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Canadiens sort through the indignities

Injuries plague them. They could miss the playoffs for 3rd straight season. And Americans could buy them.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 18, 2001


MONTREAL -- As a television analyst for RDS, the French-language equivalent of ESPN in Canada, Jacques Demers tries to be an impartial observer of the Canadiens.

But when Demers, who grew up in Montreal and coached the Canadiens to the 1993 Stanley Cup, was asked Wednesday about how far the franchise has fallen, his seemingly perpetual smile fell just as far.

"I think it is very sad," Demers said. "I was part of a great tradition not only as an employee but a fan, and I am a fan. I find it very difficult."

This is a franchise that has won a record 24 Stanley Cups, including runs of five and four in a row.

But it also is a franchise with a chance to miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season for the first time since 1922. It is a franchise that regularly plays to thousands of empty seats at the 21,273-seat Molson Centre.

Coach Alain Vigneault and general manager Rejean Houle were fired Nov. 20 and replaced with Michel Therrien, the team's fifth coach since 1990, and Andre Savard.

And in what has been played in the media as a type of sacrilege, the Molson brewery may sell at least a percentage of the team to a group based in the United States.

The Toronto Globe and Mail reported Wednesday that three U.S. groups -- including one fronted by Jonathan Ledecky, who is part of the Capitals' ownership group -- are in the mix.

Under the stern and watchful eyes of the portraits of former Canadiens and a quote on the locker room wall that exhorts current Canadiens to tend the flame of tradition, defenseman Karl Dykhuis tried to make sense of the team's struggles.

"It's tough," Dykhuis said. "This is the only sport in town, and everyone expects big things from the Montreal Canadiens. It makes it tough because it's something that shouldn't happen."

But it has, and the causes are no mystery.

The Canadiens have drafted poorly and made trades that cost them Patrick Roy, Pierre Turgeon and Eric Desjardins, among others.

The Molson Centre, which replaced the legendary Forum and was supposed to help raise revenue, is instead helping sink the team's bottom line. The arena has an annual tax burden of $11-million (Canadian) and has many unsold suites.

"They use to talk about the ghosts of the Forum," Demers said. "No ghosts followed this team."

The Canadiens wish they could shed the injury bug that easily. Montreal has skated with a limp since the beginning of last season, when it lost a record 536 man games to injury. When the team faces the Lightning tonight at the Molson Centre, 10 regular players will sit out.

Though Dykhuis, a former Lightning player, said he thinks the fans understand the team's plight, it is not enough to keep some from jumping ship. "You lose in Tampa, it's tough, it's disturbing, but it's manageable," Dykhuis said. "Here, there are no excuses."

But there is hope. The Canadiens were in a similar funk last season, caught fire and missed the playoffs by two points. The Molson Centre was full, and the Habs were the toast of the town.

"It was just a taste of what it can be like," defenseman Eric Weinrich said. "It was probably what people were used to. It was exciting. You couldn't go anywhere without someone saying your name or asking you to sign something."

Right now Molson is impatiently waiting for someone to step up and sign on the dotted line.

Media howling to the contrary, Demers, a former Lightning coach, said it doesn't matter who owns the team. First, he said, "The Canadiens are too important to the NHL. We'll be dead before the Canadiens leave Montreal."

And besides, Demers said, "Fans don't give a hoot who owns the Canadiens as long as they have a competitive team."

"But if an American did buy it," Weinrich said, "I just hope they would respect the tradition and history of the team."

A return to the playoffs wouldn't hurt, either.

Tonight: Lightning at Canadiens

WHEN/WHERE: 7:30; Molson Centre, Montreal.

RADIO: WDAE-AM 620.

THE LOWDOWN: In 26 games under coach Michel Therrien, the Canadiens are 9-12-2-3. They have won two of their past three and are 4-4 in their past eight. The Lightning has lost seven of its past eight. Expect Mathieu Garon to start in goal for the Canadiens. Lightning coach John Tortorella said he will make his goaltending decision today. The Canadiens have 10 players out with injuries. Montreal is 7-13-2-1 at the Molson Centre. Montreal RW Brian Savage is second in the league with 12 power-play goals. Montreal D Andrei Markov led all rookies with 11 power-play assists. The Lightning's Brad Richards was second. The Canadiens have allowed one short-handed goal, tied for the least in the league. This is the third of four meetings between the teams. Tampa Bay won the first two, 3-1 at the Ice Palace on Nov. 10 and 1-0 at the Molson Centre on Nov. 14. Montreal outshot the Lightning 61-40 in those games. The Canadiens lead the series 14-13-4 and are 8-6-1 at home.

-- Compiled by Damian Cristodero.

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