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Canada's last Cup: Montreal Canadiens look back at 1993 title three decades later

Kirk Muller remembers the speech like it was yesterday.
Banners hanging from the rafters of the former Montreal Forum marking the 24 Stanley Cup victories of the Canadiens, in Montreal Feb. 22, 1996. Friday marks three decades since the Montreal Canadiens last captured the Stanley Cup on a sweltering night at the Forum. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Kirk Muller remembers the speech like it was yesterday.

Down 2-0 to the Quebec Nordiques in the first round of the 1993 playoffs — and coming off a clunky regular-season finish — Montreal Canadiens general manager Serge Savard addressed the group during a meal.

"Our plane broke down and we stayed an extra night," Muller, the team's No. 1 centre, recalled of Game 2's aftermath in Quebec City. "(Savard) stood up and goes, 'If you keep playing the way you are, you're gonna win this series.'"

Muller paused for a moment in his retelling.

"The way Serge said it," he continued. "So calm."

Patrick Roy, meanwhile, wasn't sure he'd even get the start from Jacques Demers in Game 3.

"I wasn't very good," the Hall of Fame goaltender added of his play through two contests. "Lucky enough to have a coach that believed in us and believed in myself."

Then everything — almost as if preordained — fell into place.

The Canadiens won the next four against their bitter rivals, swept the Buffalo Sabres, and got past the upstart New York Islanders to set the stage for a Stanley Cup final against Los Angeles.

"Things can turn around quickly," Savard, a 10-time Cup winner, recalled in a 2020 biography. "It doesn't take much to change the rhythm of a game or a series."

Montreal then completed its magical run by besting Wayne Gretzky's Kings to claim the Original Six franchise's 24th title — one sparked by a record-setting 10 straight overtime victories on the back of Roy's string of stellar performances.

Canada is still awaiting its next champion.

"Amazing it's been 30 years," said Guy Carbonneau, the last captain from a team north of the border handed hockey's Holy Grail. "Not just Montreal, which is pretty unusual, but in Canada."

That's the reality.

Friday marks three decades since the Habs celebrated that victory on a sweltering night at the Montreal Forum.

Vancouver (1994, 2011), Calgary (2004), Edmonton (2006), Ottawa (2007) and Montreal (2021) have all made the final since, but stumbled at the last hurdle.

There are plenty of theories why the dry run has stretched this long — from the weight of expectation to better tax incentives for players in some U.S. markets — but it really just proves one thing to Patrice Brisebois.

"So hard to win," said the former Canadiens defenceman. "Even in '93, we needed luck."

The pressure continues to mount on Canada's seven-club NHL contingent, but that Montreal team faced a drought of its own. Seven years had passed since the Canadiens hoisted Lord Stanley's mug — at that point the city's longest dry spell.

"Something they weren't used to," Muller, an associate coach with Calgary, said with a laugh.

Things didn't look promising heading into the 1993 playoffs.

"Don't even think we were projected to get out of the first round," said ex-Montreal blueliner Mathieu Schneider.

Demers, however, was confident from Day 1, especially after Savard acquired forwards Vincent Damphousse and Brian Bellows.

"First meeting, Jacques comes in and goes, 'We're going to shock the hockey world, we're going to win the Stanley Cup,'" Brisebois said.

Roy remembers looking around the room at his teammates.

"We're like, 'Really?'" said Roy, who recently completed his final season as coach and GM of the QMJHL's Quebec Remparts with a Memorial Cup title. "But (Demers) was such a positive man.

"One of the reasons why we were capable of doing it."

The Canadiens had a good season and ended up third in the Adams Division despite finishing with four regulation victories over their final 18 games.

"Everybody was smart enough to know it was going to be a stretch," Carbonneau, a Hall of Fame centre, said of his coach's Cup prediction. "He never wavered."

But what Demers — and the Canadiens — needed was for Roy to step up following a sub-par campaign and those poor early showings against the Nordiques.

All the netminder did from there was win the next 11 playoff games against Quebec, Buffalo and New York, including seven in OT, before the Islanders avoided the sweep in a series that would end two nights later.

"You can see when a goalie has that confidence," said Schneider, who works for the NHL Players' Association. "Just surreal."

Before the New York series, however, the Canadiens still had a massive obstacle on their title path — Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

After the Islanders upset the two-time defending champs in the second round, Montreal really started to believe.

"When (New York) scored in overtime in Game 7 we were jumping," Brisebois said.

The Islanders subsequently brushed aside in five games by the Canadiens, L.A. entered the final coming off a defeat of Toronto to deny fans a mouth-watering, all-Canadian tilt.

"The Maple Leafs and Dougie (Gilmour) were having a great playoffs," Muller said. "Built up a lot of hype."

Gretzky and the Kings would have to do.

Montreal dropped the opener at home, but responded in Game 2 following a gutsy decision by Demers to have officials check for an illegal curve on Marty McSorely's stick with the Canadiens trailing 2-1.

The Kings defenceman was assessed a penalty that led to the tying goal before Montreal won in OT to knot the series.

"Game-changer," Brisebois said of Demers' curve call. "If that doesn't happen, I don't know.

"Can you imagine if the curve was legal? Maybe it's over."

The Canadiens picked up two more OT victories in California to give them an even 10 on the spring and set up a 4-1 triumph in Game 5 that sealed their 24th Cup.

"Patrick was Patrick," Brisebois said of Roy. "He was our key man from the first round until the final."

As things turned ugly in the streets with rioters wreaking havoc that night, players weren't allowed to leave the Forum for a few hours. The same went for the franchise greats on hand, including Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Yvan Cournoyer.

There would be no celebration out on the town. Just beers with some legends.

"You're so happy," Brisebois said. "So much love and joy."

"Never would have planned that," Muller added. "Ended up being really cool."

He's also convinced the cool, reassuring message from Savard after Game 2 against Quebec made all the difference.

"Could have went the other way real quickly," Muller said. "Big turning point. Who would have thought?"

The same could be asked about Canada's Cup drought — one set to enter its fourth decade.

- With files from Abdulhamid Ibrahim.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.


Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press