Stu's Slapshots: It's sad to see what's happened to the Montreal Forum

Old hockey shrine that was home to Canadiens now has a Dollarama store on one corner and an “À Louer” sign on another on Ste-Catherine St.

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It’s sad to see what the old Montreal Forum has become.

I noticed this week the newest tenant at the former hockey shrine is a Dollarama store, which recently opened.

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The store is located on the corner of Ste-Catherine and Lambert-Closse, where the old Forum Tavern used to be. Dollarama Inc. is Canada’s biggest retailer of items for $5 or less with more than 1,500 stores.

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Beside Dollarama on the Ste-Catherine St. side of the Forum is a Mandy’s gourmet salad restaurant and a B. Hive Café, both located where the two escalators in the shape of hockey sticks used to cross when the Canadiens called the Forum home.

The large space at the Ste-Catherine and Atwater St. corner of the building — which once housed a restaurant after the Canadiens left in 1996 — has been vacant for years with a big “À Louer” sign in the window. If you walk along the Atwater side of the Forum, there’s an A&W Burger restaurant, another “À Louer” sign and a Boustan restaurant where the players’ entrance used to be.

Like I said, it’s sad.

It’s also fitting the outside of the Forum is now painted black.

Inside the Forum, which has a lot empty white space where centre ice used to be, is a Cineplex theatre complex, the Comedy Nest comedy club and some classrooms for nearby Dawson College.

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After the Canadiens played their final game at the Forum on March 11, 1996 — beating the Dallas Stars 4-1 — the late, great Red Fisher wrote this in the Montreal Gazette:

The Forum: how many treasured memories has it delivered to generations of Canadians?

How many secrets does it hold?

How much joy has it brought?

How many hearts has it broken?

It is on this stage that many of the greatest entertainers, world-class boxers, best gymnasts, most powerful politicians, best ice shows, most entertaining wrestlers and a flood of legendary hockey players have made life grand for so many.

It is a building that has been shaken with applause. The thunder of stamping feet has sent tremors through its walls. Now and then, not often, it has been left wet with tears.

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I felt like shedding a tear when I saw a Dollarama store at the Forum and I imagine a lot of other Montrealers will feel the same way. There’s a part of me that wishes they had just torn the building down after the Canadiens moved out and left the memories of the Forum with Montreal fans instead of what it has become.

As for Dollarama, the Montreal-based business has had more success than the Canadiens since their last Stanley Cup championship in 1993 at the Forum. Founded in 1992 with one store in Matane, Dollarama has grown under current president and chief executive officer Neil Rossy into a multi-billion dollar business. In September, Dollarama Inc. reported a second-quarter profit of $245.8 million. Sales for the quarter totalled $1.46 billion, up from $1.22 billion a year earlier.

Dollarama should start selling Forum ghosts for $1 each at the new store.

Blast from the past

Speaking of Forum ghosts, check out this National Film Board video I saw on X (formerly Twitter) on Friday of the Canadiens playing against the Detroit Red Wings in 1953.

It’s pretty awesome.

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Bring your wallet, rookie

Jayden Struble was having lunch at a restaurant last Sunday when he received a phone call from Laval Rocket head coach J.F. Houle.

Houle told the 22-year-old defenceman he was getting called up from the AHL by the Canadiens because of a long-term injury to Jordan Harris, who was Struble’s teammate for three seasons at Northeastern University. Houle also told Struble he would be going with the Canadiens on their three-game California road trip with games in Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles.

“That was crazy,” Struble said after practising with the Canadiens on Monday in Brossard before the team flew to Anaheim. “He called me and said: ‘Congrats. You’re meeting the team in Anaheim and then San Jose.’ It’s the craziest thing I’ve heard. Really cool trip and for my first time here it’s definitely really special.”

Struble made his NHL debut in Wednesday night’s 4-3 win over the Ducks and didn’t look out of place, logging 11:20 of ice time. He looked even better Friday afternoon in a 3-2 shootout win over the Sharks, logging 13:03 of ice time and picking up his first NHL point with an assist on a goal by Johnathan Kovacevic to go along with a plus-2 differential.

