What to make of the events of the last week? I can’t tell you that; I don’t know. We’re in trying times, and they’re frightening. Hold fast to the ones you love. That I can recommend. And: wash your hands. As for hockey, I’ll carry on telling its stories. Today’s recalls the week 24 years ago that the Montreal Canadiens took leave of the rink on Cabot Square that they’d called home for 72 years. It was on Monday dated March 11 that the Canadiens played their final game at the Forum, beating the visiting Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1. The late great Roger Doucet returned (via tape) to sing O Canada that night. Fifty-six former Canadiens were on hand, including 20 Hall-of-Famers, and the stirring pre-game ceremonies included a ten-minute ovation for Rocket Richard. I watched all this from high up in the rafters, where I was seated in the overflow press section, next to the man from The Jerusalem Post. He was working the game whereas I was just watching, and marvelling: the assignment for which I’d journeyed from Toronto was the next night, Tuesday. I’d convinced the features editor I worked with at The Financial Post that what he really needed, whether he knew it or not, were 1,800 words reporting on the public auction whereby the Canadiens sold off 145 Forum artifacts, some more historic than others. And so, having witnessed Monday’s game, I was back at the rink the following night to get my story. Four days later, as the Canadiens prepared to host the New York Rangers for the first game in their brand-new rink (then named for Molson’s, now known as the Bell Centre), my feature ran on page 22 of the weekend Post, up at the front of the FP Review section, under the headline “Bidding Farewell To The Forum.” It went like this:
MONTREAL — Bidder No. 99 was a man, fortyish, with a widened middle, glasses, and a diminished preserve of dark hair, strategically combed. For four hours on Tuesday night, while the Montreal Canadiens said so long to their beloved Forum by selling it off piece by selected piece at public auction, No. 99 sat in the front row, spending his money in amounts divisible by a thousand.
No. 99 turned out to be a computer consultant by the name of Marc Cooper, who’d come for his piece of the Forum from Manalapan, New Jersey. “I’m proud to be a Canadiens fan,” he said, like a politician speaking to voters whose backing he already had. “There’s only one team in sports like this.”
On the auction floor, Cooper sat within subtle-nodding distance of the auctioneer, Serge Belec, who ran the show at a frantic pace in two languages. Cooper didn’t look like a particularly happy man, but he seemed determined, and not uneasy with expenditure. A little later, it became clear just much how in earnest he was. If Guy Lafleur had wandered into, it’s entirely possible that Cooper would have stepped up with an offer to buy the legendary right winger to ornament his rec room. As it was, absent Lafleur, Tuesday’s was a C$75,000 night for Cooper. His wife, he said, was behind him all the way on this.
In all, about 1,000 people paid $35 to secure their bidding number and with it the chance to shell out for a souvenir of the most famous hockey there is. (Another 1,500 or so paid $5 each to watch these proceedings.) Mostly they were men; mostly they stayed out of the bidding once they learned what kind of money it was going to take to wrest a piece of history from the corner of Atwater and Ste. Catherine West.
The night before, a crowd of 17,959 had watched the Canadiens play the final game of their 72-year tenancy at the Forum, beating the visiting Dallas Stars by a score of 4-1 in the company of some of the greatest Canadiens ever to have worn the bleu, the blanc, the rouge. Fifty-six former Canadiens were on hand on Monday night, 20 Hall-of-Famers among them, including Maurice and Henri Richard, Butch Bouchard, Jean Béliveau, Elmer Lach, Frank Mahovlich, Lafleur, Bob Gainey, and Ken Dryden.
Tuesday night, No. 99 moved his buying power to the forefront early and kept on reiterating it. For $31,000 he bought Lot 22, the banner that had previously hung high in the Forum rafters to commemorate the first Stanley Cup the team won in the NHL era in 1923-24. Another $20,000 got him the net the Canadiens had defended during the first period the night before. For a further $5,000, Cooper scored a sturdy post festooned with four goal-lights that had reached the end of their Forum career. He spent $3,400 on a pair of tall grey metal dressing-room lockers wherein Canadiens Pierre Turgeon and Vincent Damphousse had until very recently parked their shoes and hang their trousers while they were out pursuing pucks.
Alongside Cooper, there were a couple of other big spenders. A bar owner from Laval, Quebec, snapped up the most recent Stanley Cup banner, from 1992-93, for $32,000. Somebody else spent $900 on one of the Forum’s newly decommissioned hotdog grills. For $4.70 a go, most everybody else bought a Molson Export and drank it slowly.
What was wrong with the venerable old Forum, which hosted 29 Stanley Cup finals over the years, 12 of which saw the Canadiens triumph, along with countless lesser glories, that the its end came nigh? After seven decades, it was still in good working order. Fatally, the Forum is an old rink in a new age that’s shaped largely along hard, profit-minded bottom lines. That’s why the Canadiens are moving not quite two kilometres to the east where a glimmering new rink, named Centre Molson for the owners of the team, awaits. Roomier than the Forum by 5,000 seats, it’s also more lucrative by a factor of several dozen additional corporate suites.
There’s no word yet on what’s become of the Forum now that the Canadiens are moving on. Optimists favour talk of a park that would preserve the ice-surface out-of-doors. Whatever happens, the building isn’t likely to survive. In recent weeks, some fans have made clear their willingness to help with the demolition: one handy devotee wrestled one of the Forum’s back-stiffening seats from its Section 111 moorings and carried it off — i.e. stole it — during a February 12 game.
