Montreal Canadiens: It Just Don’t Feel The Same
One of my earliest memories is asking my neighbourhood best friend Matthew, who was a couple years older than I, what this hockey thing he loved was. He told me about the game and what you play it to the best of his knowledge. He told me his favourite player was Brett Hull and he got to meet him due to his dads work at Midas but his favourite hockey team was the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After hearing this I went back home to ask my dad about hockey. My dad was the smartest person I knew. He told me all about hockey and filled in any blanks that Matthew didn’t. I then told my dad how Matthew cheered for the Toronto Maple Leafs. My dad chuckled and said, “In this house we cheer for the Montreal Canadiens.”
And so I was a Montreal Canadiens fan.
This story is from the early 1990s. I got to watch the Montreal Canadiens hoist the Stanley Cup in 1993 at eight-years-old. Vincent Damphousse became my favourite player. I would make myself as a perfect hockey player in NHL95 on the Super Nintendo and would take number 26 because that was Martin Rucinsky’s number and he was Vinny’s left wing. My parents even got me a Montreal Canadiens sweater with my last name on the back having the number 26. I think the first time I ever felt depressed was after the Canadiens, up two games to zero on the New York Rangers in 1996, proceeded to choke the next four and be eliminated.
The National Hockey League became a part of my identity and the Montreal Canadiens was my religion. I had a book about every Stanley Cup winning team up to 1996 and memorized every Cup winner from 1893 to 1996. Even the Kenora Thistles. I still own a fleece Montreal Canadiens blanket from the mid 90s I still pull out when I have visitors sleeping over or it just gets really cold. In the fifth grade when everyone would have to do speeches I did one on the history of the National Hockey League.
The first time my love of the Canadiens wavered was around the deadpuck crease rule era. The team wasn’t doing great and Vincent Damphousse was traded in 1999 to the San Jose Sharks. I considered flipping but then Jose Theodore emerged as the best goaltender in the league with the Montreal Canadiens and it felt like the team was on its way to reviving the Patrick Roy days. That of course did not happen but coming out of high school I was hooked again.
Fast forward to today and I still love the game of hockey but honestly not as much as I used to. But in some ways? I actually love it more. The game itself is what I always wanted it to be. It’s faster. There’s a better focus on skill. Fourth lines are not about wasting time but trying to create scoring opportunities. The clutching and grabbing is mostly gone. The game is slowly moving away from collapsing defensive systems that make mediocre players look good. Intent to injure is down. Fighting is down. It’s getting closer to the game I’ve always wanted. It’s also a game where I watch players get two minutes in the box for a puck accidentally bouncing to the seats every time it happens while slashes, hooks, and cross checks are referee’s discretion whether or not they lead to a penalty. It still has a ways to go.
The love, and passion, however isn’t there as much as it used to be because I stopped being a Montreal Canadiens fan.
As a kid I saw Patrick Roy get treated worse than any superstar player has been treated on a team, get traded, and go win a Stanley Cup in Denver. I watched Marian Hossa not get drafted when everyone on TV was shouting he’s the pick Montreal should make, only for Hossa to become a superstar they could have used. I watched my favourite player be traded to San Jose and say he would have taken a contract at less money to stay in Montreal but it was never offered. I’ve lived through the Mike Ribiero pinch nerve, the plane ride from hell, the Three Amigos, the booing of Brisebois, Lecavalier rumours, 2009, the Ghost GM, Mike Cammalleri being traded mid-way through a Boston Bruins game, and probably more moments that should have caused me pause to cheer for this club. None of those stopped me.
Then Marc Bergevin became General Manager.
I was all for Bergevin as GM because I didn’t want Pierre McGuire to do zero hockey work to become general manager and he was the runner up for the job. A few years prior McGuire was offered to become assistant GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins after Crosby was drafted and turned it down because he wanted to be GM somewhere without doing any work on a team. Bergevin at least was assistant general manager of the Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks. I was ready for a new face instead of recycling old general managers from previous teams.
Bergevin took the job for the 2012-2013 shortened season and preached patience with a rebuilding club. It turned out the Canadiens were actually good. Carey Price was developing into one of the best goaltenders in the National Hockey League, the true heir to Patrick Roy in the city. PK Subban was developing into one of the best offensive defencemen in the game and becoming my favourite player. Andrei Markov came back from injury and was still one of the best defenders. All the team needed was a real centre beyond Tomas Plekanec and a little more blueline help while watching the youth mature and the club could make a serious run at the Stanley Cup.
Bergevin preaching patience meant the team never went all in.
