Hockey has always been a big part of my life. Some of my best memories as a kid are of playing hockey in the streets in the summer and playing on the outdoor rinks with my friends in the winter.
I’m a Canadian who has lived in Montreal, Quebec his whole life. It should be no surprise that I have always been a huge fan of the Montreal Canadiens. If you don’t follow hockey, they’re the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys of hockey. But don’t tell that to our neighbours down the 401 in Toronto!
Pro sports is a weird thing. Grown men and women cheer on athletes they’ve never met, mostly rooting for teams in the cities they grew up in. But these teams make changes every year. Favourite players get traded all the time. More than anything else, we cheer for the logo on the front of the jerseys.
Don’t get me wrong, I love professional sports, hockey most of all. It’s a great way to bring friends together, a topic of conversation with work colleagues, something that unites complete strangers. Few things get me glued to the TV like the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But recently my beloved Montreal Canadiens have been a frustrating team to follow, to say the least. That’s when I started asking myself, why do I even like them? Do I love all the players on the team? Do I love the way the management operates? Do I love the way the team presents their product to us fans?
Here is the uncommon story of a guy who grew up loving the most storied franchise in all of hockey, The Montreal Canadiens, and one day, after 35 years, decided that he would switch allegiances! Blasphemy, treachery, or just a logical choice?
The early years
My first memory of the Montreal Canadiens, affectionately called the Habs, dates back to the first time I went to watch them in person. My brother Craig brought me, at the age of 9, to the most famous arena in the world, the Montreal Forum.
They were playing the Hartford Whalers, a team that has since been relocated to Carolina. I don’t remember who won, but I remember was I had a great time cheering on my team. That’s when my love for them started to bloom.
The Stanley Cup
My next memories of the Habs are my best ones.
In the spring of 1993, the Montreal Canadiens weren’t a great team. They had some good players, Patrick Roy, Vincent Damphousse, Brian Bellows and Guy Carbonneau to name a few. Roy was an all-star, of that there is no doubt. Many think that he is the best goalie to have ever played the game. The rest of the team didn’t have any superstars, just a bunch of hard-working players who came together and gelled at the right time.
So it was during the playoff run that my real vivid memories of the Montreal Canadiens were made.
Many pundits say that the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in all pro sports. The reason for that is because if you are one of 16 teams that make the playoffs, you have a serious chance to win it all. In other sports, there are only a handful of teams that have a realistic chance of winning a championship. Look at the NBA, who have had the same two teams reach the finals for the past 4 consecutive years.
The Habs started off the first round of the playoffs playing their bitterest of rivals, the Quebec Nordiques. They fell short in games 1 and 2 of the seven game series, leaving Montrealers reeling. Teams that lose the first two games, are usually toast, but not this group. Montreal went on to win 16 out of the next 18 games, beating the Nordiques, the Buffalo Sabres, the New York Islanders and finally the Los Angeles Kings on route to the team’s record 24th Stanley Cup Championship.
They also did it in breathtaking way, winning a record 10 straight overtime games, a record that stands to this day and will likely never be replicated.
As a 10-year-old boy, I stayed up many nights, well past my bedtime, to watch them capture this title. I watched every single game of the playoffs that year.
I will never forget the final seconds of the game, when famous hockey announcer Bob Cole said “a 24th Stanley Cup banner will hang from the rafters of the famous Forum in Montreal, the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup!”
It was my brightest memory. There have been other good ones, but none that top this one, as the Montreal Canadiens are still sitting on Stanley Cup number 24.
Who knows when they will hoist number 25?
The dark years
After winning the Stanley Cup, the Habs weren’t very good, for a long time. As a fan, I would still watch games, but sporadically.
One memory that stuck, is the trading of my favourite Hab of all time, Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy. This was a prime example of the Canadiens management wrenching the hearts of their fans. In a game against the Detroit Red Wings in 1995, then Habs coach Mario Tremblay (a former Habs star of the 1970’s and 80’s) decided to leave his star goalie in the game after he had allowed 9 goals. Something that never happens, and has always been considered a spiteful act on the coach’s part.
After the game, Roy said it was his last game in Montreal. Four days later, he was traded in on of the most lopsided trades ever.
The Habs never recovered from trading Roy, missing the playoffs in 5 the following 10 seasons. Considering they had only missed the playoffs once since 1970, Habs fans were furious at the lack of success.
Saying goodbye to the Forum
In 1996, the business side of hockey reared it’s ugly head once again. The Canadiens moved from the Forum to the newly built Molson Centre. It’s said that the old Forum had ghosts, which helped them win their 24 Stanley Cups.
During this time I was playing ice hockey myself, and luckily my local team was selected to be a part of the parade that marked the official move. Thirteen years old at the time, being surrounded by my favourite teams’ legends of the past is something I will never forget.
Legends like “le gros Bill” Jean Beliveau, Maurice “the Rocket” Richard, Guy “the Flower” Lafleur were all there, along with current players. I got to meet them all, and even had them sign the sweatshirt that we got to wear during the parade. This sweater could be worth a pretty penny today, if my mother hadn’t washed it a few times.
