MONTREAL — It's been a strange winter for Jean Beliveau.
Across Canada, Saturday night is "Hockey Night," a ritual that bonds the generations who sit in front of televisions and watch the national pastime. But not this year.
"Usually I invite a couple of people to each game, and I would prefer to see them sitting in my seats and watching the game," says Beliveau, a Montreal Canadiens star and captain who helped the team win 10 Stanley Cups.
The Hall of Famer remained with the team as an executive and, now retired from that job, he still regularly attends home games.
This year, he and his wife have had to find other things to do on hockey nights.
"Maybe we've had more dinners with friends, " Beliveau said. "We seem to be doing something else. I would prefer to go to the games, but on the other hand it gives me a chance to maybe see some of my friends on Saturday that I've never had a chance, as a matter of fact, in my life."
The labor strife has forced Toronto-based "Hockey Night in Canada" host Ron McLean to change his expertise from pucks to flicks this winter. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. is showing movies in place of its usual coast-to-coast hockey doubleheader. On Saturday, McLean was guiding the country through a triple-bill of "Babe," "Minority Report" and "Back to the Future Part III."
The Canadiens have won a record 24 Stanley Cups, including their first in 1916 -- two years before the NHL was formed. Six different Montreal clubs have laid claim to the trophy a total of 41 times since it has been contested annually since 1893, with one exception.
The Cup was not awarded in 1919 when the final between the Canadiens and Seattle was called off tied at two games apiece because of the influenza outbreak that ultimately killed Montreal defenseman "Bad" Joe Hall.
Aside from that, hockey's biggest prize was awarded annually through both world wars.
Montreal Gazette hockey writer Red Fisher is in his 50th year on the Canadiens' beat. Fisher's debut was a memorable one -- he was assigned to cover crowd reaction for Montreal's first game at the Forum after Rocket Richard was suspended on March 19, 1955, for the duration of the season and the playoffs. The unruly crowd caused the game to be forfeited to Detroit, and Fisher had to cover a riot in the streets.
After witnessing 17 of the Canadiens championships as a reporter, he continues to write his weekly hockey column for the newspaper, though he has nothing to do with its current game coverage of the semipro Montreal Dragons.
The Journal de Montreal's Marc DeFoy has covered the Canadiens since 1982. The lifelong Montrealer's 22nd year on the beat has been like no other. Instead of following "les Habitants" to Toronto and Boston, he's been to Manchester, N.H., and Hamilton, Ontario, to cover minor league hockey and London, Ontario, to cover the junior leagues.
"Everyone's saying that hockey fans in Canada will come back, but maybe we should look at what happened in baseball," DeFoy said. "They call it the national pastime in the United States, and after 1994, how long did it take before the fans started to go back to the stadiums? It took a home run contest between two players to get them interested, but I know that many in the States never went back."
Longtime season-ticket holder Claude Patenaude will be back in his customary seats in the first row behind the Canadiens' bench whenever the NHL resumes.
Patenaude, owner of the Ty-Coq Barbeque restaurant on avenue Mont-Royal, says his father's season tickets dated back to 1934-35.
"To go a whole season without any games distances you from hockey," says Patenaude, who played with Richard's children while growing up in the Rocket's neighborhood in the north part of the city. The year Patenaude's father signed up for his tickets, he may have seen Leo Bourgault play his final NHL season with the Canadiens. Bourgault, a member of the Cup champion 1928 New York Rangers who passed away in 1978, ended an 11-year NHL career wearing No. 99 for Montreal.
Bourgault's son, Leo, is another longtime Canadiens season-ticket holder. The younger Bourgault plans to hold onto his tickets.
"Say they're trying to sell the game to people in the 18- to 30-year-old range," says Bourgault, who played in Europe and once operated a four-rink complex. "They've lost interest now. To me, there's a big job ahead and it will take lots of promotion to get them back. And if it lasts another year, well, I don't know."