The Day the Habs Came to Paramus

Early one morning in the spring of 1974, I noticed a little blurb in the Rangers Notes section of the paper that the Montreal Canadiens would be practicing that morning at the Bergen Mall Ice Arena in Paramus, NJ, in preparation for their Quarter-Final meeting against the Rangers at the Garden.

Of course I wanted to go. I had to go. But I also had to go to work. At the time I was a computer operator for Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City. So when I got to work, I explained to my boss, Bob Harrington, the uniqueness of the situation. I must have been very convincing because he agreed to let me take a long, early lunch so I could make the 30 minute drive to Paramus to attend the practice. I also called a few friends and picked them up along the way.

The Bergen Mall Ice Arena opened in 1973 in a converted Fine Fare Supermarket. It was the home of the Rutherford Oysters as well as other local metro league teams and had bleacher seating on one side of the ice. The ice surface was a little smaller than an NHL rink but at least on this day it would serve the Canadien’s purpose.

When we pulled into the arena parking lot, we noticed the Canadien’s team bus and saw Larry Robinson walking towards the mall across the street. Robinson was Montreal’s workhorse on defense and was probably given the day off by coach Claude Ruel.

Once inside, we first stood by the glass as the Canadiens took windsprints around the ice to loosen up. I was about 22 years old at the time, too old to be star struck. But these were the Montreal Canadiens out there on the ice, one of the best hockey teams ever assembled Yvan Cournoyer, Steve Shutt, Guy Lafleur, the Mahovlich brothers, Henri Richard, Ken Dryden, they were all out there. Eleven players from that team would later be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. So it was quite a sight to behold on a weekday morning in Paramus NJ, when I was supposed to be at work doing something much more mundane.

We then moved to the bleacher seats at center ice as Ruel blew the whistle to start practice. The session began with skating drills followed by a number of passing and shooting drills, including rapid fire slap shots from the blue lines on both netminders; Ken Dryden at one end of the ice and Bunny Larocque at the other. The session lasted about 45 minutes and ended with the Habs skating full speed around the center ice face-off circle until the whistle blew and they did it again, this time in reverse. Show offs!

With practice over, most of the players stayed on the ice and shot on the empty nets. One of the most impressive displays of the morning was when guys like Lafleur, Cournoyer and Shutt stood behind the goal line on one end of the ice and were picking corners with wrist shots and slappers at the net at the other end. At one point, a shot ripped through the chain-link fencing at that end of the rink and broke one of the supermarket style windows in the front of the building. Just another reminder that these were the Montreal Canadiens. The shooting display was all the more impressive because, even though my friends and I played a lot of hockey and thought we were pretty good, we knew that if we tried the same kind of shots they would probably die around center ice and slide the rest of the way to the net, if they made it that far. But these shots were hitting the net at full velocity. Very impressive indeed.

As the Canadiens left the ice, many signed autographs and spent some time talking to fans. But since I had to go back to work we left to make trip back to Jersey City.

As for the playoffs, the Rangers won the Quarter-Final series 4-2 but lost the next round to the Flyers.

The Bergen Mall Ice Arena was converted into a fitness spa in late 1980’s and later demolished. There is now a huge Lowes Home Improvement store on the site. Most shoppers probably don’t realize that there used to be an ice arena there. But for those of us who were there that spring morning we’ll never forget the day the Montreal Canadiens practiced in Paramus NJ.