For 72 years it was hockey’s most hallowed arena, home to 24 Stanley Cup champions and the site of a multitude of consequential sporting and cultural events. Now it’s an entertainment complex, complete with a 22-screen movie theatre, bowling lanes, and a comedy club. That may sound lively, but the reality is that it’s depressingly empty, and, during these pandemic-times, it seems to be particularly devoid of its former glory.
A quarter century removed from the Montreal Canadiens final game there, the Forum still stands, a weird shell of its former self. A large black box that looms over Atwater and Ste-Catherine Streets, it’s hard to envision all that transpired in this building, but the ghosts of the Richard brothers, Howie Morenz, Jean Bèliveau, Jacques Plante, and Guy Lafleur are there nonetheless, even if you really have to use your imagination to help conjure them up.
I visited the Forum on September 24, 2021, with my buddy Chris Creamer, armed with copies of our bestselling book, “Fabric of the Game,” looking to chase down the rouge, blanc, et blue ghosts and pay homage to all that occurred in this sacred space.
Originally built to house the Montreal Maroons, the Forum opened in 1924, taking a mere 159 days to build. The Canadiens became full-time tenants two years later, and they would soon come to rule the hockey universe. The Maroons, on the other hand, could not survive the Great Depression, but their two Stanley Cup titles are commemorated with a pair of banners in an abandoned corner on the uppermost floor of the current Forum. How great was the home ice advantage? Only two visiting teams ever won the Stanley Cup here; the New York Rangers, who won the first championship in their franchise’s history against the Maroons in 1928, and the Calgary Flames, who defeated the Canadiens in a decisive sixth game in 1989 (Flames co-captain Lanny McDonald told us about this particular piece of history in the foreword of our book.)
The first floor of the building contains a HSBC bank branch, an A&W location, and Mandy’s Gourmet Salads, along with a closed Canadiens souvenir store. What was once the epicenter of the sport, center ice, is appropriately marked with a Habs logo, and a small section of seats, (currently roped off due to COVID concerns,) helps to define what was once here. Abandoned retail spaces scattered throughout the place offer up little sense of the crowds and the fervor that once filled the building.
An escalator ride to the second level reveals a hallway that leads to the restrooms, but it also contains a display of Canadiens memorabilia, including original Forum seats and replica retired number banners that hang from the acoustical tiled ceiling.
Up a narrow stairway, the third floor “GamesCentre,” which would normally host billiard and ping pong players and arcade enthusiasts, is shuttered. The same holds true for the fourth floor sports bar, although a mechanical device that measures one’s blood alcohol level remains in place, a sad monument to more festive days. We did, however, see some signs of life in the form of a bunch of students from Dawson College, which maintains classrooms here, with headphones on and laptops in front of them, looking like normal college students anywhere, even if they were taking a break from their classes in what was once an 18,000-seat arena.
The Forum was the site of Howie Morenz’ 1937 funeral, the 1955 “Richard Riot,” and the 1975 New Year’s Eve contest between the Canadiens and the Soviet Red Army team, considered by some to be the greatest hockey game ever played. The Beatles played here. In 1976, 14 year-old Nadia Comaneci became the first Olympic gymnast to be awarded a perfect score of 10.0, here. And, on a crisp Friday morning in September 2021, two hockey authors wandered its barren corridors in search of bits and pieces of its bygone grandeur, and then took a drive to Jarry Park.