It was Dec. 8, 1995 — a mild, sunny morning in Denver. The snow-capped Rockies gleamed in the distance. The Canadian winter was a thousand miles away.
The night before, we had watched Patrick Roy, whose head must have been spinning, lose his first start for the Avalanche, a 5-3 defeat at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers five nights after his disastrous final game for the Canadiens. Roy was the story, but the only thing I can remember about the game was a fight in which Colorado’s Chris Simon demolished Edmonton’s Kelly Buchberger.
The next morning, I took a shuttle to Denver International Airport with Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated and former Canadiens captain Mike Keane. Colorado’s next game was against the Senators in Ottawa, and GM Pierre Lacroix had invited Farber and me to hitch a ride on the Avalanche charter.
There was one theme on the way to the airport: Keane’s unhappiness at being traded. For no reason at all, inexperienced GM Réjean Houle had tossed Keane into the Roy deal, when the return wasn’t nearly enough for Roy alone. Like Kirk Muller when he was traded to the Islanders, Keane was heartbroken. He loved being captain of the Canadiens, loved the team, loved Montreal.
He was still talking about it as we stepped off the shuttle and strolled across the concrete toward the waiting plane. Then Keane looked up and in mid-sentence, he changed his mind: This, he said, might not be so bad after all.
Unlike the Canadiens, who flew a commercial Air Canada charter that wasn’t much different from any Air Canada flight, the Avalanche had a team plane they shared with the NBA Denver Nuggets.
As we boarded the plane from the rear and walked through the players’ quarters at the back, we saw one of the benefits of a plane catering to the NBA: seven-foot bunks for the players. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Even the cheap seats up front were like first class on steroids.
So Mike Keane and Patrick Roy would be just fine. The Canadiens — not so much. The two ex-Habs, of course, would ride that charter to a Stanley Cup the following spring, while the trade plunged the Canadiens into a quarter-century tailspin from which the organization has yet to fully recover.
Keane came to mind this past week because, as the team tries to find its way out of a very deep hole and reclaim its place as one of the premier organizations in the sport, it is once more without a captain — and in Brendan Gallagher, the Canadiens have a player who is like Keane with a scoring touch.
Keane, a 5-10, 190-pound winger (both numbers on the generous side) parlayed modest talents and maximum sandpaper into quite a career: 1,161 games played over 16 seasons, 168 goals, 302 assists and three Stanley Cups — with Montreal in 1993, Colorado in 1996 and the Dallas Stars in 1999.
Unfortunately for the Habs, Keane was one of the captains caught in the revolving door of the 1990s that saw Chris Chelios, Guy Carbonneau, Kirk Muller, Keane and Pierre Turgeon shipped out of town in quick succession.
Gallagher, like Keane, is a middleweight who punches above his weight class. He is a straightforward, hockey-loving guy who will sacrifice pieces of his body to get in front of the net. Like Keane, he is liked and respected by everyone he encounters.
Keane never had more than 16 goals or 36 points in his career, but he was special. Long after it was common practice, he spent five seasons with the Manitoba Moose following a 16-year NHL career — for no other reason than pure love of the game.
There’s no question Weber can be captain. The only question is why he would want the aggro in a town where “hockey fan” is too often synonymous with deranged, demented and deluded — and segments of the media make the fans look sane. Giving the captaincy to Gallagher instead wouldn’t be an insult to Weber, it would be an act of mercy. No one who isn’t comfortable in the role should have to endure what the Canadiens captain puts up with every day.
Under the circumstances, it makes more sense to go with Gallagher, a guy who leads in every conceivable way, on and off the ice, who is comfortable with the media and who speaks at least a little French.
Looking to the future, Gallagher could conceivably spend a decade as captain of the Canadiens. The Habs should give the young man the job — and hope that he isn’t strolling across the tarmac at the Denver Airport 18 months from now, bound for the Avalanche charter and Stanley Cups in other cities.