior to Roy’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Theodore, on the other hand, made just one appearance with the Canadiens in 1995-96, and took several years before he finally made his mark on the team and around the league in 2001-02 with a performance worthy of both the Vezina and Hart trophies. The Vezina award was not so clear-cut as is now remembered, however, as runner-up, (you guessed it) Patrick Roy, had bested Theo in wins, shutouts, and G.A.A. while trailing him only in Save % with a .925 vs. Theo’s .931. From that point on, Theodore suffered a series of controversies, both personal and professional, culminating in the monumental collapse of his performance in 2005-06. He, too, was shipped to Colorado that season, where he would eventually regain his form.
Finally, in most recent history, Montreal experienced their most promising season since Roy’s departure. A dream-like regular season found the Canadiens 1st in the Eastern Conference going into the playoffs, though the team’s luck changed late in the season, almost all at once. Nearly injury-free through the duration of the season, the team lost key players Mike Komisarek, Francis Bouillon, Mark Streit and (once again) Saku Koivu to injury, all in a very short span at the end of March. Suddenly injury-riddled, the Habs struggled in the playoffs and fell to the Flyers in the midst of the mystery collapse of rookie phenom netminder, Carey Price.
Returning then to the notion of a curse, the date of Montreal’s turned luck perhaps holds the key to the curse; What comes around every year in late March? Aside from Montreal’s annual downturn in the standings or later playoff collapse… St-Patrick’s Day! Celebrated March 17th in honour of the Patron Saint of Ireland, St-Patty’s Day holds a special place in Habs history, including the Richard Riot of 1955 and, in 1996, the move from the Montreal Forum to the Molson Centre.
The legend of St-Patrick (for whom the holiday is named) credits him with having originated and taught the concept of three divine persons from one God--the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost--through the image of the shamrock (three leafs from one stem). Having traded away Patrick alongside Captain Keane (notably of Irish descent) just a few months earlier, Montreal was left without their own Patron Saint to usher the notorious ghosts of the Old Forum across town to the newly constructed Molson Centre. Oft noted since the move, the absence of the ghosts has left the Holy Trinity of the Montreal Canadiens tragically incomplete.
Construction on the Molson Centre (now the Bell Centre) began exactly 13 days after the victory of Montreal’s 24th Stanley Cup in June of 1993. Now 13 years since their move, the Canadiens potentially have an opportunity to reverse the curse that has plagued them since the fateful season that saw the end of St-Patrick’s tenure in Montreal. Recent jersey retirements by the Canadiens have been scheduled on a calendar date matching the number being retired (i.e. Gainey on the 23rd, Robinson on the 19th, etc.), which obviously is not possible in the case of Roy’s #33. Labbé’s suggestion that the ceremony is scheduled to take place in November may therefore reference a Saturday night game on the 22nd (11/22), though Roy is already scheduled to coach his Quebec Remparts in Drummondville at 4:00 that afternoon.
Rather, I ask what more fitting day there could be for this ceremony than St-Patrick’s Day. Montreal plays the New York Rangers on the 17th of March 2009, 13 years and 1 day after their first game in their current home (also against the Rangers) and two days after the conclusion of Roy’s regular season with the Remparts. What better day to officially welcome back their lost son, the father of modern goaltending style, and perhaps with him the ghosts of the Old Forum than St-Patrick’s Day? In any case, a little luck of the Irish couldn’t hurt…