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“I’ve battled with adversity,” Struble said about his journey since being selected by the Canadiens in the second round (46th overall) of the 2019 NHL Draft. “ln college, there was some injuries and things weren’t really going my way. I think I kind of flipped the switch this summer. Knew what I had to do to play pro and I think I did a really good job of just committing to that and going day in and day out and just working hard.

“In Laval, I feel like every day I got better,” added Struble, who had 1-5-6 totals and 29 penalty minutes in 12 games with the Rocket to go along with a plus-4. “Every day, I was working hard. Bucky (assistant coach Kelly Buchberger) with the D, he was really good. He’s tough love. You know exactly what is expected of you day in and day out. Every day I got better and I feel like I’m in a good spot right now. Just keep working.”

This could be an expensive road trip for Struble since the Canadiens are holding their annual rookie dinner after Saturday’s game in Los Angeles against the Kings (4 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM). Struble is on a two-way contract that pays him US$867,500 in the NHL, but only US$70,000 in the AHL.

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The Canadiens will have a day off Sunday in Los Angeles and practise there Monday morning before flying to Columbus, where they will play the Blue Jackets on Wednesday (7 p.m., SN, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM).

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A proud mama

Struble’s mother, Tara Slack, was in attendance for his NHL debut in Anaheim.

“She’s been an emotional wreck these past couple of days,” Struble told reporters in Anaheim after Wednesday’s morning skate. “My first fight, she was crying the whole way through it. When I told her I was getting called up, she was crying. Told her I was playing (against the Ducks), she was crying.”

During a game with the Rocket on Nov. 18, Struble had a spirited scrap with the Utica Comets’ Joseph Gambardella.

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Struble never knew his African American father. He was raised by his white mother, along with his stepfather and their twin boys in Rhode Island. His stepfather and the twins were also at the game in Anaheim.

Struble’s mother spoke with The Athletic three years ago about the racism her son dealt with growing up as a hockey player.

“When your child at 10 years old is called a racial slur, just playing a game that he loves, being on ice playing hockey — what do you say to that?” Struble’s mother told The Athletic. “What can you really say that’s going to make it better? You feel like there’s no word because it’s heinous, and in the moment, you can’t believe it’s happening.

“So, while I would always tell him that I was sorry that it happened, and I would always try to find something positive like, ‘I saw your entire team come off the bench and support you when that happened’ or, ‘I saw this person really have your back and stand up for you, and that was really nice to see,’” she added. “But the reality is nothing about what happened to him growing up playing hockey was positive; like, none of the incidents, the racial incidents, were positive. And it was really hard to find words that would be comforting because there’s no place for that and it shouldn’t be happening.”

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Happy Thanksgiving

The Canadiens’ afternoon games Friday and Saturday were because of Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S.

On Thanksgiving Day Thursday, the Canadiens tweeted the photo below of the team’s five U.S.-born players who are on the road trip (from left to right): Struble, Christian Dvorak, Cayden Primeau, Cole Caufield and Jesse Ylönen, who was born in Arizona in 1999 when his Finnish father, Juha, was playing for the Coyotes.

Ylönen scored the winning goal in the shootout Friday against the Sharks.

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Marathon man

Defenceman Mike Matheson leads the Canadiens in ice time, averaging 24:54 per game. That ranked seventh in the NHL after Friday’s game against the Sharks in which he logged 26:52 of ice time.

I asked Matheson after practice last Monday before the Canadiens flew to California if playing so many minutes is harder physically or mentally on him.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “It’s tough to say. There’s definitely the mental aspect of making sure that you’re really ready every single shift and every game. Definitely the physical aspect, you have to put in a lot more hours and make sure that you’re doing everything you can to be ready. But I love that. I’d be doing that regardless of how many minutes I was playing.”

According to the NHL’s new NHL.com/EDGE section of the league’s website, Matheson has skated 67.63 miles this season with a top speed of 22.94 miles per hour.

After winning the Quebec midget Triple-A championship as captain of the Lac St. Louis Lions in 2011, Matheson was debating whether to play junior in the QMJHL or take the U.S. college route. After looking over one of the QMJHL team’s schedules from the previous season with his father, Rod, Matheson realized there would be very little time for him to work out in the gym. So he opted for Boston College, where he could develop better on and off the ice.

