MONTREAL - The Montreal Canadiens are nearing their 100th birthday and the party is about to start.
The NHL's oldest club, founded on Dec. 4, 1909, will have special events every month this season and in the first three months of the 2009-10 campaign leading up to its anniversary.
"It's a great privilege," team owner George Gillett said Wednesday at the Bell Centre. "There's so much history.
"We get recognition from people, but the real people who deserve the pats on the back are our fans for being behind us for 100 years. There's a lot of clubs that haven't made it yet and may not make it past whatever, so it's great to have fans of this quality."
As well as events, this season will see the release of a Canadiens video game, a documentary release on DVD of the team's most memorable games, a special set of 200 Upper Deck anniversary cards and even a Canadiens version of Monopoly.
Perhaps more surprising, the Royal Canadian Mint will issue 10 million one dollar coins and Canada Post will issue four million stamps honouring the Canadiens anniversary.
"It's because of the history and the sacrifices that so many people made that we have the privilege of going to the government of Canada to ask if they'd stamp a particular coin for us, or that they'd come up with a stamp program," Gillett added.
"This is a hockey club and to have that kind of respect is pretty amazing."
The team will also have 12 Centennial Jersey nights in which players will wear sweaters of past teams. Captain Saku Koivu modelled a blue-and-white one from their inaugural season in 1909-10, while star winger Alex Kovalev donned a striped one from 1912-13.
"It's cool," said Koivu. "I just hope we keep these after the games because it would be a pretty cool souvenir for after my career."
Kovalev added: "I can't imagine what it's going to look like with 23 players on the ice."
The anniversary events include:
- The unveiling of a Ring of Honour at the Bell Centre on Oct. 15 for the 44 players and 10 builders the team has sent to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
- The retirement of goaltending great Patrick Roy's No. 33 jersey on Nov. 22. His will be the team's 14th retired number.
- The opening of Centennial Plaza outside the Bell Centre on Dec. 4.
- The opening of a community rink in the St. Michel district of Montreal paid for by the Canadiens.
- The opening of the Canadiens Hall of Fame exhibit at the Bell Centre in April.
- A Montreal Symphony Orchestra concert celebrating the Canadiens and its own 75th anniversary.
The Canadiens will also play host to the NHL all-star game on Jan. 25 and the NHL draft June 26-27.
Already in place is a new high definition scoreboard that is the league's largest, at 25 feet by 40 feet of video space. It is five times larger than the rink's previous screen.
There are also games honouring Original Six opponents Dec. 4 against the New York Rangers and Jan. 8 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It all ends with the Centennial Game on Dec. 4, 2009, details of which have yet to be announced.
"You already feel a lot of history when you walk into the locker room," said Kovalev. "This year will be different with the jerseys and everything happening around the team.
"It's definitely going to be something to remember."
The Canadiens were founded eight years before the NHL was formed in 1917. Their first Stanley Cup triumph was in 1916. They have won a record 24 Cups overall.
"Everyone knows the Canadiens here," said forward Steve Begin. "In Quebec, the team is part of the family, it's a religion.
"And 100 years, that's really special. You can see how much attention the team gets even in training camp. People are so happy to see that hockey is starting. It's fun. And this is an organization with a lot of class and you know they're going to do it to the maximum."