Hockey

Rock Bottom -- The Montreal Canadiens story

It was one of the most humiliating moments for the proudest franchise in the National Hockey League.

In front of a sold-out crowd at the Molson Centre, before a nationwide television audience, the Montreal Canadiens fell to last place overall in the NHL standings, ushered in by a humiliating 6-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.

"Embarrassment Night in Canada,"read the headline in the Montreal Gazette the next day.

Disgusted with his team's performance, Canadiens president Pierre Boivin decided it was time for a change.

So two days after being publicly embarrassed, Boivin made a number of administrative moves on Monday, firing Alain Vigneault, who guided the Canadians to a near playoff berth last season despite an injury-ravaged lineup, and general manager Rejean Houle.

In a sense, Boivin cleaned house. He gave the vacant coaching position to Michel Therrien, who was with the AHL's Quebec Citadelles, and he moved Andre Savard from his job of director of player personnel to general manager.

Former captain Guy Carbonneau was promoted from his job as supervisor of prospect development to assistant coach.

"As a result of very poor results, we came to the conclusion that we needed to move quickly and somewhat radically with respect to our hockey administration," Boivin said.

Boivin is putting a lot of pressure and faith on this largely inexperienced group. In Montreal, where only winning the Stanley Cup is acceptable, it will be the new hockey operations' job to revive a Canadiens squad that is bound for missing the playoffs for the third straight season - something that hasn't happened since 1922.

And all of the media attention will fall on Therrien and Savard, in what can be called without hyperbole the two hardest jobs in hockey.

Taking over for the widely-popular Vigneault, who many hockey critics was unjustly fired and a victim of the numbers game, Therrien finally gets the chance to prove himself at the NHL level.

A Montreal native who grew worshipping the Canadiens, Therrien paid his dues in the minors, leading the Granby Predateurs to a Memorial Cup title in 1996, and helping the Citadelles to the Atlantic Division crown last season.

Known as coach that likes old-school, in-your-face hockey, Therrien said that he plans to change Montreal's style of play.

"This team has to be tougher," he said. "And I'm not talking about fighting or getting big guys; I'm talking about every player finishing his check. You have to make sacrifices. You have to be willing to pay the price to be good."

The 37-year-old coach finally realized how difficult changing the team may be after the Canadiens dropped a 4-1 decision to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday in his first game behind the bench.

"It's not easy taking over this team," he said. "There's no confidence and it isn't a first-place club.

"I can't change everything over night. I lost my first NHL game as a coach. But I don't think about it. I'm not nervous. It's been a busy 48 hours and it hasn't sunk in yet."

For the first few months, Therrien will be desperately trying to escape Vigneault's shadow. Vigneault was a popular coach with the players, someone who protected his team despite its shortcomings, and laid all of the blame on himself.

"It's like losing part of your family," Saku Koivu said. "We've been through so much together the past few years. It's a tough day. I thought Alain did a good job. We've had a lot of problems like last year, but we got it going after Christmas."

"I can only say good things about Alain and Reggie," defenceman Craig Rivet said. "They were very professional. Alain was always fair and honest. I think all the players have to take some responsibility for what happened. Nobody quit, but we didn't get the job done."

Many hockey critics state that Vigneault was victim of the numbers game; that he did the best he could with what can be considered the worst Canadiens team in franchise history.

With an injury-ravenged lineup and an offence that just couldn't score last season, Vigneault still led the Canadiens to an impressive second half finish and a near-playoff berth. That performance earned him a nomination for the NHL's coach of the year award.

Despite the Canadiens' poor record, the usually-harsh Montreal media respected Vigneault for his efforts. It will be hard for Therrien to win them over.

In stark contrast to the polished Vigneault, Therrien is a little rough around the edges and isn't afraid publicly point his finger at his players when they're not performing well.

Therrien made headlines over a year ago, when he engaged in a bar brawl with Leafs prospect Lonny Bohonos.

And unfortunately for Therrien, he doesn't have much talent to draw on. A string of injuries that sidelined Koivu, Patrick Poulin, Benoit Brunet and goaltender Jeff Hackett have left the once-fabled Habs a hobbled team, desperate for offence and unable to play defence.