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As a youngster growing up in Pointe-Claire, Matheson’s father wouldn’t allow him to play hockey 12 months a year, so he also played football. As an 11-year old running back, Matheson was named the offensive MVP of the mosquito Triple-A Lakeshore Cougars on Montreal’s West Island.

Matheson said playing football for about four years helped him as a hockey player.

“The contact aspect … learning how to hit and how to get hit properly,” he said. “I think when you’re younger there’s a tendency to kind of just hit with your upper body. Especially being a running back, it taught me to hit with my legs a lot more and learn to protect myself.”

Matheson’s teammates are impressed by his conditioning and how hard he works in the gym. Harris said the amount of ice time Matheson logs is especially impressive at the NHL level.

“It’s one thing to do it in high school and college, but at this level and with the amount of games we play,” Harris said after a recent practice. “But you can see he takes care of his body. You have to if you’re playing that many minutes and at the speed he plays at. It’s not like he’s a clunky skater. He’s flying around the sheet. It’s impressive.”

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Praise for Robidas

I was surprised when the Canadiens didn’t hire a coach with NHL experience after assistant coach Luke Richardson left the team two summers ago to become head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Richardson was in charge of the defence with the Canadiens and the team decided to hire Stéphane Robidas as his replacement. While Robidas played 15 seasons in the NHL, including three with the Canadiens, his only coaching experience was one season in 2021-22 with the Cantonniers de Magog, who won the Quebec midget Triple-A championship. Before coaching in Magog, Robidas spent four years working in player development with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Kaiden Guhle, who is developing into one of the best young defencemen in the NHL at age 21, gives a lot of credit to Robidas.

“He’s been huge,” Guhle said. “I don’t know if he’s ever really yelled at any of us back there. He knows what we’re going through and how young we are and how it can be tough at times. He’s always there for pointers and advice … he’s been awesome. He shows us clips almost every day on little things that can help us out and fine-tune our game a little bit. Roby’s been unbelievable for all of us.”

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Arber Xhekaj, who was placed on the injured-reserve list Friday with an upper-body injury, also praised the work Robidas has done with the Canadiens defencemen.

“He’s a smart guy and a super-nice guy,” the 22-year-old Xhekaj said before suffering what appeared to be a shoulder injury during last Thursday’s 6-5 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights at the Bell Centre. “He played for a long time, so he knows what he’s talking about. He’ll pull you aside and show you clips. He’ll tell you if he needs more from you and if you want more ice time this is what you got to do. I really think he’s helped me a lot throughout these two years.

“He’s calm,” Xhekaj added. “He’s not going to get mad at you, he’s not going to yell at you. He’s just going to address the issue that he has with you in a calm way. No one’s getting mad, no one’s yelling at each other on the bench, so it’s pretty good.”

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Slafkovsky a work in progress

Juraj Slafkovsky continues to be a work in progress after the Canadiens selected him with the No. 1 overall pick at the 2022 NHL Draft.

The 19-year-old had one of his best games Friday against the Sharks, picking up an assist while logging a season-high 19:44 of ice time to go along with a plus-2. Slafkovsky has 1-3-4 totals in the last five games, giving him 2-4-6 totals for the season.

Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis wants the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Slafkovsky to start using his size more to his advantage.

“I think he needs to understand that one of his biggest strengths as a player is his size and the rest complements that,” St. Louis told reporters in San Jose after practice Thursday. “So, for me, he’s got to play within that to start. It’s not about running around and hitting people. There’s certain times in a shift where you’re able to cut somebody off and disrupt and discourage that guy to be part of the offence now because he’s off-balance or he’s on the ground, he’s not part of the equation now for a couple of seconds. But there’s shifts where there’s none of that and there’s shifts where he had three opportunities. To me, it’s just do the things that the game is asking you to do and use your assets to get that done because I know he can skate in open ice. He’s actually pretty good at gaining the middle of the ice with his reach, his size. He’s got a lot of tools and for him it’s to just keep figuring out when to use what, why, when.”

