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STANLEY CUP FINALS : Brotherly Love Rises Above Team Loyalties

June 01, 1993|MIKE DOWNEY

MONTREAL — The last time I spoke with Marcel Dionne, once the greatest King of all, he was operating a dry-cleaning concern in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and keeping an eye on the progress of his baby brother, Gilbert, in the Montreal hockey organization's minor leagues. Marcel said: "If my brother ever spends one minute on the ice in the National Hockey League, it will be the proudest day of my life."

Came the summer of 1992, Marcel was inducted into hockey's Hall of Fame. One night a few months later, he was at home in suburban New York, where he now runs a plumbing business, watching an NHL game being televised from the Montreal Forum. When the game was over, the familiar voice of the arena's adored public-address announcer, Claude Mouton, rang out:

"Premiere etoile! ('First star of the game!') Numero quarante-cinq! ('Number 45!')

"Jeel-bare! Dee-on!"

Marcel went into the kitchen for a beer.

"To my brother!" he toasted, snapping open the tab. No one else was in the room.

Calendar pages fall. Now another summer is around the corner, but in downtown Montreal the last day of May is a damp and blustery one, umbrellas open, trench coats closed. Gilbert Dionne, rookie left wing of the Canadiens, is having one last dress rehearsal before the Stanley Cup centennial-celebration series begins between his team and the Los Angeles Kings, his brother's team of yore. He is eager for Marcel to be here--if not tonight, then Thursday night. If not Thursday night, then this weekend in Los Angeles.

"I'm trying to find him a ticket," Gilbert says.

Trying to find him a ticket. Marcel Dionne. Oh, what tricks the passage of time can play. Twenty-two years have drained from the hourglass since Marcel broke into the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings. When he wasn't slapping shots, scoring goals and breaking records, he was dragging his kid brother along with him to the practice rink at Culver City, where little Gilbert--his junior by nearly 20 years--put up the boards, dispensed the pucks and bugged the players for advice or souvenirs.

Dave Taylor remembers. He was there.

"Oh, do I feel old now," Taylor says.

The first person Taylor spoke to on the phone after the Kings advanced past the second round of the playoffs for the first time was Marcel Dionne. They spoke again after the thrilling 5-4 victory at Toronto that put the Kings into the Cup finals at last. Taylor, 37, had made it at last. Dionne, now 41, never did.

And Gilbert Dionne, who doesn't idolize his older brother so much as worship him, rubs his wisp of a beard and says: "Look at me, 22 years old, in my first full season in the NHL, and I'm playing for the Stanley Cup. Life is very strange."

That it is.

Marcel was a dynamo, 5 feet 8, low center of gravity, a compact player and impact player built into one. Gilbert is nearly five inches taller. Quickness is a shared family trait, but Gilbert is leaner, only nine pounds heavier than Marcel, and more fluid than explosive.

He doesn't resemble Marcel, not even remotely. But he wanted to be him.

"I wore that ugly yellow and purple jersey of his for 12 years," Gilbert says, smiling. "On the street, on the ice, on the pond, wherever. All of the other kids wore their Montreal Canadiens sweaters. They're going: 'Oh, what are you wearing that ugly thing for?' Or later they're all out there dressed like Wayne. 'I wanna be Wayne Gretzky!' 'No, I'm Wayne Gretzky!'

"So I'd say: 'Fine! Fine! You be Wayne! I'll be Marcel!"

Ah, Marcel. Bless his heart. Scorer of 550 goals for the Kings alone from 1975-87. And virtually a pioneer of Los Angeles hockey. He brought it to people the way patent medicine peddlers brought magic elixir to the West by stagecoach. Others brought ice hockey to Californians. Marcel brought them greatness.

Gilbert says: "He'd tell me how he was trying to sell hockey to California for all those years, how basketball was No. 1 out there and hockey not only wasn't a close second, it was more like fifth or sixth. My first time out there as a player, I got chills up my spine. I'm going: 'There's my brother's jersey, hanging from the wall!' "

An ugly "yellow and purple" one.

When the call came for Gilbert to join the Canadiens, an equipment manager handed him a number. It wasn't 16. And if he couldn't have 16, Gilbert didn't care which one he wore. He accepted 45.

In Montreal, 16 has been retired. It was worn by Henri (The Pocket Rocket) Richard, winner of 11 Stanley Cups, more than any player, but someone equally famous here for his relationship to Maurice (Rocket) Richard, one of the greatest players ever to lace up skates, and, as it happens . . . his older brother.

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