The legal way to secure of the Forum’s 16,000-odd seats was to order one: starting in January, for prices ranging from $125 to $290 per seat (plus shipping), most of them went on sale, with delivery to follow in May. The rest of the Forum’s furniture — including oddments like the hot-dog grill and premium items like the seat from which then-NHL president Clarence Campbell watched the Richard Riot start to stir and explode in March of 1955 — was reserved for this week’s event.
Meanwhile, the official unmaking of the Forum by auction was sanctioned by Canadiens’ president Ronald Corey, with all proceeds to be divided between the United Way in Montreal and the association representing former Canadiens players.
In Montreal, some of the faithful bewailed the auction as soon as it was announced: wasn’t it bad enough crass commercialization had doomed the building itself without the sale of sacramental artifacts as the Stanley Cup banners that announced from the Forum’s rafters 24 Canadiens’ triumphs? Didn’t the tangibles of tradition mean anything? “We’d like to think those banners are more or less public property,” grumbled Montreal Gazette columnist Jack Todd, “given the amount of money and emotion Montrealers have invested in every one.”
“Now, thanks to Molson, any Westmount Trust Fund Baby can bid on the original 1944 Stanley Cup pennant.”
Sacred the banners may be, but Todd didn’t quite have it right: the ones lowered from on high to be auctioned date only to 1992, so whatever their sentimental value, there was nothing antique to them. In fact, the two-metre long pennants, none of which would sell fore less than $8,000 (the one from ’44 went for $10K), were the stuff of shower curtains: they were made, every one, from serviceable, ordinary plastic.
It’s customary before auctions for the public to be offered estimates on what an object will sell for. In anticipation of the estate of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in April in New York, for instance, Sotheby’s has issued a helpful shopping list advising prospective shoppers of the least they can expect to pay on a particular item: US$800 for a quiver of JFK’s golf clubs, a watercolour by John Singer Sargent for somewhere within shouting distance of $US125,000.
The catalogue for what the Canadiens called “The Forum’s Super Auction” offered no such guidelines, either because organizers wanted the market to establish its own boundaries on the night or because they had no standards against which to value most of what was on offer. There are experts to gauge the relative worth of a painting; there are even, apparently, some who can fix a price tag on a presidential putter. But how do you account for the value that true-heart fans will attach to otherwise everyday objects from a holy temple? What isa door to a players’ bench actually worth to the faithful? What price the puck that last Monday Canadiens’ winger Andrei Kovalenko scored the last-ever goal at the Forum?
Pre-auction intelligence had it that prices were going to run high. That’s what Marc Cooper was hearing, anyway. He came prepared to spend $100,000, most of which, he suspected, would go towards a single plastic Stanley-Cup banner. Word had it, too, that he’d be in competition with several prominent former Canadiens. Ex-coach Pat Burns was said to be interested in the players’ bench behind which he used to patrol. Meanwhile, the bench from and door to a penalty box were reported to be coveted by former Habs’ hard-heads Chris Nilan and John Ferguson. Colorado Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy left Montreal left Montreal in a hurry and a snit this past December, but he was said to be in the market for a piece of his Montreal past: the banner from the Canadiens’ — and his own — last Stanley Cup championship in 1992-93. He was said to be dispatching a representative to the auction to do his bidding.
As it turned out, the only former Hab to successfully pay it backwards was Hall-of-Fame winger Dickie Moore, who spent $650 on a small rink clock. On each of the 144 lots available on the night, auctioneer Serge Belec kept the pace of Doug Harvey on a powerplay rush, leaving no room for the hesitant of heart or wallet. “Give me four thousand,” he proclaimed at one point via his headset microphone, “or get outta town.”
In quick succession as the selling got going as the hour struck seven, Belec peddled a vintage ice with a wide red blade ($800), a turnstile ($1,800), a stick and a sweater, both autographed by Canadiens’ goaltender Jocelyn Thibault ($5,100), a Hab-branded lectern from the Forum press room ($8,000).
Pat Burns didn’t get his bench: after a short back-and-forth among dogged bidders, Montreal lawyer Louise Houle’s $6,000 won out. “I’ve got a little sports room in my basement,” she said afterwards. “It’s going straight in there. So far I’ve got Expos stuff. If I’m going to start in with hockey, I might as well start right.” She would be sitting on it, she said, along with “anyone who asks very politely.”
The door from the Canadiens’ dressing room fetched $11,500, Clarence Campbell’s red seat, $12,000.
Robert Vachon, a pharmacist from Valleyfield, Quebec, paid out a total of $25,000 for a clock and a banner he planned to raise in a bowling alley he was opening. Larry Harnish, a fisherman who’d made the journey from Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia, came away having shelled out $2,000 for defenceman Lyle Odelein’s stick and sweater. He was going to display them, he said, on his living-room wall.
By night’s end, when Canadiens president Ronald Corey was proudly declaring a total take of $726,500, Marc Cooper figured that about ten percent of that was him. His Stanley Cup banner would be hanging — well, he wasn’t quite yet sure where it was going, he’d have to consult with his wife. The net with the glossy red goalposts? That would probably be headed for the basement back in New Jersey. His two sons, aged four and eight, were getting the lockers: they’d been asking for lockers.
Spending his $75,000 had left Cooper elated. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I just dreamed of coming to the Forum. Now to have so much of this history in my house is just great.”