They Once Were Called the Flying Frenchmen : With 6 U.S.-Born Players, Nickname No Longer Fits the Montreal Canadiens

Times Staff Writer

The Montreal Canadiens used to be called the Flying Frenchmen when they set a National Hockey League record by winning 20 Stanley Cup championships.

But the Canadiens of the 1980s have a new nickname: The French Foreign Legion. Six players on the team were born in the USA.

Defenseman Chris Chelios, who played on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, was born in Chicago but grew up in San Diego; defenseman Craig Ludwig was born in Eagle River, Wis.; defenseman Tom Kurvers is from Minneapolis; right wing Chris Nilan was born in Boston; rookie left wing Steve Rooney was born in Canton, Mass., and rookie defenseman Mike Lalor was born in Buffalo.


The Canadiens also have a couple of Swedish players--left wing Mats Naslund, the team’s leading scorer, and right wing Kjell Dahlin--and defenseman Petr Svoboda, who defected from Czechoslovakia.

Former Montreal Coach Jacques Lemaire, who resigned last summer, reportedly said last season that if the Canadiens had a Chinese player who could score 50 goals, the fans would love him.

Do the French-speaking fans in Montreal resent the influx of Americans?

“I’m sure there’s a certain element wondering why the Canadiens have to go to the States to get players, but the fans are good to me,” said Nilan, who has spent seven years in Montreal. “I’ve even got a French girlfriend.

“With our club, if you’re good enough to play, you play. It’s not whether you’re French or American.”

Four of the six Americans on the Canadien roster are defensemen.

Said Serge Savard, Montreal’s managing director: “It’s not because we decided to go out and draft Americans. We draft the best players. And it seems like so far, America provides a lot of good defensemen rather than forwards.

“I don’t think there’s any reaction at all from our fans to them. They just want to win like everyone else.”

Said Coach Jean Perron: “We take the best players regardless of nationality. Montreal wants a good club. They don’t care where they come from. We have no problem with nationality.”

Said Ludwig: “My first year, there were just three Americans, but now it’s getting to the point where it’s common.

Chelios is perhaps the most promising American-born player on the Canadiens.

The son of a Greek immigrant, Chelios, 23, learned to skate at the age of 6 and was a fan of the Chicago Black Hawks. Stan Mikita was his idol.

But Chelios’ father moved the family west in 1977 to open a San Diego restaurant.

Chelios played a year of youth hockey in Los Angeles, which meant that his father had to drive two hours from their home to practices and games. He graduated from Mira Mesa High in San Diego and moved to Moose Jaw, Canada, to play junior hockey. He earned a scholarship to Wisconsin and was drafted by the Canadiens in the fifth round in 1981. He joined the team late in 1984 after playing for the U.S. Olympic team.

Last season, he made the NHL All-Rookie team and was the runner-up to Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux in the voting for NHL Rookie of the Year. Chelios had 9 goals and 55 assists in 74 games.

He underwent knee surgery during the off-season but seems fully recovered.

When Montreal played the Kings at the Forum last season, Chelios’ friends and family chartered two buses from San Diego to Los Angeles to watch him play.

Chelios also expects to have a large group rooting for him again tonight when the Canadiens play the Kings at the Forum at 7:30.

Chelios’ father, mother, sister and 80-year-old grandparents watched him practice with the Canadiens Friday afternoon at a rink in Culver City.

“His grandparents just arrived from Greece, and this is the first time they’ve watched him practice; tomorrow will be the first time they have seen him play,” said Chelios’ father, Gus. “The game means a lot to Chris. A lot of people do it for the money, but he does it because he loves it.”

Said Chelios: “I always look forward to this trip because it’s fun playing in front of my friends.”

Chelios’ parents also visit Montreal several times during the season to watch him play.

Chelios shares a condominium just outside Montreal with Kurvers. They also took French classes together.

Kurvers, who turned 23 last month, played college hockey at Minnesota-Duluth. Chelios and Kurvers are defense partners. This is Kurvers’ second season in Montreal. He scored 45 points last season.

“There’s definitely a lot of pressure on you playing in Montreal because of the team’s great heritage,” Kurvers said. “The French culture really uses hockey as a spokesman for the province. When you do something good, they build it up. But when you do something bad, it’s the end of the world.”

Said Chelios: “The fans treat us the same as any other players on the team. The only tough part is adjusting to the French culture. I’ve been a lot of places, but this is different. We took some French lessons, but it’s hard because we’re on the road so much.”

But it’s a different story in Montreal. Talk about being a stranger in a strange land.

“You can’t hide anywhere,” Chelios said. “Everyone in Montreal knows that you’re a hockey player.”

Ludwig said he can’t even go to the supermarket in Montreal without being recognized by fans, so he sends his wife to do the shopping.

“It’s nice to be in a city where everything is based on the Canadiens,” Ludwig said. “Everybody knows who I am, so I don’t go anywhere.”

Said left wing Rooney, who was called up from the minors for the playoffs last season: “They accept the Americans. They don’t treat us any differently. Montreal is the best place to play hockey in the world. It’s an honor to play here.”