NB: Please save your best stuff about resumption of BB/Soccer, seasons, etc.. I am planning a piece on this by midweek when the plot thickens some more. Best, GV
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Last week I wrote about missing the Kentucky Derby – the place, the season, the event itself.
Some readers mentioned other grand sports sites and events – Jim Nabors singing at the Indy 500, walking into Yankee Stadium (or almost any other ball park) and seeing the green grass, a day trip to Saratoga during “the season.”
I wracked my brains about sports places I have visited:
--Ebbets Field in 1944, when I was 5 and my dad took me to an off-season bond drive event.
--My first assignment to Notre Dame football in 1964, remembering a nice man up the block when I was a kid, who took me to see a few live Notre Dame games in a movie house in Flushing, and told me proudly about having been on a great Notre Dame team and never, ever, getting into a game.
--Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in 1986, feeling the place physically rock when El Tri was on the move – the appeal of any home team during the World Cup, but particularly for our neighbors to the south.
That was just three off the top of my head. Last night I remembered going to the Montreal Forum in 1984 and getting a tour from Camil DesRoches, the grand old publicist of Les Habs. Camil was old school – suave, bilingual, mustached, loved the cultures of Canada plus the U.S. He implanted the lore of Les Habs in my brain, so I wrote about it.
I kept up with Camil for many years after. He would send me cassettes, particularly of Montreal’s chanteuse, Danielle Oddera, and her duets and interpretations of Jacques Brel. Nowadays, the Forum is a cineplex; my friend Camil DesRoches passed at 88 in 2003; I still treasure my visit to this home to a great team, a great culture.
Please write about a sports shrine in your life:
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My column from 1984:
SPORTS OF THE TIMES; FIRST VISIT TO THE FORUM
By George Vecsey
He pointed to a color photograph on his office wall, a picture of the Montreal Canadiens who won their fifth straight Stanley Cup 24 springs ago. His total impartiality was tempered not in the slightest by his being employed by the Canadiens for the past 46 years.
Camil DesRoches spent yesterday morning escorting a greenhorn on his first visit to the Forum, a pilgrimmage somewhat akin to the first visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, or St. Peter's in Rome or Westminster Abbey in London: the feeling of closeness to the soul of a people.
''I always say that hockey is like a religion here in Quebec,'' Camil DesRoches was saying. ''We are perhaps 90 percent Catholic, but we are all hockey fans.''
Camil DesRoches is a classic Gallic gentleman, nearly 70 years old, with a thin mustache and a large heart. He loves his wife, he loves Broadway musicals (he saw ''Oklahoma'' 26 times), he loves wine (''We have never had a bottle of milk in my house, and I still have all my teeth''). But just as strongly, he loves the Canadiens, and he loves the Forum, for which he is now the publicity director.
He was conducting the tour on a day of both sadness and anticipation. Yesterday morning, there was a funeral for Claude Provost, a member of the five-time Stanley Cup champions, who died on a tennis court in Florida last week. Later in the evening, the current Canadiens would work on stopping the Islanders from winning a fifth straight Stanley Cup.
The Islanders were taking a brief workout as Camil DesRoches led the visitor into the stands. Outside, on a perfect spring morning, the Forum seemed an ordinary brick building, surrounded by traditional Montreal tenements with their dark fire escapes. But inside, the Forum seemed a holy place, where one lowered his voice.
On the morning a Canadien was being buried, it was not hard to remember that in this building in 1937 the body of the great Howie Morenz was put on public display after his death from complications following a broken leg (suffered, as the history books always say, when he crashed into the boards on the St. Catherine Street side of the Forum). The Forum was filled with 15,000 people, yet it was as silent as a cathedral.
Yesterday the Forum's lower red seats glistened, as if painted five minutes earlier, and so did the middle white and upper blue sections, forming a classic tricolor. The stands of the Forum are oval-shaped, following the shape of the rink itself, just as the best bull rings and soccer stadiums of Europe are tailored for one sport, rather than multi-purpose arenas not quite right for any sport.
''There used to be eight columns,'' Camil DesRoches was saying. ''So in 1968, we rebuilt the Forum completely in five and a half months months, leaving only the seats. Look how narrow they are. But nobody complains, because we get more people in that way, 16,400 seats in all.''
From the rafters hang 22 banners, signifying
the club's Stanley Cups, 20 of them won since
the Forum opened in 1924.
''The best game I ever saw here?'' he said. ''Maybe in 1936, when the Maroons beat Detroit in six overtimes when Mud Bruneteau scored. I got home at 2:25 AM. Or maybe it was Dec. 14, 1965, when our so-called amateur club beat the Russians using Jacques Plante, who had just left the Rangers a few months earlier.
''Or maybe it was March 23, 1944, when Maurice Richard scored all five goals to beat Toronto, 5-1, and they named him all the top three stars of the game. Or what about the game in 1979, when Boston got a penalty in the last minute and Lafleur and Lambert scored to win it?''
The pucks from the Islanders' target practice started slamming into the shining red seats, so Camil DesRoches continued the tour. He pointed out Le Salon des Anciens - the Old Timers' Room - where former Canadiens are welcome.
The Canadiens are noted for their propriety, including a private room for the wives of the players. Only recently have patrons been allowed to carry beer to their seats, an experiment that would end at the first abuse.
In the lobby, two escalators form the pattern of crossed hockey sticks, a sight Ken Dryden, the retired goalie, always found compelling. Nearby, is the Pantheon of Montreal hockey, the plaques of 30 players and coaches from Quebec who had their best years wearing the bleu, blanc, rouge.
Near the entrance is Le Club de Bronze, 11 bronze busts of journalists and broadcasters considered to be friends of Montreal hockey. The 12th bust is of Camil DesRoches.
''I feel funny every time I see that,'' he said with a shrug.
The next stop was the Canadiens' dressing room. On one wall are plaques containing the names of every player since 1917. Above the lockers is a line from Dr. John McCrea's poem, ''In Flanders Fields.''
In English it says: ''To You, From Fallen Hands We Throw the
Torch, Be Yours to Hold It High.''
On the other side of the room, Camil DesRoches has translated it into French:
'' Nos Bras Meurtris Vous Tendent Le Flambeau, A Vous Toujours de le Porter Bien Haut.''
Camil DesRoches said: ''I have been told I did a good job of translating but also making it rhyme in French.''
Over a glass of vin rouge, Camil DesRoches talked of being the youngest of 19 children, of being taken to the cellar when he was 6 years old and being shown the barrel of beer and the bottles of wine.
''My father said: 'You are almost grown up now. You can drink what you want - but never get drunk.' I got drunk once, when I was 17, and my father made me stand almost naked in front of my family, in that condition. I never got drunk again in my life.'' Sipping his wine, he compared three of the great Canadiens of his 46 years: ''Maurice Richard was the Michelangelo of hockey - such dedication, he would work on his back painting the Sistine Chapel, never give up. Jean Beliveau, complete finesse, what style, he was the Da Vinci of hockey. And Guy Lafleur is like Raphael, whose career was not long, but he was an artist and he had a great time.''
When lunch was over, Camil DesRoches concluded: ''I hope you enjoyed the visit to the Forum. Also, I hope you see what it means to our French environment here in Quebec, just like the language, part of our life.''
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.