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St. Louis was asked by Arpon Basu of The Athletic if Slafkovsky can ever become a physical presence on the forecheck like teammate Josh Anderson, who is 6-foot-3 and 224 pounds.

“To (Slafkovsky’s) defence, we’re asking him to play hockey where he’s probably never played like that before,” St. Louis said. “He’s never had an assignment … I’m the first guy on the forecheck, that’s my job. I’m the second or third … and sometimes the second or third, well, who’s second or third — they’re right next to each other? So there’s some hesitation sometimes that makes him look maybe that he doesn’t have that in his game, which I don’t believe in. But as a 19-year-old trying to figure out how to play the game in the NHL there’s going to be hesitation sometimes. When there’s no hesitation, when it’s clear-cut for him, when it’s black and white, he goes. But there’s times in a game where it’s a little grey and probably for a 19-year-old there’s probably a little more grey in the game than for a veteran.”

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Mesar making progress

Filip Mesar — the second player the Canadiens selected in the first round of the 2022 NHL Draft (26th overall) after Slafkovsky — did not want to play a second season of junior hockey this year.

“Last season, before they sent me down to the Kitchener Rangers, we were talking a lot about it,” Mesar said during the Canadiens’ development camp in July. “They told me that it’s going to be only for one year and then next year I’m going to be playing in Laval. That’s what my agent also said. I played men’s hockey for two years (in Slovakia before getting drafted). First year in Canada it was a little bit to adapt to Canada’s hockey and the ice is a little smaller. Hopefully I’m going to be playing in Laval next season.”

Mesar did start this season with the Rocket, but he only played two games and picked up one assist before being sent back to Kitchener.

After posting 17-34-51 totals in 52 games last season with Kitchener, Mesar had 8-14-22 totals in his first 11 games with the Rangers this season, including his first OHL hat-trick in a 10-3 win over the Erie Otters on Tuesday.

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Leaking Oil

The Edmonton Oilers came into this season as one of the favourites to win the Stanley Cup.

But after beating the Washington Capitals 5-0 Friday they were seventh in the Pacific Division with a 6-12-1 record.

In July, the Oilers signed captain Connor McDavid’s former junior linemate with the OHL’s Erie Otters, Connor Brown, to a one-year, US$775,000 contract that includes and additional US$3.225 million in performance bonuses. In 13 games this season, Brown has zero points and is minus-7.

In August, the Oilers hired McDavid’s agent, Jeff Jackson, to become the team’s CEO of hockey operations. This month, the Oilers fired head coach Jay Woodcroft and replaced him with Kris Knoblauch, who was McDavid’s coach in Erie. The Oilers have a 3-3-0 record since Knoblauch took over.

Goaltending has been the biggest problem for the Oilers. Maybe they should sign Devin Williams.

Williams, who was never drafted and hasn’t played a game in the NHL, has been playing in Germany. But he was the Otters’ goalie during McDavid’s final season of junior, posting a 32-11-2 record with a 2.97 goals-against average and a .891 save percentage.

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More seriously, the Oilers are reported to have been scouting the Canadiens’ three goalies: Jake Allen, Samuel Montembeault and Primeau.

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TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger told TSN 690 Radio this week that if Canadiens GM Kent Hughes is willing to trade Montembeault the return would have to be “substantial.”

“If we’re connecting the dots in Edmonton one more time, guess where we’re going?” Dreger said. “We’re talking Xavier Bourgault and maybe something else, I don’t know. I think that would get the attention of Kent Hughes in management of the Canadiens. But given where the Edmonton Oilers are maybe you can make it a little more extravagant. Maybe you can build it into something bigger. Do we say blockbuster? Maybe.”

Bourgault is a 6-foot, 172-pound centre from L’Islet who the Oilers selected in the first round (22nd overall) of the 2021 NHL Draft after he posted 20-20-40 totals in 29 games with the QMJHL’s Shawinigan Cataractes during a season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last season, Bourgault had 13-21-34 totals in 62 games with the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors. This season, Bourgault has 1-4-5 totals in 11 games with Bakersfield.

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