Growing up in Montreal, it was easy to think that hockey was everything. For most of us who were raised there, the first Christmas present we can remember was a hockey sweater, bleu-blanc-rouge. I still have mine, the red one. And the one I got after that, white. And some more that have come along since.
Back in the day, that logo meant something. Check that. It meant everything. I met Pete Mahovlich in the press box at a Kings game one time a couple of years ago, and I asked him how normal his life was when he was playing for the Habs. He said he could go into the grocery store, no problem. I doubt it. I know, and I’ve written this before somewhere, that had he showed up at my elementary school, the boys would have rioted to get a look at him, let alone an autograph.
Now here we are some decades later, and the Montreal Canadiens are meeting one of the second six teams, the LA Kings, and looking at the roster, it’s apparent that those good old days are gone, gone, gone.
Lafleur, Lemaire, Cournoyer, Larose, Vachon—these were the magic names. And look at what unites them: the French surname. Of course, as most fans of hockey know, the Canadiens had it good back then, having special privilege to draft the first couple of French Canadien players before anyone else got a crack at them each year.
Now look at the modern list. Bourque, Gorges, Briere, Desharnais, Bouillon—the names have the same tone, or overtone, but the magic? Make that sound that tails off at the end and sounds something like, wah, wah, wah, and you’d be pretty close. Add to that the numbers the Habs sweaters bear now. Numbers past 35, the traditional last number a goalie could claim, and only if his name was “Tony Esposito,” have been replaced by 44s and 55s and 81s. Of course, the reason has something to do with the fact that so many Montreal numbers are retired.
So if that’s the Habs today, then how much do people in Montreal believe? If my experience is anything to go on, a lot. In the summer when I was home, I read the English-language paper every day. Now that Washington has stolen the local baseball team, there isn’t as much to talk about, which is perhaps why most days, there was a story about the hockey team in there. Sometimes more than one. Now, in the winter, I’ll bet the first four pages of the sports section are all hockey. And that’s got to create a feeling that nothing matters more than what the team does in today’s Preville Elementary students. (My school, incidentally, which now offers instruction in French only.)
Still, little boys, and perhaps girls, too, are huddled under their blankets tonight (I’m obviously writing on Monday evening) with their doors shut and a radio on, or perhaps nowadays, a smart phone, offering them the call of the game. French, English, whatever. Doesn’t matter. They want to know what their Glorieux are doing.
And what they did was come to town trying to improve on a record that couldn’t be much better than it has been of late. They’ve played three games since the Olympic break, and they’ve got five of six points. As fans likely know, they sit second in the East’s Atlantic Division.
The reason for the success? They’ve done well building through the draft. Ten players on the current roster are Montreal draftees. (Eight come from free agency and eight more from trades.) They’ve obviously got good goaltending, with Price closing in on Georges Vezina in all-time wins for the team, with 171 and counting (Vezina has 175). He also has the seventh-most shutouts in team history, at 23 (Roy has 29, and he’s in fifth). The fact that he’s hurt right now of course cuts into this, but Budaj, if you look at the numbers, isn’t much off of Price’s pace this year.
And they’re getting it done on the ice. The team has scored 159 times coming into the game on Monday, which puts them relatively far back in the pack in the East, but they’ve got their special teams figured out, and that’s the key to their success. They’ve got the league’s #12 power play. Their PK is fourth in the league. By the way, that PP puts them 7th in the East.
Unfortunately, they couldn’t work a lot of magic against the Kings, though that was mutual with the Kings towards them. Through 35 minutes, the teams had combined for just 15 shots. By the end of the second period, they were at least both in double digits, LA with 13 and the Habs with 10, and yet this was helped by a power play with 1:22 left on the clock that netted the LA team two shots. The first period, by the way, had ended with both teams logging five shots apiece.
The score as the second ended was 2-1 on an early softie that Muzzin put under the arm of Budaj after which it was tied late in the first period on an odd pinball bounce that went off the Kings’ Quick, then off a defenseman, then back into the net. The Kings got the lead on the power play early in the second, on a beautiful three-way passing play by Martinez to Kopitar to Carter. He shot almost before he had the puck, and it was past the goalie on a one-timer and into the back of the net. There was next to no space between the right arm and the post.
The two teams had opened the game playing an odd brand of hockey that saw them standing each other up on hits and generally trading the puck back and forth with no one side having much ability to move it. The one bright spot for the Kings was Tanner Pearson, who stole a couple of pucks and went the other way, but it didn’t get any further than the next line, red or blue.
The scoring would not change from the above-described moments until the end of the game. The Habs ended the game with 18 shots to LA’s 22.
After the contest, IH went to the Montreal dressing room to try to get more on the mystique of the team and to inquire as to whether it exists still. First victim: the Swede Douglas Murray. His answer was kurt: “Yup,” to “Is special?”
Then he offered, “Montreal? The most historic franchise in the league.” Long pause.
“You’re aware of that from the Swedish perspective?”
“Yes, I’m very well aware of that. I’d be surprised if a single player in this league did not know that. They should find another profession.” Or maybe it was just, “find another profession,” and he meant that I should, for asking the obvious.
Well, there are already too many brain surgeons in the world, Mr. Murray, and I’m not nearly dumb enough to play hockey for a living, like you.
So that didn’t go terribly well. How about Brendan Gallagher? Number eleven was born in Edmonton and played WHL hockey for the Vancouver Giants. This is his second campaign in the NHL, with last year being split between Montreal and the AHL Hamilton farm team almost fifty-fifty.
He has already been treated to a lot of Montreal magic. When I asked him what Montreal hockey was, he said what you’d expect. “It’s five guys working together on the ice. Coming up the ice, support. We’ve got everyone coming back and helping. We always have five guys in on the play.”
But what’s your perspective on playing for this team?
“It’s an honor.”
IH: “Do you think about that?”
“When I first came up, it’s something you think about. Now it’s not something you forget, but something you’re a little more used to. You get humbled every time you see the legends that are hanging around the rink all the time, guys who did so much for this organization. There’s a lot of tradition to uphold, and you don’t take that lightly. It’s a lot of responsibility as well.”
IH followed up asking who he sees. “Beliveau, Lafleur, he is around a lot. Beliveau is a cool one to see as well. Cournoyer as well. Those are guys that when I meet, I certainly want to listen to them talk.”
IH then asked him what he keeps, Montreal-logo wise, and he jumped in with, “I have a book actually signed by those guys. A fan, I don’t know how he did it, but he’s gone to a bunch of guys who wore number eleven in the history of the Montreal Canadiens and they’ve signed this book. It’s something that I keep at home that I find pretty cool.”
Nice kid. And he’s on pace for forty points. On Monday, he played about 17 minutes, had a couple of shots, a hit, and blocked a shot, plus won one of the two faceoffs he took.
That may not make him a candidate for legend status down the road, but who knows? He’s firing right as a second-year pro, and at 21, that puts him in some good company.
The team may not be what they were in those days when every year, as the old story goes, the memo went out, “Stanley Cup parade will take the usual route.” But they’re also not what they were a couple of years ago, when they could barely get out of their own way and their dumb personnel decisions (Gomez) were creating havoc in the hearts of their fans. It’s a new day, but in Montreal, just a little bit of the old persists.
I was the guest on the Fox Sports Puck Podcast this week. Look for that show on ITunes. The subject? My new book, Pond Hockey: Rediscovering the Game.
Any of you scholars or amateur historians out there, check out www.thehockeyconference.com, a meeting of experts and hockey afficianados in London, Ontario, this summer.