Farewell to Montreal Forum

Yvon Lambert cherishes the memory of it still, the magic moment when he briefly wore the crown. Like so many Montreal fables, it is a story about hockey. And like most hockey stories in the city, it happened at the Forum, on a warm evening in May 17 years ago. The Canadiens and their arch-rivals from Boston were locked in a 4-4 tie, playing sudden-death overtime in the seventh and deciding game of the Stanley Cup semifinals. "Serge Savard intercepts a Bruins pass right there inside the blue line," recalls Lambert, excitement dawning in his voice as if it had all unfolded only yesterday. He stabs a finger down at the deserted rink, as empty as the banked rows of seats rising into the gloom all around him. "Serge feathers the puck to Réjean Houle at centre ice," he continues. "Reggie flips it up to Mario Tremblay, who's charging down the right wing. I make a beeline for the net, reaching it just in time to pick up a perfect goalmouth pass from Mario and boom! - puck's in the net, game's over and, on that night at least, I'm the King of Montreal." Lambert chuckles, casting a fond glance around the Forum's darkened interior. "Sure, I'm going to miss this place."

He is not alone. The old building at the corner of Atwater Avenue and Ste-Catherine Street in downtown Montreal has been spawning incandescent memories ever since it first opened Nov. 29, 1924. In the ensuing seven decades, more than 90 million spectators have passed through its portals, watching everything from six-day bicycle races to three-ring circuses. Almost everyone in the entertainment world has played the Forum: Benny Goodman and The Beatles, Frank Sinatra and The Rolling Stones, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Luciano Pavarotti, Diana Ross, Céline Dion and the London Symphony Orchestra. It has been a boxing ring, a tennis court, a basketball stadium, an Olympic gymnasium, even a church. But above all else, the Forum has been a hockey arena, arguably the premier rink in North America. It is not only the home of the storied Canadiens, the club that has nurtured some of the most enduring legends of the game, but also the rink by which all others are measured. And when the Forum finally closes down for good this week, its passing will mark the end of an era, the sad demise of a venerable structure that has long been regarded as hockey's high temple.

Even those responsible for the development are willing to admit as much. "We're all torn by this," acknowledges Canadiens' club president Ronald Corey, chief architect of the move to shift the team out of the Forum and into the sparkling new $230-million Molson Centre, some three kilometres farther east along Ste-Catherine Street. The root problem, like so many others in modern sport, revolves around money. "We don't have a lot of control over our costs," Corey explains, diplomatically refraining from pointing out that payroll is the prime culprit. In that regard, the Molson Centre will certainly help. There are 21,361 seats in the place, 5,000 more than in the Forum. Close to 1,400 of those new seats are contained in 135 corporate VIP suites, each with private restrooms, marbled kitchenettes and leathered lounges. The suites alone, renting for $125,000 apiece, will earn the club $12 million annually, $9 million more than the VIP boxes in the Forum provided. The total gate per game at the Molson Centre is expected to be $1,400,000 compared with the Forum's $1 million. Add in a few extras from expanded concessions, three restaurants with a seating capacity of 1,000 and indoor parking for 600 cars and the picture begins to emerge. "We don't have a lot of choice," shrugs Corey, "not if we want to stay competitive."

The club's president makes no apologies, however, for the team's new home. "We've been working on this project day and night for the past eight years," says Corey, proudly conducting a visitor on a two-hour tour of an impressive facility that does indeed appear to be state of the art. "Right from the outset, we wanted a building that was designed precisely for hockey," he explains. "We deliberately chose architects who had never built an arena before to ensure that we remained in absolute control of all the details. We did not want one of those multi-function facilities where hockey is almost an afterthought. This place was designed by hockey people for hockey people."

