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Living well and winning often has always been the best revenge for the Montreal Canadiens.

Habs envy is part of hockey tradition in this country. The enduring franchise has won the Stanley Cup a record 24 times during its 100-year history - a National Hockey League milestone unlikely to be surpassed in our lifetimes, or the next one (in distant second place: the Toronto Maple Leafs, with 13).

Canonized by hockey purists, reviled by fans of opposing teams, the Canadiens are a professional sports institution, here and abroad. Travel anywhere in the world and you'll find someone wearing the red, white and blue of Les Habs.

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Hockey's most storied team receives the tribute treatment in The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years, 100 Stars (tonight, CBC at 9 p.m.). A TV appetizer to this weekend's NHL All-Star programming, the documentary parallels the timeline of the Canadiens with the history of Montreal itself. Neither the team nor the city could ever be accused of being boring.

Hosted and narrated by George Stroumboulopoulos, the film is an unabashed homage to the Montreal club. "I'm a life-long Habs fan," says Stroumboulopoulos, who bravely wore his Canadiens jersey while growing up in Toronto. "Montreal always seemed to exist on a higher hockey level, and there's nothing in the world better than your team winning." In methodic fashion, the program breaks down Habs history into four time periods. The first segment covers the early years of 1909 to 1939. Turn-of-the-century Montreal was a city divided in its tastes: The English-speaking went to music halls and vaudeville shows, while the French preferred more refined interests like opera, and hockey.

The Canadiens played through the Great War and won four Stanley Cups. Players like Auriel Joliet and goalie Georges Vézina became French-Canadian folk heroes, and the game found its first superstar in Howie Morenz, an English-speaking kid from Stratford, Ont.

The second chapter, covering 1940 to 1960, recounts the glory days of Les Canadiens and the birth of firewagon hockey. The postwar years saw Montreal bloom into "the Paris of North America," and witnessed the arrival of Maurice Richard, a tough if not necessarily overskilled kid from the city's East End. The Forum became a shrine for Canadiens fans, and the fiery Rocket Richard their messiah.

"Richard was the blue-collar Québécois hero," says Stroumboulopoulos, also a co-producer on the film. "The fact he was able to do what he did on the ice through sheer grit and determination made it even more impressive. He was the man."

And Montreal fan devotion was fierce back in the fifties. When the NHL president suspended Richard for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs in March, 1955, fans tore the Forum apart and the city was rocked with riots. "The place went nuts," recalls Don Cherry in the film. The Canadiens lost in the finals to Detroit that year, but Richard went on to lead the club to five consecutive Stanley Cup victories - another NHL record.

Equal time is devoted to the period of 1961 through 1971, which brought the rise of the Quiet Revolution, and five more Stanley Cup wins for Montreal. It was the era of Jean Béliveau, Gump Worsley and other Canadiens legends. "I swooned over Jean Béliveau," admits singer Anne Murray.

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And five more Cups came Montreal's way in the seventies, as did the October Crisis and further political unrest in La Belle Province. The new breed of Canadiens superstars included a quiet young law student turned goaltender named Ken Dryden, and the freewheeling sniper Guy Lafleur, who was known to frequent downtown Montreal nightclubs following games. Lafleur even released a disco instruction album, which is sampled in the program, to his great embarrassment.

Next came the comparatively sparse years of the Canadiens teams of the eighties and early nineties, personified by dogged performers like Bob Gainey, Guy Carbonneau and others. The club's Stanley Cup victories in 1986 and 1993 came largely from the acrobatics of goalie Patrick Roy. "Those wins were huge for fans," Stroumboulopoulos says. "They kept the Montreal legacy alive."

And as befits any TV tribute, there are Habs testimonials from Canadian celebrities. The film includes childhood memories from Montreal natives Sam Roberts and Gino Vanelli, who talks of eating blueberry pie with his family while watching hockey.

Equally nostalgic, Ottawa-born Dan Aykroyd reminisces about watching Canadiens games on a small black-and-white set with his grandfather over quart bottles in a Hull tavern. Jason Priestley warmly recalls wagering on the 1993 Stanley Cup final between the Canadiens and L.A. Kings: All his Hollywood pals were dazzled by the Wayne Gretzky-led Kings; Priestley bet on the Canadiens, and cleaned up.

In the most notable star endorsement, American actor Viggo Mortenson, a long-time fan, reveals he wore a classic Canadiens logo T-shirt under his Aragorn breastplate throughout the making of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. "It gave me just a little more power with the sword," he says.

Unbridled affection for the Montreal Canadiens fills every frame of 100 Years, 100 Stars. The religious reverence extends to the program's host, who took the occasion to indulge in some personal fantasy fulfilment at Montreal's Bell Centre, home of his beloved Canadiens club since 1996.

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"One Sunday morning I put on my skates and jumped on the ice and you can feel the spirit of Richard and other famous players in there," says Stroumboulopoulos. "Even though it wasn't the Forum, hockey is my religion, the Canadiens are my god, so this then was my cathedral."

Check local listings.

*****

Ryan's picks

FRIDAY

My Music: 50s Pop Parade

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First broadcast in 2007, this PBS concert special takes viewers down memory lane - way, way down memory lane. Eerily, the oldies music show is hosted by Robert Goulet - who has since gone on to that great recording studio in the sky - but the talent lineup should be familiar to anyone on the far side of retirement age. Creaky pop songstress Patti Page comes out to perform How Much Is That Doggie in the Window? Fifties superstar Jerry Vale sings his 1956 hit You Don't Know Me, prompting the blue-rinse ladies in the crowd to go wild. Famed Italian-American crooner Tony Martin - who turned 97 last month - delivers a workable rendition of Cole Porter's Begin the Beguine. In vocal groups, there are stage turns from the Ink Spots, the Gaylords, the Crew Cuts and the Mills Brothers. And when Goulet closes the show with The Impossible Dream, there isn't a dry eye in the house.

PBS at 8 p.m.

SATURDAY

Agatha Christie's Poirot

Does it say anything about the current state of television when the best Saturday-night viewing option is a 20-year-old outing of Poirot? Probably, but don't let that detract from your enjoyment of this 1989 murder-mystery starring David Suchet as the inscrutable Belgian detective. The story begins with Poirot holidaying on the island of Rhodes, circa 1930s. As fascist troops roam the streets, Poirot is diverted by the murder of a beautiful divorcée, Valentine Chantry, who perishes after drinking a pink-gin fizz. While the local constabulary interrogate the victim's alleged paramour, Poirot cuts to the chase by searching for the purchaser of the poison.

PBS at 10 p.m.

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