Part 1 of a new continuing series: An Australian on Ice Hockey.
Part 2: NHL All-Star Game shakeup a great idea
Part 5: The Psychology of Choking
This isn't an easy admission to make: I actually quite like the Montreal Canadiens. In point of fact, I have chosen to ignore all the balanced tendencies in my nature and throw my ample frame onto the Habs band-wagon. It's not an easy admission because, as an Australian living in Montreal, it just doesn't feel right supporting a club simply because everyone else does. It's hard to ignore the Habs. Actually, to be blunt, you make excuses for the Habs.
I moved to Montreal about eighteen months ago, just before the 2009 NHL playoffs where the Canadiens missed the postseason and la Quebecois(e) were forced to endure a Pittsburgh/Detroit Stanley Cup Finals. But still everyone wore their shirts - if you entered any bar without looking at the screens, you'd've thought the Canadiens were playing. Red and blue jerseys or shirts are fashion statements. I've lost count of the number of Canadiens logos I've seen tattooed onto naked Quebecois skin. Life doesn't so much revolve around the NHL however, life revolves around the Montreal Canadiens.
No problem, I think, I'm used to a sports-crazed environment: I come from Melbourne. Wrong. Back home, as AFL-crazed as it is, you have variety. Here, there is none. In Australia - even other major North American cities - you have a choice as to which sport to follow: baseball, football, basketball, soccer or hockey. Not in Montreal. Not in Quebec. Here, you follow hockey. More than that, you follow the Montreal Canadiens.
The Habs are team who've had a lot of past success. They've won 22 Stanley Cup trophies as NHL Champions and are very proud to count themselves one of the "Original Six" franchises who were founder members of the NHL (alongside the similarly arrogant Toronto, Boston, New York, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia).
The Habs are, to coin a phrase, the Collingwood of the NHL. To draw another sporting parallel, they resemble Liverpool: a marked amount of success - the most ever, actually - followed by a recent dry spell causing native unrest. They haven't won the title since 1993 and I arrived as Montreal cleared out their older stars - Alex Kovalev & Saku Koivu especially - to make way for younger players like Scott Gomez and Mike Cammalleri. There remains that same sense of entitlement in Habs fans as there is with those two football clubs: Quebec regards the success of their hockey franchise their personal birthright. They deserve to be the best because they've (almost) always been the best. It's a flawed argument, but you make excuses for the Montreal Canadiens.
Part of this is down to the extraordinary players that the Montreal Canadiens have been blessed with over their hundred-year history. The names simply roll off the tongue: Guy LaFleur. Henri Richard. Patrick Roy. Maurice "The Rocket" Richard. Some of these players would walk into any All-Time NHL teams. Maurice Richard is widely considered the best Right-Wing of all time (as well as major rallying-point for the Francophone community - and indeed the "Quebec for the Francophones" movement). The club has been blessed with talent throughout it's lifespan (and until recent times, most of the top-tier French Canadian talent) so that the current sixteen-year title drought is the longest yet endured and the locals grumble.
The symbiotic relationship between the fans and the Canadiens is actually quite an horrifyingly beautiful thing. In its own way the city finds ways both to support the players and to tear them down. It is/was often said of AFL club Richmond that they "eat their own" and the same adage reflects the Montreal Canadiens. Should a player perform well in one game then he is feted as one of the league's best. But If he follows this successful game with a failure then local sports talkback stations are flooded with fans screaming for his head or other appropriate trade benefits.
The vitriol is especially severe for anglophone Canadians with current starting goaltender Carey Price bearing the brunt of harsh demotic attacks. This is in part due to his past tendency to complain to the media and in equal part because he hails from Vancouver and speaks only a modicum of la Francais.
In a recent survey it was found that New York was the toughest city in which to play throughout North American sports. The Big Apple brought big spotlights: knowledgeable fans, massive media glare and an enormous fan base. If a player underperforms in New York, there is scant hope of hiding no matter how big the city is. That is, the survey went on to say, unless hockey is your sport. In that case, Montreal wins, hands down. The only outlier to this study were the players of the Montreal Canadiens; men who undergo more fan/popular pressure as a result of where they play than any other in North America. You make excuses for the Habs.
So why do I enjoy them as a team? Partly because I've seen them more than most. Partly because I like the style in which they play. I guess, though, it's because during my time here I've really enjoyed being part of a community. During the Habs' 3-2 loss to rivals Ottawa on Saturday, I was in a bar with about fifty other patrons. When the Habs scored everyone cheered. When Ottawa scored, everyone sighed and refilled their beer glasses. In a city where the language proves a barrier for so many people, finding common ground can be difficult. That common ground is often the Habs: you make excuses for the Habs.
Last season's magical playoff run probably exemplifies this best. Montreal, after losing their best defenseman and playmaker for long stretches during the season, crept into the eighth Eastern Conference playoff place. They then went on a crazy run, dismissing the 1st-seeded Washington Capitals and the 3rd-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. Never before have I (or possibly will I) see an entire city so united around the achievements of a sports team. Rather than displaying their route number and destination, every city bus showed only "GO HABS GO". Every last bar on the island of Montreal and probably the entire province was stocked to the gills with supporters cheering on the team of la belle province.
Led by goalkeeper Jaroslav Halak, the Habs played such a terrier-like game that even I, who values sensibility in sports, had to join the throng. Essentially playing rope-a-dope, Montreal absorbed as much pressure as their opponents could dish out and then out-skated the best two teams in the East. The best two hockey players in creation were sent home by the Habs. Another blow to The Man from the put-upon principality, another step along the road to freedom. The cliches ran wild: "The little (red) engine that could". "Not the size of the (red) dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the (red) dog". "We believe". Even editors (including mine) make excuses for the Habs.
If you were outside and Montreal scored a goal, you could hear it - first the shouts from the plasma-screen hoi polloi followed very shortly by an almost-deafening scree of car horns. I was working in sales at the time in a sixty-person office. We had a bell to be rung only in the event of a sale. We weren't very good and as a result we heard that bell a maximum of three times per week. Except when the Habs won a playoff game: then it was rung first thing the following morning. You make excuses for the Montreal Canadiens. The entire city of Montreal - the entire province of Quebec - stood behind the Habs to the point that win, lose or overtime, fans rioted down the main street. When one storeowner complained, he was told by police "It's your fault, you're only nine blocks from the Bell Centre". You make excuses for the Habs.
How can you not love the passion? Surely that's what sport is all about!? No matter how much I look at sport from a cynical and (allegedly) even-handed point of view, you make excuses for the Habs. I admire the way that Mike Cammalleri plays. I'm sad that they traded Halak, but am pleased that Carey Price has the chance to make the Montreal net his own. Sincerely, it's just sport and I happen to like the way that the Canadiens play. Sport shouldn't be a rallying-point for a political cause, nor should it be an excuse to be extremely crappy to one another. Simply following a cause isn't a reason for excusing poor or boorish behaviour but all too often that proves true.
You shouldn't make excuses for that.