Patrick Roy returned to Montreal, showed Canadiens what it means to succeed here


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MONTREAL — Patrick Roy knows all too well what this crowd can be like, how the fans in Montreal can make a moment special, how the media can be overwhelming in their desire to give those fans all the information they crave on the legends they love.

And so, he did everything in his power to avoid it.

This game was between his New York Islanders and the Montreal Canadiens, a team that has Roy’s name and No. 33 hanging from the rafters, a team that has a massive mural of Roy raising the Stanley Cup — the last one they won — on the side of the Bell Centre.

It was not the return of Patrick Roy, he kept saying a few hours before the game. It was not about him.

Roy kept the Islanders at the team hotel Thursday morning to avoid the circus a typical morning skate would have caused. He walked into a room packed full of reporters gathered for a 4:15 p.m. ET news conference 10 minutes early, a sign he just wanted to get this over with, and everything he said only further cemented this was something he wanted to move past so he could focus on the task at hand, which was preparing the Islanders to win a game.

And he went a step further to avoid the spotlight’s being placed on him. At some point Thursday afternoon, Roy made a special request to the Canadiens.

Normally, visiting coaches at the Bell Centre have to walk across the ice from the visiting dressing room to the bench, one of the only rinks in the NHL where that is the case. Some coaches have described that walk as perilous, with the ice still wet and at its most slippery.

But it also would have put Roy front and centre before the game, the first to emerge from the Islanders dressing room, walking across the Bell Centre ice in front of the fans and, potentially at least, creating a scene around him, and not his team.

So he asked the Canadiens whether he could use their tunnel toward the ice, allowing him to slip onto the bench hopefully unnoticed. The matter was brought to executive vice president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton, and the answer was immediate.

Of course he could use their tunnel. He’s Patrick Roy.

So just before the start of the game, Roy and his coaching staff slipped onto the Islanders bench largely unnoticed by the fans in attendance. Perfect.

But then the Canadiens did something that ruined Roy’s plans. Everyone knew they would be acknowledging his return to Montreal as Islanders coach. They just didn’t know it would happen like this.

And neither did Roy. Perhaps that was the point.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Roy said. “I never look at the clock, but I got caught looking a bit and saw something. In games like this, you just want to be focused. I said this all along: It was not about me, it was about our team.

“I just wanted to make sure I was focused on our game.”

So all at once, the Canadiens were accommodating to their Hall of Fame goalie, allowing him to use their tunnel, and they also weren’t. They made it about as hard as they could to allow Roy to focus on the game, which was all he wanted.

“It definitely was a great moment and I think it definitely was well deserved,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said. “I didn’t know really what they were cheering for at first until I looked up at the jumbotron. I guess they wanted to get it out of the way early. I think it was a big moment for Patrick and the fans.

“I think our team fed off that energy.”

Playing goal for the Canadiens is a special position in North American professional sports, always has been. It was true when Roy did it for 10 years, it was true when Carey Price did it for 15 years, it’s true today.

On this night, that responsibility fell on Sam Montembeault, a native of Bécancour, Québec, a small town on the St. Lawrence River that is right in between Roy’s hometown of Québec City and Montreal, a 90-minute drive from each.

Montembeault, 27, is too young to remember watching Roy play — he was 6 when Roy retired in 2003 — but he is not too young to know what Roy means to the people of Montreal, to Canadiens fans, and where he set the bar for Canadiens goaltenders.

“It was so much fun to see the crowd screaming all through the national anthem,” Montembeault said. “If that doesn’t put you in the mood to play hockey, I don’t know what will.”

Just before the four-minute mark of the first period, the Islanders had the puck in the offensive zone and defenceman Noah Dobson sent a pass from the blue line to the front of the net, where Mathew Barzal was waiting for it. He cut across the net, against the grain, and tried to slip the puck in the net. Montembeault denied him and then denied him again on the rebound.

He finished the night with 43 saves, including three in the final 25 seconds of regulation as the Canadiens held on for a 4-3 win amid a frantic rush from the Islanders to win this one for their new coach. A special performance under any circumstances, but a performance made that much more special under these circumstances.

“Obviously the goalie here has a lot of history, and they’ve had a lot of great ones,” Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki said. “Especially being from around here, it means a little more for sure. He’s taken that role and done everything he can to be that type of goalie.”

There was a time when moments like the one Thursday night at the Bell Centre were a regular occurrence, when standing ovations were commonplace. Lately, however, they have not been. The Canadiens are in a rebuild, and 31 years have passed since Roy led them to their last Stanley Cup championship in 1993. Only five players in uniform for the Canadiens on Thursday were born when it happened.

The Canadiens’ glorious past casts a long shadow, and the lack of nights celebrating it is partially by design, because that past has set an impossibly high bar, and the franchise would like to focus its efforts on creating a new, modern history that is worth celebrating in the future.

Not long after Montembeault made those two saves on Barzal, the Canadiens went on the power play when Hudson Fasching put the puck over the glass. They worked the puck around to Sean Monahan in the middle of the slot, and he sent it over to Juraj Slafkovský on the right flank. The 2022 No. 1 pick in the draft has been under constant pressure to shoot the puck more. Even his mother tells him to shoot the puck more. This was a perfect opportunity to do that.

Except he didn’t do that.

Slafkovský gathered the puck, made a read and made a better play instead. He slid the puck in front to Suzuki, who tipped it home to open the scoring and send the Canadiens on the path to a victory.

“I’ve talked to him before, obviously people want him to shoot, but if you’re not in a position to shoot, I don’t see the point of shooting,” Suzuki said. “He obviously made a great read there, an easy tip for me and a great way to start the game.”

Slafkovský is a vital part of the future, but to succeed for the Canadiens, sometimes it is good to understand their past. Not be smothered by it, but understand it. And watching the way the Bell Centre crowd welcomed Roy home was a good way for Slafkovský to understand it.

“I think the great players mean a lot to these fans, and it’s great to see when someone like that comes back and he gets a big standing ovation,” he said. “Kind of weird it was during the anthem, you don’t usually see that. But yeah, it was great to see all the fans cheering for someone that meant a lot.”

Then, Slafkovský broke out into a massive smile, one that indicated what was to follow was largely in jest. But there was probably some sincerity behind it as well.

“Hopefully,” he said, “I’ll be one of those guys.”

It’s OK to want to move on from your past. But sometimes, that past can help drive the future.

(Photo: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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