MONTREAL - In all of hockey's history, there is no team quite like the Montreal Canadiens.
The club in the iconic red, white and blue jerseys with the CH logo is the all-time leader in Stanley Cup victories with 24. It has at its peak been standard-bearer for artistry on ice, and has always been the pride of French-speaking Canada and for many other fans around the world.
And now the Canadiens are about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their founding as a French-Canadian professional team at the old Windsor Hotel in Montreal on Dec. 4, 1909.
The occasion is to be marked Friday night with a game at the Bell Centre against the longtime rival Boston Bruins, relative hockey saplings at a mere 85 years old.
The Canadiens are the team of hockey gods of the past, including fiery goal-scorer Maurice (Rocket) Richard, elegant centre Jean Beliveau and dashing winger Guy Lafleur.
They had the player who popularized the slapshot, Bernard (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, and the one who made wearing a mask standard equipment for goaltenders, Jacques Plante.
There were legendary coaches Dick Irvin Sr., Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman, and masterful general managers Frank Selke, Sam Pollack and Serge Savard.
They have sent 44 players to the Hockey Hall of Fame and another 10 have gone in as builders of the sport.
Such is their history that their longtime arena, the Montreal Forum, was said to be haunted by ghosts who would cause the puck to bounce in their favour at critical times in important games, although the spirits looked to have vanished since the team moved to its flashy new digs and tumbled into mediocrity in 1996.
Most of Montreal's mystique springs from a 24-year period from 1956 to 1979 during which they won 15 Stanley Cups, including a record five in a row from 1956 to 1960, four in a five-year stretch from 1965 to 1969 and four straight from 1976 to 1979.
For Rejean Houle, a solid winger who grew up in the 1950s, played 11 seasons from 1969 into the early 1980s, later served as general manager and still works for the club in public relations, the Canadiens have been a life-long obsession.
"I thought I was privileged to play with guys I had seen in the 1960s - Beliveau, Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Laperriere, J.C. Tremblay and Gump Worsley," he said recently with a big laugh. "That was special to me.
"When I was young, I'd watch games on Saturday night with my dad. The Montreal Canadiens were my dream, and being able to wear that uniform was a privilege."
It was one that started a century ago in a dispute between the owners of the Montreal Wanderers and their league at the time, the Eastern Canadian Hockey Association. Frozen out by the other teams, the owners of the Wanderers started a new league, the National Hockey Association, and needed teams to fill it.
The free-spending owner of the Renfrew Creamery Kings, 24-year-old Ambrose O'Brien, financed a start-up team in Montreal, which as a drawing card was made up of players of French-Canadian descent.
It was called Le Club de Hockey Canadien. At the time, many francophone Quebecers referred to themselves in French as habitants, or settlers, and the nickname Habs was taken up by some, although that name is almost exclusively used by English-speaking fans now.
A second Francophone team, the Nationals, joined a league with the other ECHA owners at the same time, but lasted only a few years.
Jack Laviolette was hired as player/coach, and O'Brien managed to sign the best players with French names he could find, including star scorer Edouard (Newsy) Lalonde and defenceman Didier Pitre.
Their first game was Jan. 5, 1910, at 3,500-seat Jubilee Arena in Montreal's east end. Lalonde scored the team's first goal and Georges Poulin got the overtime winner in a 7-6 victory over the Cobalt Silvers Kings.
The euphoria didn't endure, as the Canadiens finished last with a 2-10 record in their first season.
They were sold the following season to local wrestling promoter George Kennedy, owner of the Club Athletique Canadien. He gave them a CAC crest on their jerseys, moved them to the larger Westmount Arena, and their fortunes turned with the signing of a brilliant goaltender from Chicoutimi, Que. - Georges Vezina, for whom the NHL's top goaltender award is named.
It was also when they dropped their French-only rule and became the mix of both French and English players that would be a source of the franchise's later strength.
In 1916, at the height of the First World War, the Canadiens won the NHA and then defeated the Portland Rosebuds of the Pacific Coast league to claim their first Stanley Cup.
The Canadiens joined the teams in Toronto and Ottawa to form the NHL in 1917, and Kennedy split the team from his other interests and gave them the CH (for Club de Hockey Canadien) crest they still wear.
There was a chance for another Cup in 1919, but a challenge series between Montreal and the Seattle Metropolitans was cancelled when Canadiens defenceman Joe Hall died of the Spanish Influenza epidemic that swept through the world. Had they won, Montreal would have an taken an even 25 per cent of the Cups in its first 100 years.
In 1924, they moved in as tenants of a new arena, the Forum, built by a new NHL entry, the Maroons, the city's so-called English team that folded after winning two Stanley Cups during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In the 1920s, the NHL found its first superstar in Stratford, Ont., native Howie Morenz, who teamed with Aurel Joliat on a line that helped the Canadiens to Stanley Cups in 1924, 1926, 1930 and 1931.
Then came lean years until 1943-44, when a young winger from the city's north end, Rocket Richard, made the team and completed the powerful Punch Line with Blake and Elmer Lach, and ended a 14-year Cup drought.
In 1944-45, Richard dazzled the hockey world, becoming the NHL's first 50-goal scorer in only 50 games and cementing his place as the darling of Canadiens fans. Another Cup followed in 1946.
It was after the Second World War that Selke took over as general manager and built the extensive farm system that would produce a run of talent never seen before in hockey.
The Canadiens of the 1950s were all-but unbeatable, with Blake behind the bench and with Richard, Beliveau, Geoffrion, scoring ace Dickie Moore on the wing, Plante in goal, the dominating Doug Harvey on defence and many other top players. They won in 1953 and then took five in a row to close out the decade.
Beliveau and Henri Richard, who would go on to win a record 11 Cups in his career, continued into the 1960s on another dynastic team with Worsley in goal, although a chance for another five in a row was interrupted in 1967 by a heroic effort in the final by an aging band from Toronto for what remains the last Cup won by the Maple Leafs.
Another win in 1971 was Beliveau's swan song and debut of lanky, intellectual goaltender Ken Dryden. That same year, Pollock's machinations landed the first overall draft pick, and Lafleur became the successor to Richard and Beliveau in the line of French-Canadian stars.
Bowman, who had grown up in the Montreal system, took over as coach and led a team with Lafleur, Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire, Pete Mahovlich, Bob Gainey and the Big Three on defence - Savard, Guy Lapointe and Larry Robinson - to five more Cups.
But Pollack retired, Bowman left in a huff when not offered his job, and the Canadiens looked to going into decline as first the New York Islanders and then the Edmonton Oilers produced dynasty teams of their own.
But there was one last gasp left from Savard, who took over as general manager in 1983 and rebuilt the Canadiens in its long-standing image - a strong French presence complemented by English, and by then international, talent.
Goaltender Patrick Roy quickly became the league's best, and, aided by scoring from Bobby Smith, Mats Naslund, Claude Lemieux and Stephane Richer, another Cup came in 1986.
In 1993, Roy was uncanny as an upstart team led by Kirk Muller, Vincent Damphousse, Brian Bellows and Guy Carbonneau won 10 consecutive overtime games for its 24th and last Stanley Cup.
They haven't come close to challenging for another, even though they have become one of the league's richest clubs in their 21,273-seat building. There hasn't been another star to match Lafleur or Beliveau or Roy, and as Cup-less years go by, their glory if not their appeal has faded somewhat.