Habs Fever Knows No Bounds

by | Nov 26, 2023

Habs Fever Knows No Bounds

by | Nov 26, 2023

People from all over North America turned up in Southern California last week chasing their beloved Montreal Canadiens, hoping to see the team in person. Wednesday night, they were not disappointed, as their Habs jumped out to a fast 2-0 lead and held off the Ducks, winning by a late goal after it looked like the game could go to overtime. Saturday, they fell behind the Kings and never caught up, losing 4-0.

After the first of these games, Montreal goalie Sam Montembeault told IH, “It’s crazy. Everywhere we go we’ve got Montreal fans. Here like two hours, two hours twenty before the game, the bus was entering the parking, and there were some Canadiens Habs jerseys in the parking lot.”

He in particular feels the weight of the legacy anyone in a Montreal sweater must endure. “It’s obviously big shoes to fill. I have Jacques Plante on my mask as well. There have been so many good goalies playing for the Habs. Growing up two hours north of Montreal, I liked Carey Price growing up too, and a lot of those tough saves I made tonight. I try to be my best to help the team.”

Even newcomer Jayden Struble, playing his first NHL game Wednesday, said, “Ever since my draft, I knew how passionate the fanbase was, so having my first NHL game be with such a historic franchise, it’s, you can’t even describe it. It’s awesome.”

This isn’t so much a hockey story as a love story for fans of a team that is all most of them have ever followed. In most cases, it is a love passed down from generation to generation, as it was with me, growing up in the Montreal suburbs but having a grandmother who lived minutes from the Montreal Forum and who worshipped Jean Beliveau.

That is a name not unfamiliar to these current fans, as I learned when interviewing the diehards wearing the bleu, blanc, et rouge of the team founded in 1909 and currently possessing 24 Stanley Cups, the last won in 1993.

When deciding to interview fans with Montreal sweaters on, my suspicion was that most people so attired would turn out to be locals with an affinity for the team, maybe transplants from Quebec living in the general LA/Orange County area. There was some of that, but most people I grabbed were from far away and had made the purposeful attempt to be in California precisely because they love the Habs.

Most are not old enough to have seen Beliveau play, and some not even Lafleur, Lemaire, Cournoyer, and on and on. But they know their names nonetheless, and value the past in ways that fans of a newer franchise can’t.

As Maxime Boissonneault said, “I’ve started following them since I’m born, but I never took the time to read about those old teams. Like I know they were great in the 90s, and even before they won a lot of Stanley Cups. I know Beliveau, I know Lafleur and everything because they’re iconic, but I couldn’t tell you other marginal guys that were there at the time. I know the big ones, Patrick Roy and all that. I see their names and their retired numbers in Bell Centre, but I couldn’t tell you that much about them.”

He’s getting a pass because he’s busy at the moment. He and companion Leonie Cote are on a year-long road trip which is taking them from Quebec to BC, down to California and across to Florida before returning home. That’s why Leonie had a sign she was holding up to players before the game versus the Ducks saying that she had traveled 23,000 kilometers to see her favorite team.

Another younger-generation couple, Chandler and Danielle, met up in Anaheim despite living in New York (Danielle) and Utah (Chandler). His story? “I’ve been a fan pretty much since I was born. My mom’s from Montreal. My grandpa’s a big Canadiens fan, and he lived around a lot of the Habs growing up in the Town of Mount Royal [TMR].” Chandler has been to a lot of games in Montreal, which he describes as “the greatest atmosphere in hockey.”

His family is in California for US Thanksgiving, so when they saw that Montreal was playing, they got tickets. For Saturday, too, versus the Kings.

Danielle’s family, New Yorkers all, were all Habs fans during her growing up. “They would drive up to the Forum for games about twice a month, then drive back home after the game. Sometimes, they would get a hotel on the way, since it was the middle of the night.”

When I asked Danielle to name some Canadiens players of the past, she busted out none other than Georges Vezina, who played in the teens and twenties. Of the prior century. Now that’s depth of knowledge. She added to that Jacques Plante.

There was one adorable exception to the rule that the dressed-up Habs fans were on travel adventures to California. This was a family of two parents and three boys, all decked out from head to toe in Montreal stylings.

Dad Sadat Zaman said, “We live here now, but we’re from Montreal. It’s always about Montreal. It’s our hometown team, so we try to teach the kids about our tradition and the Canadiens. We grew up in Montreal, so we’re lifelong fans.”  In fact, he grew up steps from where I did, both of us in Brossard. He went to my elementary school. That was while it was still English. It’s all French now.

His spouse, Sadia, explained the family’s Habs love this way: “Growing up watching hockey with my brother and my dad, this was a family thing, all the time. My brother played street hockey,” as we all did. This was a Montreal childhood.

Others traveled further. There was the couple from Ottawa—Louis Lapierre and spouse. He has a bucket list to see the Montreal Canadiens play in every rink in the league. He’s got five games to go. He’s done all of this in the past decade, starting kind of by accident when he was working in the US and realized he’d seen them in 10 or so arenas. Why not make it a quest? And he did.

Back home, they live 20 minutes from Ottawa’s NHL arena (they must be the only ones—everyone complains that the place is way too far from civilization), and he goes to games whenever Montreal is in town.

When I asked him which Montreal Canadien he would like to meet if I could immediately materialize one in front of him, he instantly shot back, “Guy Lafleur.” Why? Because “When I was a kid, 1971-72, I was ten years old, and he was my hero.” He also remembers when Lafleur went to the Nordiques at the end of his career. That memory is not so fond. “We—the Montreal Canadiens fans—don’t like the Nordiques.” Note the use of present tense.

Lapierre’s greatest memory is being at the game when Saku Koivu came back after being treated for cancer. The ovation went on for twelve or fifteen minutes, he recalls. I remember it, too, though from watching the game on TV.

I’ve left the most die-hard fans for last. Amanda and Cyril Eddy came down from northern Alberta for the Anaheim game. They each had birthdays in November, and they decided tickets for this game, plus flights, were an appropriate celebratory gesture.

When asked whether he shouldn’t by rights be an Oilers fan, Cyril says, “I make no apology for being a Habs fan. I’ve been a Habs fan for almost 60 years. I’m 62.” He remembers things as far back as when Buffalo and Vancouver came into the NHL n 1970, and even back before that to the Original Six era.” I kinda remember the last Leafs Cup [in 1967], but it’s a repressed memory [He laughs.]. I’ve watched the Habs since I was little boy.” He mentioned other hallmark moments, like when Dryden came in and ensured Montreal their playoff success in 1971 over Chicago. He reminds me that Dryden won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP before he won the Calder as rookie of the year.

Cyril had a custom Habs sweater with this on the back: The number 24, and in the name spot, “Stanleys.” Get it? 24 Stanley Cups. He’ll quickly tell you that no other NHL team even comes close, not just in numbers, but in mystique and legend as well, or perhaps even more.

That’s why, for most of these folks, watching a Canadiens game isn’t just observing the plays on the ice. In fact, these fans were largely convinced that they don’t have a very good team at the moment. Most said the same three things: the forwards are too small; the defense is too inexperienced; the goaltending is not going to take them to the playoffs. But how many Lafleur, Price, and Beliveau sweaters did I see? Lots, and so I know what these folks are seeing when they look at Suzuki, Newhook, and Slafkovsky. They see the ghosts of the past, and they see hope for a future in which the Montreal Canadiens are once again relevant.

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