From 2012-13 to 2015-16 some of the best years of the Canadiens players under 30 were wasted under this patience: not using the salary cap to the max, constantly hunting down bargains instead of making a big trade, and a refusal to upgrade from David Desharnais. That’s not to say there wasn’t good moves. I’m never going to say Bergevin had no value as a GM. Still, good years of Price, Subban, Max Pacioretty, and the last years of Andrei Markov were wasted. I still stayed a fan, but my loyalty was shaken.
Then P.K. Subban was traded.
Subban was my favourite Hab. It never felt like Marc Bergevin ever believed in him. Bergevin fought with him the moment he entered the job. From the bridge contract that blew up in Marc’s face after Subban won the Norris trophy to Subban’s eight year contract with rumours it was forced by owner Geoff Molson. The contract felt like a victory over Bergevin but Marc made sure to give himself an out. Subban had a no movement clause that would activate after the second full season. Bergevin traded Subban right before free agency opened up at the same time as the Edmonton Oilers traded Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils. He was traded for Shea Weber. I should remind you he told the media he wasn’t going to trade him before he did. This has now become a running joke with Marc. If he says he won’t do something? He probably will.
I just spent weeks prior telling people that the Nashville Predators needed to trade Shea Weber this summer before he falls off a cliff skill wise and he was still worth a giant ransom. David Poile, GM of the Nashville Predators, seemed to agree with me. He traded Weber, his captain, for PK Subban.
I still watched the Canadiens that next season but I did it with my heart broken. I didn’t like this team with Weber. It was wrong. He represented the old hockey the league was growing away from. Subban represented the future to me. Alex Radulov finally became a Hab so I watched next season, only to watch the club burn out in the first round with Radulov leading the scoring. Subban and the Predators, on the other hand, went to the Stanley Cup final.
That summer, Marc Bergevin decided to play contract games with both Radulov and Markov. Doing it to Markov was especially ridiculous since he was the true captain of the club, the veteran leader. Markov never received an acceptable contract offer. Radulov was told to take it or leave the offer he got, got a new offer from the Dallas Stars, Montreal tried to match it and Radulov decided to go with the club who actually wanted him. In replacing Radulov and Markov, Bergevin would sign Karl Alzner and Ales Hemsky. The Montreal Canadiens would miss the playoffs.
I didn’t watch that season like the previous seasons. Losing Subban, Markov, and even Radulov was too hard for me to accept. Seeing Weber and Alzner on the blueline was a betrayal compared to when I used to get Subban and Markov rushing the puck. I just couldn’t believe in this club anymore and I realized how much fun I had following the Nashville Predators now with Subban.
After a few seasons following the Predators, they too would trade PK Subban, now to the New Jersey Devils. I didn’t care much for the Devils so following them wasn’t enough for me. I was now a hockey fan without a home. Every time I would look over at the Montreal Canadiens, now nine years managed by Marc Bergevin, it was no longer the team my dad told me to cheer over my friends Maple Leafs. The logo was the same. That’s it.
And now, those Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens play each other in the playoffs for the first time since 1979. Back in 1993 it felt like they would play each other for the Stanley Cup but Wayne Gretzky had a slash not called in game six and instead of winning game seven to get to the final, the Leafs rolled over and decided to complain about the slash for almost 30 years now. I should feel something for this series. I watched the Canadiens beat the Leafs in game one. I feel nothing.
As of today the Leafs are up 2-1 in the series despite losing their captain John Tavares to an unfortunate injury. I have watched each game in the series just to see if I feel something for the Habs and so far I have not. I don’t think I will until Marc Bergevin is fired. Honestly don’t know if even that does it for me. People like to claim you can’t switch teams and you can’t give up your team or else you’re not a real fan. That’s fine. I’m not a real fan then. What if they win the Stanley Cup? They won’t. But if they do I’m fine not to celebrate it. Will I cheer a new team? The Seattle Kraken look like they could be fun. I might just stay a hockey fan without a home.
I love the game the way it is played today, but I just don’t love a team the way I used to. I wonder how many feel the same as I do and just don’t have it in them to quit. Let me tell you: I have less stress watching hockey than ever. Less anger. Less rage. Less anxiety. I watch to enjoy and nothing else. Imagine watching hockey without feeling like you could die after every playoff game. Do you lose the high levels of passion on a win? Of course. But I don’t miss it. And I don’t miss being a Montreal Canadiens fan.
“I’m such a fool to love you
Give me the pain I’m used to
Sharpen the blade because
It just don’t feel the same”
– Feel The Same by Battle Tapes
Photo modified from Getty Images