Skip to main content

It didn't matter that the visiting team, the Montreal Canadiens, had lost seven of their past nine games and five in a row on the road. Or that the home team, the Calgary Flames, was immersed in a four-game losing streak of its own, longest of its season.

The Canadiens, as visitors in Western Canada, were the hottest ticket of the season, even if last night's game featured two of the coldest teams in the NHL, both desperate to reverse their recent losing ways.

The Canadiens didn't play Calgary at all last year, a function of the schedule in which only 10 interlocking games were played between the conferences coming out of the 2004-05 lockout. This year, the league reverted back to the previous format of 18 crossover games, meaning the Canadian teams now play a home-and-home with one another again.

Montreal's absence was keenly felt in the West. Ever since the Flames were relocated from Atlanta in 1980-81, there has been a particular warmth directed toward the Canadiens that normally is not shown to a visiting team, dating back to the Stampede Corral days, when the fans would routinely chant "Guy, Guy, Guy" whenever Habs star Guy Lafleur skated up the ice.

It helps too that, in the 1980s, the Flames and Canadiens played two memorable Stanley Cup finals against one another - a time when Canada's teams routinely challenged for championship honours. This spring represents the 20th anniversary of the epic 1989 confrontation between what were the two best teams in the league that season, featuring a 117-point Calgary team against a 115-point Montreal team.

A more telling comparison to their current incarnations might be to the 1986 final, when the Flames were sixth overall and the Canadiens seventh, but Calgary knocked off the No.ƒ|1 team in the league, the Edmonton Oilers, in the second round. Montreal, meanwhile, advanced to the final by eliminating the New York Rangers in the conference final, after the Rangers - a team that lost more games (38) than it won (36) - had upset the No.ƒ|1 team in the East, the Philadelphia Flyers, in the opening round.

That year, the Flames endured a devastating and record-setting 11-game losing skid in midseason before rebounding to qualify for the Stanley Cup final.

Many of the principals from that '86 playoff year were around yesterday at the Pengrowth Saddledome - Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey and head coach Guy Carbonneau, both of whom played on the team; along with Brian Skrudland, the hero of Game 2, who came by to visit with Murray Wilson, the Canadiens' radio colour man. Mike Keenan, who coached the Flyers that year, was there as well.

"We're not planning to lose 11 in a row," said Keenan, who remembered that the Flyers were devastated by the death of goaltender Pelle Lindbergh that season. Keenan has been around long enough to know that in every year, there are moments when the team can't do anything wrong, and other times when they can't get anything right.

"That's part of the experience you bring to a hockey club, and part of the learning process," he said. "We went through a [losing]phase in the fall and I expect we'll respond in the same fashion ¡K but the context is more difficult because there's only 30 games left and every team in our conference is still in the playoff picture."

At the moment, these are dark days for all six of Canada's NHL entries. The Oilers are getting routinely walloped; the Vancouver Canucks recently lost eight in a row; while the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators are hopelessly out of the playoff race already, even with two-plus months remaining in the season.

It was supposed to be different for both Montreal and Calgary, two teams that, until lately, were showing signs of making some postseason noise. They were not among the elite in either conference, but nicely positioned just below the Bostons and San Joses, a place where dark horse playoff contenders can sit in the weeds and possibly make some noise once April rolls around.

Still, the value of history is to show that occasionally the impossible can be done and, that as grim as things may appear for both teams right now, championships are not won or lost in February, but in April, May and in recent years, June.

"I like history, and I like that story," Flames left winger Michael Cammalleri said, after being told about the team's rags-to-riches rise in the spring of 1986.

"If we end up in the finals, I'll remember it for sure, except see if we can change the ending."

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct