MONTREAL - Two players nearly as old as their legendary team - Elmer Lach and Emile (Butch) Bouchard - dropped the puck for the start of the Montreal Canadiens 100th anniversary season.
The 90-year-old Lach and his 88-year-old former captain Bouchard were among a bench full of Hall of Famers on hand Wednesday night for the Canadiens 4-3 home opener win against the Boston Bruins and the start of the club's centennial celebrations.
The team that has won a record 24 Stanley Cups unveiled a Ring of Honour - lighted pictures of the 44 players and 10 builders they have sent to the Hockey Hall of Fame - around the top of the upper deck of the Bell Centre.
Former stars including Jean Beliveau, Guy Lafleur, Dickie Moore, Steve Shutt, Larry Robinson, Dick Duff, Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer and Bob Gainey, now the club's general manager, stood beside their portraits and waved to the sell-out crowd of 21,273 as they were lighted one at a time to a roaring ovation
The still-spry Lach, who plays golf regularly, and Bouchard, who was in a wheelchair after injuring a leg in a fall at his house earlier this year, dropped the puck for the ceremonial faceoff
"I want to say to the fans that the Canadiens seem to have a good team," Bouchard said moments before the ceremony. "I hope they win the Stanley Cup."
It was the first of what will be a long string of centennial celebrations for the team founded in 1909, which will include games with players dressed in wild-coloured jerseys from their early days, the retirement of Patrick Roy's No. 33 on Nov. 22 and the all-star game in January.
Montreal native Georges Laraque, who played his first game for the Canadiens after signing as a free agent in the summer, said the atmosphere was electrifying.
"It was unbelievable," he said "You can tell it's going to be special this year and I feel really fortunate.
"This is something no other team could ever say. There's so much history. That's the type of thing that, when you retire, you'll think about and say 'I was part of that.' That's unreal."
The fans have high hopes after their team finished first in the NHL Eastern Conference last season and, 15 years after their last Cup, seem to have a team at least somewhat resembling the ones that ran off strings championships in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
Just after the ceremony, the speedy Canadiens shot to a 3-0 first-period lead on Boston and the noise was deafening, but the Bruins battled back to force a shootout, which the Canadiens won.
"You never say (Stanley Cup) before the season starts - a lot can happen in a season," said Cournoyer, the captain of a Montreal side that won four straight Cups in the 1970s. "I think we have a good team.
"I don't know if it's a team that will win, but what I like is that it's a fun team to watch."
Shutt said it was not unfair to compare them to the 1970s Canadiens.
"They're a speed and skill team and that's like the old traditional Canadiens teams," said Shutt, a former 60-goal scorer on left wing with Guy Lafleur and Jacques Lemaire. "They've also got depth, which is critical and some toughness, too. Especially Big Georges (Laraque), he'll help."
Tough guy Laraque, acquired in the off-season along with playmakers Robert Lang and Alex Tanguay, got one of the loudest ovations in pre-game player introductions.
The biggest were for Alex Kovalev, the team's offensive engine, and third-year coach Guy Carbonneau.
"For me, that's what the Montreal Canadiens are all about," said Carbonneau. "It's a big family that's 100 years old.
"It's fun that they keep those people around. I saw them here when I started my career (in 1980). It was amazing to see guys like Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau."
The Canadiens fuelled fan enthusiasm by starting the season with two wins and overtime loss on the road and scoring 12 goals in their first three games.
"I was impressed," said Beliveau, the smooth captain of the 1960s Canadiens and member of the team than ran off five straight Cups in the late 1950s. "I think the fans will be very happy this winter.
"They have good balance on the team. They're a little stronger than last year."
The Canadiens put their huge new high definition scoreboard to work before the game with a clever montage in which current players in full colour were spliced into game action video in black and white of their old-time stars.
As players were introduced, current players were paired on the board with film of past stars, including Andrei Markov with defence great Doug Harvey, goalie Carey Price with Ken Dryden and Kovalev with Maurice (Rocket) Richard, the trigger man on the Punch Line with Lach and Toe Blake in the 1940s.
"It just shows the history behind this hockey club," said Price. "It's pretty neat seeing guys like that come out, still showing the colours."