MONTREAL - Statues of four hockey legends were unveiled as the Montreal Canadiens celebrated their 99th birthday with the opening of Centennial Plaza at the Bell Centre on Thursday.
The bronze likenesses in action poses of Howie Morenz, Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur - perhaps the greatest players ever to skate for the Canadiens - are the main feature of the newly finished space at the northwest entrance to the arena.
"I'm so proud," said team owner George Gillett. "And to be standing next to Guy when they unveiled his statue and to see the pride and the little tear - it was beautiful."
The plaza also has plaques for each of the 24 Stanley Cups the team has won and for the 15 players whose jersey numbers have been retired since it was founded on Dec. 4, 1909.
The pavement is partly made from more than 20,000 bricks paid for by fans, each with a message to the team like the standard Go Habs Go, or names with a date of the first Canadiens game they attended, or a memorial to a late relative.
No negative messages were accepted, such as one reportedly requested from a former Quebec Nordique which was intended to say 'the goal was good' - a reference to a goal by Quebec's Alain Cote that was disallowed during a playoff game at the height of the two clubs' long-gone rivalry.
The two surviving players who got statues, Beliveau and Lafleur, were on hand with their families, while Richard's son Maurice Jr. and brother Henri were there, as well as Marlene Geoffrion, the daughter of Morenz and widow of late Canadiens star Bernard Geoffrion.
"I feel very honoured," said Beliveau, a rangy centre who scored more than 500 goals for Montreal in the 1950s and 1960s. "I'm especially happy for my two granddaughters and the Canadiens supporters who supported me so well for so many decades.
"But a day like today, the unveiling of this bronze, it's a great day, a unique day."
Each statue has a tall base on which the players career statistics and major accomplishments are inscribed. The Royal Canadian Mint also had four special gold coins minted and placed on a plaque on each statue, as well as five-cent coins of the years in which the players played.
Lafleur, a dynamic right-winger from the 1970s and early 1980s, had his two sons with him as the silk covering came off his statue.
"When I started playing in the NHL, I didn't expect that one day they'd put my statue up, so it's very special," he said, before adding with a laugh. "But I'd rather still be playing than have a statue."
The plaza also serves as the entranceway to a new expanded Canadiens gift shop in the arena.
The Canadiens had already begun celebrations of their 100th anniversary season by wearing jerseys for some games modelled on those worn in bygone years.
For a game on Thursday night against the New York Rangers they were to wear jerseys from the 1915-16 season, which have CAC on the front for Club Athletique Canadien, as they were then known.
They will also play host to the NHL all-star game next month and the NHL draft in June. More events are planned leading up to the team's 100th anniversary next Dec. 4.