There’s a howling you’ll hear when the Montreal Canadiens start an NHL season with a run of 1-6-1. Fans lend their fury to the high machine-buzz of hockey-media frenzy, and and there’s an echo down there in the NHL’s basement where the Canadiens and the three sad points they’ve earned to date languish. The whole din of it gets amplified, as everything does, when you put it online. And history can’t resist raising a nagging voice, too.
Today its refrain is this: should these modern-day Canadiens lose tonight’s game at the Bell Centre to the visiting Florida Panthers, they’ll match the ’41-42 Canadiens for season-opening futility. That was the last time Montreal went 1-7-1 to start a season.
Lots of people have lots of good ideas. Captain Max Pacioretty should either start scoring/lose his C/get himself reunited on a line with centre Philip Danault/see to it that he’s traded to Edmonton as soon as possible, maybe in exchange for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. GM Marc Bergevin needs to address the media/find a sword and fall on it/reverse-engineer the trade that sent P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber.
Amid the clamour, coach Claude Julien was calm, ish, yesterday. “We’re all tired of losing, I think that’s pretty obvious,” he told reporters circling the team’s practice facility at Brossard, Quebec. “You know we really feel that we’re doing some good things but we’re not doing good enough for 60 minutes and we need to put full games together.”
Back in ’41, sloppy starting had become a bit of a Canadien tradition. With Cecil Hart at the helm, the team had launched its 1938-39 campaign by going 0-7-1. A year later they got going in 1939-40 with an encouraging 4-2-2 record before staggering through an eight-game losing streak followed by twin ten-game winless runs. In 1940-41, getting underway for new coach Dick Irvin, Canadiens sputtered out to a 1-5-2 start.
Irvin had just coached the Leafs to another Stanley Cup final when he quit Toronto for Montreal in the spring of ’41. He’d started his Leaf reign by winning a Cup in 1932 and in eight subsequent seasons, he’d steered his teams to six Stanley Cup finals.
Why would he want to take charge of a team that The Globe and Mail’s Ralph Allen called “a spent and creaking cellar occupant”?
For the challenge, presumably. Better money? Main Leafs man Conn Smythe was, in public at least, magnanimous — strangely so, to the extent that The Gazette ran his comments under the headline “Smythe in New Role/ As Aide to Canadiens.” It quoted him saying that Montreal had asked his permission to offer Irvin the job. “The Maple Leaf club’s reaction,” he continued, “was that we hated to see Irvin go but we felt that the sorry condition in which the Canadiens had found themselves wasn’t doing any team in the league any good.”
Smythe wanted to help, what’s more. “We are going to give him whatever help we can in player deals.” Maybe Irvin and the Canadiens could use Charlie Conacher, for instance, or Murray Armstrong?
“If he figures Conacher or Armstrong will fit,” Smythe prattled away, “then he can have them, and also two or three other players on our roster.”
Irvin must have figured otherwise. He went about reshaping the Canadiens without his former boss’ aid. In November, his new Montreal charges started off by tying Boston 1-1 at the Forum. They followed that up with four losses and an overtime tie before powering by the New York Americans 3-1 on November 23. The teams played again in New York the next night and Montreal lost by a score of 2-1.
“The rearguard has been the main grief of the made-over Habitants,” Harold C. Burr opined in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Rookies Alex Singbush, 19-year-old Ken Reardon, and Tony Graboski were inexperienced, liked to rush the puck too much. Star winger Toe Blake was in slump, too — that didn’t help. The best part, Burr thought: these Habs never quit fighting. “That’s one of the attributes of this young team — the old scrappiness.”
Irvin had vowed that the team would make the playoffs in ’41. The season was shorter then, of course, 48 games, so the margin for error was tight. Then again, six of the league’s seven teams got qualified for the post-season, so all Montreal had to do (and did) was to go 16-26-6 and edge out the woeful (and soon-to-be-extinct) New York Americans for the final playoff berth. (Facing the Chicago Black Hawks, Montreal fell in three games.)
Montreal would eventually get themselves turned around. In the fall of ’42, Canadiens added a young rookie named Maurice Richard to the fold. Two years after that, the team was at the top of the NHL standings when the season ended in March. And in April of 1944, they defeated the Chicago to win the Stanley Cup.
Before that, during the bleak years, hope does seem to have been more eternal in its bloom than in modern-day Montreal.
Deep into November of 1938, English Montrealers awoke to read in The Gazette that Canadiens had lost their sixth straight game in New York the previous evening, 2-1 to the Rangers. Never mind: even the New York papers were said to be reporting that Montreal had played the Rangers off their skates for a good part of the game. Jim Burchard of The Telegram said the visiting team lacked only luck, while The Herald-Tribune felt they just needed a bit more polish in their finishing. “They muffed half a dozen scoring chances,” Kerr Petri wrote. Coach Cecil Hart was certain his boys would beat the Americans in the next game, that very night. “On the basis of last night’s form, we can do it,” he said. “We’re going to win plenty of games after that one, too. And if we had any of the breaks last night, the first victory might be ours already.” (The Americans whomped them, instead, 7-3.)
Four years later, almost to the day, Dick Irvin was telling the hockey writers that the 2-1 loss in Detroit that left the Canadiens adrift at 0-4-2 was cause for … encouragement. “One can’t be satisfied by obtaining only two points out of a possible 12, but they are improving. They played good hockey in Detroit, had more chances, I think, but the other guys got the decision — and that’s what counts.”
A year after that, November of 1941, and the 0-4-1 Canadiens had the Rangers coming in. “Despite the fact Canadiens have not yet won a game,” The Gazette noted, “the box-office at the Forum reported yesterday prospects for a big crowd tonight are bright.”
Montreal lost that one, 7-2. Still, as he’d done a year earlier, Irvin did guide the team once more into the playoffs. Think of that as Max Pacioretty and Carey Price lead their 2017 Canadiens out onto the ice tonight.