What hockey means to Montreal

Charlie Gillis on sport, identity and pixie dust

Update: Without goalie Carey Price, the Habs lost 3-1 to the Rangers on Monday. The club will head to New York later this week down 2-0 in the series. The game report is here, though as Charlie Gillis explains, in Montreal it’s about so much more than statistics: 

The roar is visceral—you feel it shaking your insides. When it stops, the silence is equally awesome.

When Chris Kreider scored the first of five unanswered goals Saturday in the New York Rangers 7-2 pasting of the Montreal Canadiens, it was as if the Bell Centre had been gut-punched. For about 30 seconds, words failed. So no one bothered to use any.

This is hockey in Montreal: Exalted in victory, tragic in defeat. And while all sports towns experience extremes, a loss or win here feels—how to put it?—heavier. For the past couple of days, the city’s mystical attachment to game had subsumed all else. Grins from strangers. Car flags flying. Bar conversations drifting inevitably toward the Habs. By New York’s fifth goal on Saturday, the pixie dust had blown away and the Canadiens were, for the time being, just a hockey team.

But hey, if they win Game 2, look out.

Noam Chomsky would tell you it’s unhealthy for a community to tie its identity to pro sport. It steals focus from important things, like politics and corruption and social injustice.

Of course, Noam Chomsky doesn’t live in Quebec, where you can get all that from your kitchen tap, and where the Habs are routinely dragged against their will into those maunderings. The case has been made that this spring playoff run was precisely what the city needed to get away from that crap. It’s a pretty convincing argument.

Still, the enormity of hockey, of the Canadiens, here is a phenomenon to behold and savour. It’s history and sport and identity and, yes, religion in a single package. La Sainte Flanelle, the term Habs partisans give their jersey, sums it up nicely: Call them idolaters, but their faith clearly sustains them.

Just ask Marc Bergevin, the general manager who has overseen the team’s rise. About a year before he was hired, during a TV interview, he teared up at the idea of managing the team he grew up watching. Today, from his Bell Centre office, he can see the church for whose parish team he grew up playing.

Bergevin, who had enjoyed a two-decade NHL career, and who was working in the front office of the Chicago Blackhawks when the Canadiens came knocking in 2012, thought he had a handle on how important the team was to his home town.

But even he is taken aback at how deep the relationship between team and its fans has grown, even since hockey team here has grown.

“I knew how big it was,” he said before Saturday’s game. “But you can add a whole other level now. The passion in the city, and in Quebec, is off the charts. I was coming from Chicago, where you have the White Sox, the Cubs, the Bears and the Blackhawks.

“[The Canadiens] are like that, but all in one.”

This spring, the playoff run has taken on the feel of a papal conclave, with the faithful flocking in from distant locales in order to watch history unfolding up close.

“This brings everybody together,” said Ryan Gustafson, a 38-year-old sales rep from Toronto who managed to score tickets for Game 1 of the conference final. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what language you speak, what your ethnicity is. Everybody’s cheering for the Habs and pulling in the same direction.”

Non-Habs fans, of course, are weary of this “special team-special place” routine. They’ve been listening to it for years.

But they can surely understand what they’re seeing this year, because after giving it 24 Stanley Cup celebrations and countless moments of glory, the truth is that, lately, hockey has not loved Montreal back. The city’s pride took a thumping during late 1990s and early 2000s, when mediocre editions of the Habs missed the playoffs as often as not. An ugly cycle ensued, in which the fan base wouldn’t tolerate a team that bottomed out and rebuilt through the draft. Past managers felt pressure to trade promising prospects in return for withering stars.

Toronto, and to a lesser degree Calgary and Ottawa, can surely relate.

So credit Bergevin with breaking that cycle. His shrewd trades, signings and draft picks have made the team competitive on a nightly basis. He has hung on to the young talent that now forms the team’s core.

But more than anything, he has grasped the sheer scale of his mission, which at times seems more akin to leading a movement than running a hockey team.

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