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Montreal Canadiens legends (L-R) Jean Beliveau, Emile Bouchard, Elmer Lach and Patrick Roy sit together during a ceremony to celebrate the Canadiens 100th anniversary in Montreal, December 4, 2009. REUTERS/Shaun Best (SHAUN BEST)
Montreal Canadiens legends (L-R) Jean Beliveau, Emile Bouchard, Elmer Lach and Patrick Roy sit together during a ceremony to celebrate the Canadiens 100th anniversary in Montreal, December 4, 2009. REUTERS/Shaun Best (SHAUN BEST)

Canadiens greats honoured in Montreal Add to ...

The celebration began with a video catalogue of the franchise' greatest moments, but the first heartfelt, sustained applause went up when long-retired Montreal Canadiens trainer Eddy Palchak - clad in his familiar red satin team jacket - stepped up with a bucket of pucks and emptied it on to the ice.

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The cheer became a roar when Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy, in his trademark mask and a sweater he last wore on Montreal ice 15 years ago, led a group of almost 30 retired Canadiens players on to the ice.

The swirling group of white-sweatered players included Habs of the past like Peter Mahovlich, Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Bob Gainey, Mats Naslund, Chris Nilan, Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe to name just a few.

The crescendo rose further when Ken Dryden brought up the rear.

The players did laps of the ice (all carried wood sticks to complete the effect), then Dryden and Roy stepped into the nets at either end to take a few shots - the latter hamming it up with an athletic save on Mike Keane.

"I'm happy that warmup only lasted five minutes," Roy later said.

On the night the most decorated franchise in hockey history celebrated its centennial, it also moved to honour its two oldest surviving players by retiring their numbers.

Few sports organizations do pomp and circumstance better or have a stronger sense of occasion than the Montreal Canadiens.

So it was that 91-year-old Montreal Canadiens legend Elmer Lach, and 90-year-old former teammate Emile (Butch) Bouchard, had their uniform numbers raised to the rafters of the Bell Centre, joining the other Habs' immortals.

Lach centred the Habs' legendary Punch Line in the 1940 and 1950s - his linemates were Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Hector (Toe) Blake - and was the inaugural recipient of the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's scoring leader.

His No.16 was retired 34 years ago in honour of Henri Richard, but a second banner was raised last night.

Bouchard, a burly and tenacious defenceman who wore No.3 (sorry, Ryan O'Byrne, your new number is 20), played from 1941-56 and was captain for eight of those seasons, the first Francophone Quebecker to wear the C. He's been in the Hockey Hall of Fame since 1966.

Before the two men and their families watched their jerseys hoisted into the roof of the Bell Centre, the Canadiens celebrated their greatest names.

Serge Savard introduced Roy, who paid homage to the fans, and then Hollywood actor Viggo Mortensen - a long-time Canadiens fan - came out in his red Habs jersey to introduce Guy Lafleur, "my all-time hero," in French no less.

When the cheers died down sufficiently to allow the visibly emotional Lafleur to speak, he too said a few words about the fans.

"You guys partied some nights, we partied every night, and I believe that's why we were so successful," Lafleur said.

Finally, Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe - carrying a Maurice Richard jersey - came on to introduce former captain Jean Béliveau ("I always wanted to look that good," he quipped).

There followed a team picture including the Habs legends, the current squad, and a procession of more than 25 other surviving luminaries.

"It feels a little like the Forum, all the old players are around, I just feel extremely privileged," said long-time Canadiens equipment manager Pierre Gervais.

The Canadiens players wore specially made jerseys to mark the occasion - each wore at least two during the game - and their sticks and other equipment will be held on to for posterity by the team.

And just because they're pro hockey players doesn't mean the current Habs aren't fans.

"It's funny to see … multimillionaires coming up to me with this excited look and asking if they can have a puck," Gervais said.

Last night's event was the culmination of a 15-month celebration of the club's 100th anniversary, one that has dragged on too long in the minds of some.

Boston goaltender Tim Thomas had perhaps the best line - as he often does - when he said "It's great, but didn't we do this last year?" Centennial fatigue notwithstanding, it's been quite a hundred years, with 24 Stanley Cups and 54 members in the Hall of Fame.

Indeed, the Habs won the Stanley Cup even before the NHL was formed, beating the Portland Rosebuds in 1916.

If last night was a celebration of past accomplishments, the former glories have faded in the past decade-and-a-half.

Indeed, the song playing during the video showing the Canadiens' exploits of the last 16 Cup-less seasons - the thrilling 5-0 comeback against the New Rangers chief among them - summed up the team's recent history: "I still haven't found what I'm looking for."

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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