MONTREAL – Like he had done so many times before, Eddy Palchak sauntered out of the tunnel to the edge of the boards behind the Habs’ bench.
A trainer and equipment manager for 10 Stanley Cup-winning Montreal Canadiens teams, Palchak emptied a couple of buckets full of pucks onto the ice.
As the vulcanized rubber dropped to the rink, echoes of “Eddy, Eddy, Eddy” descended from the Bell Centre’s bleachers.
The Habs’ celebration marking their 100th birthday had begun.
Prior to Friday’s 5-1 win against the Boston Bruins, the storied club held a two-hour ceremony to commemorate its Dec. 4, 1909, founding and to honour a pair of the team’s all-time greats.
The Bell Centre crowd roared as Palchak’s pucks were scooped up by about two-dozen former Habs – who hopped on the ice in full gear – including the legendary Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy and Guy Lafleur.
Stanley Cup-winning head coaches Scotty Bowman, Jacques Demers, Jean Perron and Claude Ruel watched from behind the bench.
“For all of you fans who supported the team for 100 years – it was special for you guys – but for us, as players, it was something unbelievable,” Lafleur told the crowd from a podium on the ice after being introduced by Hollywood actor, and enthusiastic Habs fan, Viggo Mortensen.
“You guys partied some nights – we partied every night.”
In an unexpected segment of the pre-game ceremony, the Habs made room in the arena’s crowded rafters for the numbers worn by the two oldest-living Canadiens – Elmer Lach’s No. 16 and Emile (Butch) Bouchard’s No. 3.
Dryden, one of the men whose number hangs from the arena’s ceiling, suited up in his old brown goalie pads Friday for the first time since he played his last game with the Canadiens.
“It was a bit terrifying first going out,” Dryden said before the ceremony, adding he wore a few pieces of the bulkier, modern equipment owned by current Habs netminder Carey Price.
“Actually, it felt better than I thought it was going to feel.”
Dryden reminisced about his run with the team in the 1970s, when he backstopped the Habs to six Stanley Cups.
“We were a really good team and we were the kind of team that could beat you just about any way you wanted to play,” said the Hall of Famer.
“We had the best general manager, we had the best coach, we had the best players, we had the best arena, we had the best atmosphere to play in.”
During the ceremony, former Detroit Red Wings star Gordie Howe walked out onto the red carpet holding Maurice (Rocket) Richard’s iconic No. 9 jersey. He introduced one of his old rivals – Habs great Jean Beliveau.
Beliveau, who won 10 Cups with the Canadiens, drew one of the biggest ovations of the night, but the soldout crowd didn’t cheer for everybody.
Boos rained down when the Bruins hit the ice for the pre-game warm-up and when a taped video message of Prime Minister Stephen Harper played on the big screen.
Harper’s congratulatory address was mostly drowned out by the jeering crowd. But the boos quickly turned to cheers as a similar message by Celine Dion’s husband and manager, Rene Angelil, rolled on the scoreboard.
Michel Lessard, a Habs fan since he “could breathe,” said watching the former players skate together in full equipment stirred up lots of great memories.
But the best part of the evening was definitely the retirement ceremony, he said.
“It got me emotional,” said Lessard, who took his prized Canadiens sweater – signed by the entire 1999-’00 team – out of a frame on his wall so he could wear it to the game.
“It was well-deserved 10 years ago, 15 years ago – it’s about time it was done.”
But not every hockey fan at the Bell Centre on Friday was excited to watch the pre-game festivities.
Benoit, who wore a Bruins jersey with “Habs Suck” written across the back, showed up late just to make sure he missed the ceremony.
“I can understand, it’s 100 years, but … at the end of the day I’m a Bruins fan – I hate Montreal,” said the born-and-raised Montrealer.
“I’m not going to stand and cheer for them – no way.”
For others, like former Hab and life-long fan Yvan Cournoyer, it was an opportunity to honour those who wore the bleu, blanc et rouge.
“When we were young we dreamed of playing for the Canadiens,” said the Hall of Famer, who won 10 Stanley Cups with the Canadiens.
He said his hands were sweaty all day.
“Tonight, I’m so nervous – like I was going to play a hockey game.”