Alternate NHL history: Patrick Roy’s exit from Montreal

Canadiens Patrick Roy
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With 2019-20 NHL season on pause we are going to take an occasional look back at some of the alternate timelines that could have existed throughout the history of the league. Here, we contemplate what would have happened had Patrick Roy not been embarrassed in a 1995 game against the Detroit Red Wings and demanded a trade out of Montreal. 

At the start of the 1995-96 season Patrick Roy was already one of the most accomplished goalies in the history of the Montreal Canadiens, and on a path that was going to lead him to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

But on Dec. 2 of that season, in the Canadiens’ 22nd game on the schedule, the proverbial turd hit the fan.

It was on that night that Roy was humiliated in his own building, embarrassed on national TV, and ultimately played his final game as a member of the team before being traded to the Colorado Avalanche (along with team captain Mike Keane) for Jocelyn Thibault, Andrei Kovalenko, and Martin Rucinsky.

It remains one of the most significant moments in the history of the Canadiens’ franchise.

The Gathering Storm And The Eruption

Just four games into the 1995-96 season the Canadiens fired coach Jacques Demers, replacing him with Mario Tremblay, a former Canadiens player with no prior coaching experience. Things quickly devolved into chaos between Roy and Tremblay, and the stories of tension between the two are legendary at this point. Things ultimately reached their boiling point against the Red Wings on that now infamous night at The Forum.

The Red Wings opened the first period by scoring five goals on 17 shots against Roy, each one a more beautiful masterpiece than the one that preceded it. Instead of making a goaltending switch, Tremblay instead made the fateful decision to leave Roy in the game. The Red Wings goals never stopped coming. At one point in the second period Roy made a routine save and received a mock cheer from Montreal crowd, resulting in Roy raising his arms in celebration.

Finally, after allowing nine goals, Tremblay made the decision to remove Roy from the game in favor of backup Pat Jablonski. Upon returning to the bench, Roy stormed by his coach before leaning over to team president Ronald Corey and informing him that he had just played his final game with the team.

Just a few days later, general manager Rejean Houle sent Roy and Keane to Colorado. It was the perfect confluence of incompetence that saw an inexperienced, in-over-his-head general manager (just 40 days on the job), make a disastrous trade that only became a necessity after his equally inexperienced coach couldn’t coexist with one of the greatest players in the history of the league, and then completely humiliated him for no real reason.

That leads us to the questions.

What if Tremblay had simply avoided embarrassing Roy?

We could go back even further and ask “what if the Canadiens had hired a different coach,” but for now let’s just stick with this part of the equation.

There comes a point in every blowout game where the losing coach makes a goaltending switch even if they know it will not make a difference in the game. Sometimes your goalie has a bad night. Sometimes the team in front of them plays like garbage and you just want to spare them the embarrassment. But it usually happens. It usually happens before nine goals enter the back of the net in less than two periods.

The simple answer is that Roy continues on as goalie of the Canadiens, maybe has a rocky relationship with his coach, but ultimately outlasts him because he’s the superstar Hall of Fame player.

The Canadiens would have still had a franchise goalie, and that could have been a game-change in the short-term. Maybe it doesn’t bring another Stanley Cup to Montreal (they didn’t have that sort of team), but even without Roy they were still a playoff team in 1995-96 and the next two years after that. Thibault had a solid start to his Montreal career before self-destructing in the first-round of the playoffs that year against the New York Rangers. He never really solidified the position after that, was eventually traded two years later, and the Canadiens went through a revolving door of goalies over the next decade.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Roy was the final piece of the puzzle for the Avalanche and helped bring two Stanley Cups to Denver, including his very first year with the team. He finished that postseason with a .922 save percentage, won 16 out of 22 starts, and delivered one of the most devastating quotes ever.

Had Roy not demanded a trade out of Montreal, how does the Colorado mini-dynasty shake out? They clearly had a team that was ready to win. But was Stephane Fiset or Thibault the goalie to get them there? It is difficult to imagine either one performing at the level that Roy did, especially in the Western Conference Final that season against the very Red Wings team that helped push Roy out of Montreal.

That Red Wings team set an NHL record with 62 regular season wins and was by far the highest scoring team in hockey. Roy held them to two goals or less in four of the six games, including a Game 2 shutout. No Roy in Montreal could have meant the Red Wings play in the Stanley Cup Final that season where they would have almost certainly trounced the Florida Panthers with the same level of ferocity that the Avalanche did. That would have set the stage for a potential three-peat, and taken them from simply being “The team of the decade” in the 1990s to one of the NHL’s all-time greatest dynasties.

The Colorado/Quebec Angle

It was later revealed that the Canadiens and Avalanche had trade discussions involving Roy earlier in the 1995-96 season because then-Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix had once been Roy’s agent. Talks were so far along that they had even reportedly agreed in principle a deal that would have sent Roy to Colorado for Owen Nolan and Fiset. But with the Canadiens losing their first five games of the season, they fired Demers and general manager Serge Savard (replacing them with Tremblay and Houle) and nixed the trade. Colorado then sent Nolan to San Jose for Sandis Ozolinsh a few days later. Ozolinsh ended up making a huge impact on that Stanley Cup run, along with Roy.

But the intrigue here is the fact that the Avalanche even existed. This was their first year in Denver after relocating from Quebec, and it results in another massive what if. What if everything had played out exactly as it did in Montreal, but the Nordiques had never moved to Colorado?

The Canadiens would have still been in a position where a trade was necessary, but there is almost zero chance they would have even entertained the thought of trading him to one of their fiercest rivals.

Where would Roy have gone, and what impact would that have had on the league? In hindsight, Boston is one team that would have really stood out (even if it presented a similar issue for Montreal — trading within the division to a rival team). They were in a position to win, they were still trying to get Ray Bourque his Stanley Cup, and they had an absolutely appalling goaltending situation that they tried to remedy in-season with a trade for Bill Ranford.

Either way, it almost certainly would not have been Quebec, leading us down an entirely different timeline.

More alternate NHL history:
What if the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Alex Ovechkin lottery?

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.