It was a night where the Montreal Canadiens did what they do best: celebrate a piece of their glorious past and wax nostalgic about a time where the Habs were outrageously dominating the NHL. This time, Guy Lapointe’s #5 jersey (incidentally, this is the third number to be retired twice) joined the crowded Bell Center rafters, and was reunited with Larry Robinson’s #19 and Serge Savard’s #18 to complete the Big 3, as these Hall of Fame defensemen were known.
The ceremony was simple but effective, with video tributes from former teammates (and even Chicago legend Stan Mikita) were shown. Pointu, as Lapointe was known, was a big prankster, and numerous tales of cut up skate laces, cancelled practices and Vaseline handshakes (he even pulled that one on then Prime Minister Pierre-Elliott Trudeau!) were told. Lapointe of course garnered praise for his great team spirit, leadership and legendary playing. Numerous highlight reels showed Lapointe in action, with his trademark devastating slap shot going past quite a few helpless goalies. And in a lucky stroke of symmetry, the first goal of the game was scored by Brendan Gallagher with a monster slap shot from the face off circle that mirrored many of Lapointe’s goals.
Savard and Robinson were on hand to deliver short but touching tributes to their former teammate (although Robinson jokingly complained that Savard had used up his own two minutes). Lapointe has the second most points for a Habs defensemen (ahead of Andrei Markov but trailing Larry Robinson), holds the team record for the most goals in a season by a defenseman (28) and won 6 Cups with the team. In addition to his career in Montreal, his contribution to team Canada for the 1972 Summit Series against Russia, and the first Canada Cup in 1976 (widely believed to be the best hockey team ever assembled) and the 1979 Challenge Cup were mentioned.
An emotional Lapointe (“I was always more comfortable on my skates than in my shoes right now”) thanked his teammates, coaches, family and the fans for their support, and recalled that he almost didn’t make it to training camp as he was initially considering a career in law enforcement.
His banner was brought to the ice by fellow defensemen Andrei Markov and P. K. Subban, two of the best defensemen this team has seen since the days of the Big 3. (And really, apart from Chris Chelios, I can’t think of a better one than these two) Savard’s and Robinson’s banners had been lowered for the occasion, and Lapointe’s jersey joined them to reunite the famed trio under thunderous applause from the crowd.
This certainly was a deserving homage to a great player from the fabled 70’s Habs. But looking at the crowded Bell Centre rafters, where the 18 retired jerseys joust for attention with the 24 Stanley Cup banners (along with a Centennial banner, and also the retired Expos jerseys) and you have to ask: when will it be enough? Of course a storied franchise like the Habs, with its record number of championships, has plenty of legendary Hall of Famers among its alumni. But retiring a jersey needs to be reserved for players who truly transcended their game, and made an unforgettable impact on the community. 10 out of the 18 retired jerseys were honoured in the past 9 years. We get it; this 21 year drought without a Cup stings this proud organization. But it’s time to stop milking the past, especially as the current team is probably the best since the 1993 Cup edition. It’s time to build new legends.
There were recently suggestions that the team should retire former captain Saku Koivu’s number now that he’s retired. And I say no. Koivu’s deserves to be honoured as the longest running captain (tied with Jean Béliveau) and the team’s first European captain. And his courage for beating cancer and coming back to the NHL also merits a special place in the team’s history. But are we really ready to say that no one should ever wear #11 again because of Koivu’s exploits? No. We need to look at the players who were honoured in such a manner and count the number of records held, championships won or books written about them to re-establish what a legend is in the context of the a Montreal Canadiens. Before raising another number to the rafters, the team needs to ask themselves “Is this player worthy of standing up there alongside Howie Morenz, Jacques Plante, Maurice Richard, Guy Lafleur and Patrick Roy? Are they a once in a generation player?”
Doing otherwise will cheapen the legend of these players. And the Bell Centre has the Ring of Honour at the top of the stands. That’s the perfect place to honour all the amazing players that have suited up for this team.