Despite outshooting their opponents in virtually every game so far this season, the Habs don't have a productive scorer, someone who can put the puck in the net.

Forward Trevor Linden has developed into good locker room presence, but it looks like his days as an offensive player are over. Martin Rucinsky and Brian Savage are two of the team's top scorers, but will have trouble reaching the 30-goal mark this season.

The offence is so thin that defenceman Patrice Brisebois has been the team's leading scorer for most of the first quarter of the regular season.

When Hackett went down in late October with a fractured right hand, the Canadiens thought that Jose Theodore could fill in until he returned. But Theodore looked far from spectacular in the No. 1 position, and it looks like he's even lost his job to back-up Mathieu Garon, who played for Therrien with the Citadelles.

Like it or not, the Montreal Canadiens are a disaster on ice, and it will be Savard's job to rebuild it.

Over the course of the last five years, the Canadiens were systematically dismantled, not intentionally, by the dangerously under-qualified Rejean Houle.

Hired by then-president Ronald Corey along with Mario Tremblay in 1995 in another house cleaning by management, Houle was the chief architect of the team, the one primarily responsible for the chaotic state of the Canadiens.

It might take another five years to recover from the damage Houle has inflicted on the Canadiens, which has included a number of questionable trades and draft picks.

After goaltender Patrick Roy got into a public fight with Tremblay, Houle traded him to the Colorado Avalanche for three players (Martin Rucinsky, Jocelyn Thibeault and Andrei Kovalenko) in what many call the worst decision of Houle's career.

Not only did Houle let go of Roy, who went on later that season to win a Stanley Cup, but has allowed Mark Recchi, Pierre Turgeon and Vincent Damphousse slip through his fingers and traded Valeri Bure - who went on to score 35 goals for the Flames - for Jonas Hoglund. When Hoglund failed to live up to his potential, Houle gave him his unconditional release.

Hoglund was snapped up by the Leafs, and had the best season of his career. On the first line with Mats Sundin and Steve Thomas, Hoglund went on to score 29 goals last year. He has nine goals already this season, more than any other player on the Canadiens.

Realizing that the future wasn't bright in Montreal, Shayne Corson and Turner Stevenson refused to sign with the club after last season. Corson went to Toronto, while Stevenson signed a deal with the New Jersey Devils.

On the drafting table, Houle hasn't fared well either. Although most of the players he's drafted are too young to make an impact in the NHL right now, he did pass over Ottawa Senators' Marian Hossa in favour of Jason Ward in the 1997 Entry Draft.

Hossa turned into a top-10 scorer in the NHL, while Ward has appeared in just three games this season with no points.

"I did the best I could to put together a team within the budget I had and I think we're in the middle third of the NHL," said a teary-eyed Houle. "I don't think the position we're in today is where this team really is.

"I'm 51 and this is the first time in my life I'll be getting up and I won't have a job to go to. I don't know what I'll do. I don't have any hobbies or anything. I've always enjoyed working."

In Savard, the Canadiens are getting someone who has a lot of experience at the NHL level. A player, scout and former coach for the Quebec Nordiques, Savard was originally brought in to help improve the Canadiens dismal record on draft day.

He has a keen eye for raw hockey talent and many hockey observers point out that Savard deserves much of the credit for the Ottawa Senators brilliant drafting record the past few seasons, especially unearthing gems such as Magnus Arvedson, Daniel Alfredsson and Andreas Dackell in the middle rounds.

When he was first hired in the summer, Savard thought he would have an opportunity to be a NHL general manager, but not so soon.

"If you look at this organization, they haven't drafted well," he said. "You should have players on the second and third line who have been developed through your organization, and it's not happening." But don't expect Savard to make any blockbuster moves soon.

With Molson expected to sell the franchise in the next few months, Savard will be asked to hold off on making any big trades until another owner takes over.

The impending sale will be the key to turning the team around. Once the new ownership takes over, it will no doubt want to make some radical changes with the once-proud franchise and make the Canadiens a winner and win back some fan support.

Until then, it looks like fans in Montreal will have to endure more than their share of long hockey nights at the Molson Centre.