Twenty years ago this week, the fortunes of the Montreal Canadians took an indelible turn when star goaltender Patrick Roy, left to take extra body blows in a blowout against the Detroit Red Wings by neophyte head coach Mario Tremblay, took matters into his own hands and went straight to the top of the organizational chart.
It was the Quebec superstar's last game in Montreal. A few days later, after Roy's chat with then-president Ronald Corey just inches away from Tremblay, Roy and Mike Keane were traded to the Colorado Avalanche for Jocelyn Thibault.
Coincidentally or not, the Habs are looking for their first Stanley Cup since then.
On the 20th "anniversary" of that fateful night, longtime Canadiens play-by-play man Pierre Houde remembered an unforgettable game in his career – a game he wasn't even supposed to call.
Back in those days, the French-language RDS sports network had the Canadiens – except Saturday nights, when the games still were broadcast on Radio-Canada (the French-language arm of the CBC).
So Houde was returning home after some early Christmas shopping on a snowy late afternoon, when he got a call. He wasn't even going to answer the phone lest he risk the wrath of his wife for tracking slush into the house. But she said it might be important, so he did.
The panicked voice on the other end was that of Dino Sisto, who called the Canadiens' games on CJAD, the English-language radio station. He'd been trying to reach him for two hours, and was desperate for his help.
It turned out the station had no one to call the game; Sisto and several other CJAD employees were stuck in the Caribbean, on a junket to celebrate the station's 50th anniversary. The chartered plane had a mechanical malfunction, and the return trip scheduled for that morning never happened. Legendary broadcaster Dick Irvin wasn't available; he was calling it for the CBC; there wasn't a single anglophone broadcaster experienced enough to call the game in the city.
Houde, who has been with RDS since 1989, is bilingual but had never called a game in English – that's a tough enough job in your first language – was their only hope.
His response? "On air in two hours at the Forum? Living in Terrebonne (a distant suburb)? With the snow? With no advance warning? In English? Sorry, Dino, no thanks!" Houde wrote in a throwback essay published on RDS's web site.
Houde's wife worked on him. And, having been approached by Colorado Avalanche president Pierre Lacroix to call their games, it was a great opportunity to show what he could do, as he puts it, in the "language of Shakespeare."
He arrived just as Irvin finished pinch-hitting on the pre-game show at 6:45 p.m. And without further ado, he jumped right in with the help of colour analyst Jim Corsi.
What followed was one of those epic Canadiens moments.
"Corsi, as an analyst and former goaltender, knew exactly what Roy was feeling and when he was pulled and replaced by Pat Jablonski in the middle of the second period. He couldn't help but follow No. 33 as he returned to the Canadiens' bench. Instinctively, he took his binoculars, which was what the radio people often did at the time because there usually weren't any television monitors in their booth," Houde remembers.
" 'Something weird is going on at the Canadiens' bench, Pierre, it looks to me like ... Roy is talking to Ronald Corey ... but I can't tell exactly, from far ...' "
After the game, wrung out yet exhilarated, Houde left the car radio off as he made the long drive home, just to decompress a little bit. The incident didn't seem like that big of a deal as it was happening, he remembered. Only upon arriving at home and turning on the television did Houde realize that a second tornado had hit the Forum.
"I quickly understood that fate had thrown me quite a curveball. It was my only game on English radio (I did another on television for TSN a year later in Pittsburgh) but it turned out to be a game that is still making history after all these years," Houde remembered.
"Every time I run into Corsi, who is now the goaltending coach with the St. Louis Blues, we remember that night in December 1995. It's a happy memory from a professional standpoint, because it's a memorable moment in my career. ... But it's also a bit of a sad memory because at its core, it was a confrontation between two great athletes who proudly and passionately wore the Canadiens' uniform. Two of our own, of whose overall careers we can be proud. But two spirited men who couldn't work together in that hierarchical context and whose roads diverged that night of Dec. 2, 20 years ago."