There certainly does not seem to be a bad seat in the Molson Centre, not even way up in the very back row of the steeply banked $15-a-seat blues. (Most expensive seat: $95 for rinkside or the "VIP Club" at mid-level that features its own restaurant and conference rooms.) The sight lines are clear from anywhere. And the attention to detail is evident. The team's dressing room is small, a virtual replica of the cozy confines the players used in the Forum, apparently in response to suggestions from both coaches and players that close quarters make for a close team. The three restaurants, in contrast, are spacious, decorated with Canadiens' memorabilia. There is a room dubbed The Penalty Box in one of the eateries, a tight little space where the penalty bench from the Forum rests beneath the pictures of leading Habs' bad boys - the five players with the highest accumulation of penalty minutes in team history (No.1: Chris Nilan, known as "Knuckles"). High above the ice on a catwalk that circles the rink, there are 140 media workstations, all equipped with telephones and computer jacks, most with television sets as well.

As far as the players are concerned, the current batch sporting the Canadiens' bleu-blanc-et-rouge jerseys seem enthusiastic about their new home. "It's awesome," remarked defenceman Lyle Odelein last week after the team's first practice at the Molson Centre. "The ice is fantastic. We used to have the worst ice in the league. Now I think we've got the best. We're a good skating team so that's probably going to help us a lot." The new plastic boards and glass walls caught most players' attention, particularly goaltender Jocelyn Thibault. "There's no metal dividers between the panes of glass on top of the boards so that means I'm going to have fewer bad bounces to worry about behind the net," said Thibault.

Centreman Saku Koivu, on the other hand, found the boards a little stiff. "I think there might be a few more injuries from those," he cautioned. At the same time, the Finnish rookie had warm praise for the building itself. "I've seen quite a few rinks all over Europe and North America but this one is certainly the most beautiful," he offered. "It's hard to imagine what it's going to be like when there are 21,000 people in those stands, so close to the ice." Only team captain Pierre Turgeon had a word of regret for what is passing. "It will be sad to leave the Forum," he said. "It's going to be an adjustment that I guess we'll just have to get used to."

In that, he echoed the sentiments expressed by Yvon Lambert, who wore the same Tricolore in an earlier era. For nine years in the 1970s and early 1980s, Lambert patrolled left wing for the Canadiens, seven of them on the same "Kid" line with Doug Risebrough and the Hab's current coach, Mario Tremblay. In hockey parlance, he was known as a "plumber," one of those big wingers willing to tough it out in the corners and among the flying elbows in front of the goaltender's crease. They were good years, full of warm memories, none more satisfying than the heady moment in May when he scored the overtime winner against the Bruins. Seventeen years later, and 25 lb. heavier, Lambert is still with the Canadiens' organization, still employed at the Forum. He runs the tavern, tucked away in a corner of the building. "I've got a lot of regulars who are really going to miss the place," he says. "They're older folks, widows and widowers mostly, and some of them have been coming to the Forum almost every day for the past 30 or 40 years. For them, it's going to be hard."

But Lambert himself is more than ready for the move despite the tug of past associations. He's been hired as director of publicity and marketing for the new restaurant at the Molson Centre that is called Ovation, a 350-seat brasserie scheduled to remain open seven days a week. "There comes a time when you just have to move on," he says. "It's life. I've got two daughters, both of them almost grown up now. It would be nice if your kids stayed five years old forever. It would be nice if you could play hockey forever. But you can't, like it or not."

And so the Forum will pass into history. The last game was played on Monday, a contest between the Canadiens and the Dallas Stars. The first game in the new building is scheduled for this coming Saturday, when the Habs meet the New York Rangers. All this week, there are festivities planned to mourn the passing of the old and celebrate the arrival of the new. Chief among them is an auction to sell, on behalf of charity and the Canadiens Alumni Association, much of the Forum's furnishings, including every seat in the place. As for the venerable building that has stood at the corner of Atwater and Ste-Catherine for nearly 72 years, nobody yet knows what will become of it. Perhaps it, too, will be dismantled, leaving nothing but the memories.

Maclean's March 18, 1996