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STANLEY CUP FINALS : Canadiens Inhabit NHL's Ice Palace : Tradition: At Montreal's Forum, ghosts of greatness can be intimidating to the opposition.


MONTREAL — Listen. That faint rustling sound--wasn't that Howie Morenz flashing past?

Look at the dust blown by a gentle swirl of air. Was it a breeze stirred some long ago winter night by Rocket Richard as he skated toward the net?

Why not? This is the Forum, home to the Montreal Canadiens and a tradition of excellence older than the NHL, a mandate handed down from the dashing Morenz--who lay in state at the Forum after his death in 1937--to the fiery Richard, to the regal Jean Beliveau and the golden-haired Guy Lafleur.

There must be magic in the mortar holding the bricks together, a spell cast over the occupants of this outwardly ordinary building at the downtown corner of Atwater and St. Catherine streets. For there can be no other explanation for the success of the Canadiens, who tonight will make their record 35th appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.

Half a world away, King right wing Jarri Kurri fell under that spell.

"It's a dream to face the Canadiens," he said. "When I was a child in Finland, I dreamed of playing in the Forum in the finals."

Defenseman Marty McSorley dreamed that same dream growing up in Canada.

"My first time there, I walked in and saw Jacques Laperriere skating with the defensemen, Jacques Plante with the goalies and Jacques Lemaire with the coaches. It was a rush," McSorley said. "Then I saw the wee, little doors to the benches, and I remembered all the times I saw Larry Robinson go through those doors. It was a real sense of 'I'm here, and I have to do something to prove I belong here.' "

That pressure overwhelmed King rookie Darryl Sydor in his first visit to the Forum. "I was wound up after I saw those Stanley Cup banners hanging from the ceiling and I had a bad game," he said. "It's not just another rink."

That's obvious in the Canadiens' locker room. Every day, staring down at them from the walls as they dress, are photos of Georges Vezina, Joe Malone, Aurel Joliat, Newsy Lalonde and others who have worn the bleu, blanc et rouge of "La Sainte Flannelle," the holy cloth. Also on the wall is a line from a poem written during World War I by Canadian John McCrae: "To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high."

It's a challenge players thirst for. "They're not here to be second-best. There's no complacency," Canadien center Kirk Muller said. "Even now, there's not as much hoopla as there would be in other cities because we haven't done anything yet. You really do feel the pride of wearing the Hab sweater."

Said Guy Carbonneau: "I talk to a lot of guys who play in the States, and to them, just making the playoffs is a great achievement. Here, if we don't win the Cup, we have failed."

Or as Al MacNeil, coach of the 1971 championship team, once said, the Canadiens feel they have a "God-given duty to be the best every year."

They have accomplished that 23 times, more than any professional sports team in North America.

Opened in 1924, renovations in 1968 left the Forum's seating capacity at 16,197, and later additions included a souvenir shop and restaurants in the photo-lined lobby.

In his book, "The Game," Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden--who won six Stanley Cups with Montreal--described the Forum as unremarkable in its design, yet a perfect stage for the Canadiens.

"Expansive, yet intimate, exuberant, yet unselfconscious, it supports and complements a game, never competing for your attention," he wrote. "And when a game ends, fading away, it gives you nothing to detail the impression it leaves--just a memory of the game and the unshakable feeling that you've watched it in its proper place."

As authors Chrys Goyens and Allan Turnowetz wrote in "Lions in Winter," a history of the Canadiens: "Look up. Straight above your head, in the rafters. There you'll find the real Forum. There, high above the ice, they hang silently. To call them just pieces of cloth is like describing an Arras tapestry as just another wall-hanging.

"Unequivocally the club team of the sport, the Canadiens are also the team that has come to epitomize the sport. . . . (They are) a paean to enlightened management techniques and specialized know-how; a certain way of doing things since time immemorial."

Management techniques behind the mystique?

Leo Dandurand, who bought the team in 1918, knew the value of acquiring and promoting players, such as Morenz, and he helped lift the NHL to prominence in the 1920s. Dandurand was succeeded by Frank Selke, who showcased French players in a city that was 70% French-speaking and instilled the concept that it was an honor to wear the uniform of Les Habitants, the nickname taken from the original French settlers.

Selke also supplied a steady stream of top talent by sponsoring junior teams in Montreal and in Western Canada, replenishing the Canadiens' roster so well that they won a record five consecutive Cups from 1956-60.

And as Morenz gave way to Richard and Richard to Beliveau, Selke gave way to Sam Pollock, whose shrewd trades and drafts resulted in 10 Cups from 1964-79. Current general manager Serge Savard was credited with the 1986 Cup, but if the Canadiens don't beat the Kings, he will be blamed for the club's second-longest championship drought.

"Here, people are more demanding because they've won more times," he said. "If you win and then you don't win the following year, they're taking something away from you."

Soon the Forum will be taken away. Ground is to be broken this month for a building that will open in 1995-96 and accommodate revenue-producing luxury boxes. Morenz to Richard to Beliveau to Lafleur; old Forum to new Forum.

But will someone remember to tell the ghosts?

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