Since the move, people say the Habs are cursed, the ghosts of the Forum having abandoned them. This is obviously a superstition, but maybe there may be something to it, considering their lack of success.
The rebirth of my passion for the Habs
The dark years of the Montreal Canadiens finally came to an end in 2003 when got rid of the management team that ruined them and introduced Stanley Cup winner and former Hab, Bob Gainey, as the general manager.
Gainey, along with new coach, Guy Carbonneau, revitalized a franchise that was in desperate need.
With this new management, the Habs started to win more games, they started to be fun to watch. Unlike the stretch of 10 years that saw them miss the playoffs as often as they made them, they now started being a regular in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
This success, and exciting brand of hockey sucked me in. 82 nights a year, I was there watching their games. The next day, that was all that was talked about with my coworkers.
Did you see the Habs win last night?
How about Carey Price? Did you see that sick save he made in the 3rd?
Alright, Habs are playing Boston in the first round of the playoffs, we got this!
It was exciting. The camaraderie that comes with watching your team play is one of the best things about following pro sports.
Another blockbuster trade
In 2016, the Habs started off the season on fire, winning their first 9 games in a row. Things were going well, with the team heading into December sitting atop of the league standings.
Then the wheels fell off, in large part due to injuries to their best players, Carey Price, PK Subban and Brandon Gallagher. From December on, the Habs fell from their lofty perch all the way to the outside looking in on the playoff picture.
Most fans chalked up the off season for the Habs as bad luck and a string of injuries. We will get them next year!
Then, one sunny June day, while visiting San Fransisco with my wife, I was scrolling through Twitter as usual, when I saw it.
PK Subban traded to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Shea Webber.
This trade wasn’t a horrible one. Shea Webber was a perennial Norris trophy candidate. Sure, he was older, and more of a stay-at-home defenceman, but it was hard to see why this trade was made. The brass said they needed new leadership.
PK was probably the player that fans loved the most. He was charismatic and spoke his mind. He was ultra-skilled, and was one of the few players on the team who elevated his game when it counted most in the playoffs. Add to that the generous $10 million dollar pledge to the Montreal Children’s hospital he made less than a year earlier.
It was a tough pill to swallow for a lot of fans.
Current state of the Habs
It’s been a yoyo with the Habs the past few years. One year, they show promise of winning it all, the next, they miss the playoffs.
They have become a team that has moved away from skill and toward character. While the later is important, without players able to put the puck in the net, not only have they lacked success, but they just aren’t much fun to watch on most nights.
They even traded away their leading goal scorer and captain, Max Pacioretty, to the Vegas Golden Knights.
After leaving Montreal last September, one of the things I knew I would miss was watching hockey. It didn’t take long before I figured out a way to watch them, though. Waking up at 6AM to watch the games became a regular event for me.
But again, they just sucked… why was I waking up so early, to watch them score 1 or 2 goals, or none, and lose game after game?
So what did I do? The unthinkable. I said screw this, screw the Habs and their management, I’m going to pick a good, fun team to watch.
So who would I root for now?
Welcome to the NHL, Vegas Golden Knights!
Why not? It was their first season in the league. They had some players I liked, and they were proving all the analysts wrong.
Being an expansion team in the NHL normally comes with years of losing, before success can be had. That’s why every sports writer and their mothers thought that Vegas would miss the playoffs in the 2017-2018 season. Seriously, show me one who predicted they would make the playoffs, and I will eat my words.
Well guess what? Vegas turned out to be one of the best sports stories of the year.
It started off with the tragic shooting that took place in Vegas on October 1st 2017, 5 days before the start of their inaugural season. To say that it brought the team closer together would be an understatement.
I remember as a hockey fan, right from the get-go, having an interest in the Golden Knights. It was so entertaining, from the expansion draft, to watching them start the season with 9 wins in their first 10 games, to their high tempo, high scoring brand of hockey.
The face of the franchise was undoubtably Marc-André Fleury, nicknamed the Flower. He was a 3-time Stanley Cup champ with the Pittsburg Penguins, and was now the starting goaltender for Vegas. He was also French Canadian.
I remember reading an article on my favourite sports website, the Players Tribune, written by another French Canadian member of the Golden Knights, David Perron, called: Vegas? VEGAS! If you haven’t read it, do yourself the favour and do so now.
I’d had enough of the Habs, and I was now rooting for the Golden Knights. They played fast, had a high octane offence, and won games, what more can you ask for? Add to that the in-game theatrics and their social media presence, I was sold!
They finished the regular season in 1st place in their division, and were set to face off against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs. Just making the playoffs for an expansion team was an amazing feat, let alone winning their division.
Their season was expected to end in April, after the 82nd game of the regular season. In reality, it ended two months later, on June 7th, a mere 3 wins away from winning the Stanley Cup.
I haven’t watched as many playoff games as I did during the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs.
A Golden Knights fan is born
So back to why we follow our hometown team. It is a romantic idea to root for a team from your city, but if the point of watching sports is to have fun, why not root for a team you enjoy watching?
That’s why, at least for now, I am going to watch my former captain and cheer him on with our new team.
Go Vegas Go!
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