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Au Revoir Forum, Bienvenue Molson Centre

March 13, 1996

MONTREAL (AP) _ It seems almost sacrilegious: The Montreal Canadiens placed their Stanley Cup banners on auction Tuesday night, less than 24 hours after they won the final hockey game at the fabled Forum.

The 24 championship banners that lent an aura of intimacy to the most famous hockey rink in the world are too small for the team’s new home, the vast 21,361-seat Molson Centre. They will be replaced by replicas twice as large.

The current Canadiens, battling for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, open their new home on Saturday night with a game against the New York Rangers, hoping to forge a legacy of their own in the new building.

``For the guys that played tonight, they’re going to have to build up their own history,″ former Canadiens’ great Guy Lafleur said Monday night after the Habs defeated the Dallas Stars 4-1 in the Forum finale. ``They’re going to want, I am sure, to make it bigger than the Forum. I’m sure they’re going to keep it high.″

That will be a difficult task. One only had to witness the closing ceremony at the Forum to realize that.

The standing-room-only crowd of 17,959, filled with emotion and respect for the great players who really were the Forum since it opened in 1924, got one final glimpse of the best of the living legends after the final siren sounded.

One by one, a couple of front-office geniuses and 20 Hall of Famers paraded onto the ice: Scotty Bowman, Sam Pollock, Bob Gainey, Lafleur, Jean Beliveau, Ken Dryden, Frank Mahovlich, Yvan Cournoyer, Dickie Moore, Gump Worsley, Henri and Maurice ``The Rocket″ Richard _ and more.

The Rocket basked in an ovation that lasted nearly 10 minutes, often brushing away the tears from his eyes, his girlfriend doing the same as she watched from the stands. Then Emile ``Butch″ Bouchard, the Canadiens’ oldest living former captain, walked onto the ice with a torch, the legendary symbol of the team’s heart.

``It was very emotional, especially at the end,″ said Lafleur, whose blazing speed, deft stick-handling and blistering slap shot helped lead the Canadiens to four straight Stanley Cups at the close of the 1970s. ``It reminds me, and I’m sure a lot of guys who were on the ice, that the first words that we learned when we first stepped into the room were about the torch. The first thing they show you is what’s written on the wall.″

The torch, which will follow the team to its dressing room in the Molson Centre, was the brainchild of former Canadiens general mnager Frank Selke. In 1953, Irvin took a verse from a World War I poem, ``In Flanders Fields,″ and had it emblazoned on the locker room wall: ``To you from failing hands we throw the torch, be yours to hold it high.″

Bouchard passed the torch to The Rocket, who in turn passed it along to other former captains of hockey’s most storied team until it landed in the hands of Pierre Turgeon, the captain today. The crowd roared in appreciation of hockey’s only true dynasty, one that will be impossible to duplicate in the scheme of things today.

In a way, it was fitting that the Canadiens bade farewell to the Forum against the Dallas Stars instead of one of the original teams that made up the NHL when it was formed in 1917. It punctuates the end of an era. It is no secret why the NHL has lost three of its most cherished arenas in the past two years. Money drives the league as never before, so there no longer is a Montreal Forum, a Chicago Stadium, a Boston Garden.

It didn’t take workers long to begin dismantling some of the Forum’s tangible memories. They were at it as soon as the final tribute was paid, attacking the scoreboard, the benches, and the seats. Proceeds from Tuesday’s auction will go to charity and the Canadiens’ old-timers’ association.

``It’s a little bit sad that we’ve outgrown a place that has been so good for the sport of ice hockey for over 70 years,″ said Gainey, now general manager of the Stars. ``I also don’t think it will take long before the NHL and the Montreal Canadiens will be really happy that they’re in their new building.″

Added Henri Richard, who helped the Canadiens win 11 Cup championships, the most of any NHL player: ``It’s a little bit sad, but you always have to look ahead.″

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