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‘No dynasty lasts forever’: the long, slow decline of the Montreal Canadiens

They once stood with the Yankees and Celtics among North America’s iconic teams. But a quarter-century since the last of their 24 titles, the Habs’ glory days appear gone for good

“The Canadiens were more conscious of what it means to win. To them, winning was the only thing,” once said Lorne ‘Gump’ Worsley, a “beer-belly” goalie who spent 11 seasons playing for the New York Rangers at the old Madison Square Garden. According to Rangers coach Phil Watson, Gump was just another “horse-shit” player on a team that never got past the first round of the playoffs. But in 1963, Worsley was traded to Montreal for Jacques Plante, by then a six-time Vezina Trophy winner and considered by many to be the greatest goaltender in NHL history after helping steer the Canadiens to a record five straight Stanley Cups. Plante never won another Cup after departing Montreal. The 34-year-old Worsley, meanwhile, was transformed, helping to steer the Canadiens to four Cups in his six seasons with the club. Playing behind future Hall of Famers like Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer and led by the legendary coach Hector “Toe” Blake, it seemed as if just to breath in the air of the old Forum and peer up to the Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters, to look around the locker room and gaze at pictures of greats like Howie Morenz and Aurele Joliat, and to feel the presence of the Forum “ghosts” inspired players to greatness.

Today, at the Bell Centre – the Canadiens’ home since 1996 – the remnants of that greatness remain with a skyward gaze, where the banners commemorating 24 Stanley Cup trophies and the retired jerseys of Maurice ‘The Rocket’ Richard, Beliveau and Ken Dryden and others hang as a reminder of a glorious time, long past. So many were the spoils, there is no room to show off the 24 Prince of Wales trophies won as NHL regular season league champions. Ground broke on the Bell Centre two weeks after the club’s last Stanley Cup victory parade in 1993 and legend has it the ghosts stayed behind at the Forum, now a cinema complex dotted by a revolving door of bargain discount outlets. The Molson-owned Canadiens have surrounded their new home with towering condominium projects and the club’s value has soared to $1.25bn. But that number provides no solace to fans desperate for a 25th Cup, with the club’s once convincing reputation as an elite North American professional sports franchise on par with the New York Yankees, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers all but a memory.

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